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Public school challenges remain, but youth ministers are excited

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (BP)–Youth ministers are excited about the rapid growth of student ministry on America’s public school campuses, according to participants at a national conference Jan. 11-14 in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Approximately 400 attended the National Network of Youth Ministries annual meeting. The organization, based in San Diego, works at building bridges among the nation’s 6,000 youth ministries.

From a handful during the 1980s, the number of Bible clubs at public schools has mushroomed to 10,000. Aiding this growth has been increasing interdenominational cooperation, said Richard Ross, youth ministry consultant for the Baptist Sunday School Board. Yet, he added,
considerable work remains to be done.

With approximately 56,000 secondary schools (grades six through 12) in the country, Ross said visible campus ministries are still needed in more than 80 percent of public schools.

The majority of existing outreaches originated with para-church ministries, he said. Despite those significant efforts, only local churches have the resources to carry the gospel to every school, he said.

“We must work hand in hand with para-church ministries but no longer abdicate school ministry to them,” he said. “I can champion a multi-denominational effort to cooperate in winning lost teenagers, while respecting the diversity and uniqueness of the Christian groups that band together.”

Randy Brantley, youth evangelism associate for the Arkansas Baptist Convention, said a major challenge for campus ministry is overcoming a “program mentality” among some churches. This stems from pastors or deacons who insist their youth pastor bring members to maturity in Christ and forget about the world, he said.

However, Brantley said churches who think they have penetrated the youth culture must awaken to the seriousness of the problem. Surveys show 85 percent of the students in most communities aren’t plugged in to any church, he said.

Despite these conditions, the job of evangelism is getting easier, he said, with students and principals more receptive to a spiritual approach.

“There’s an openness from school administrators for churches to help because what they’ve been doing doesn’t seem to be working,” be said. “This is a new development. Their attitude is, ‘If you can come in and help our kids, you’re welcome.'”

Testimonies abounded during the meeting about ways the Lord is moving among young people. The largest soul-winning report came from San Diego, where a network of Bible clubs and other ministries sponsored an off-campus crusade that saw 9,000 respond to an invitation to accept Jesus.

In Birmingham, Ala., more than 4,000 decisions for Christ have been registered the past three years, said Todd Roberts, city director for First Priority, a ministry that promotes the formation and support of campus clubs.

In Birmingham there are now nine networks of youth ministers and approximately 120 churches involved in establishing campus groups and citywide evangelistic events, Roberts said.

Positive results are coming in smaller ways, too, such as the work of two Bible clubs in the Little Rock, Ark., area. They sponsored follow-up rallies after last September’s “See You at the Pole” school prayer meetings. More than 70 students accepted Christ at those events,
Brantley said.

Ross said he sees a discernible move of the Holy Spirit in the youth group he leads at Tulip Grove Baptist Church in suburban Nashville, Tenn. Unchurched teens are coming to salvation regularly because members bring them to church and other activities, he said. “Never in my 27 years of youth ministry have I seen teenagers more concerned for
their lost friends,” said Ross. “There is an unusual spiritual interest and hunger among teens in the late ’90s. This represents a great opportunity because they are more willing to listen to the claims of Christianity than in recent decades.”

One of the major support arms in the growth campus ministry is First Priority, a four-year-old organization in Nashville, founded by a Southern Baptist.

Benny Proffitt, president of First Priority, established the ministry to promote the spread of Bible clubs and help churches work cooperatively to reach lost youth. In addition to this job, he is serving as interim youth minister at Brentwood Baptist Church.

While they form clubs using their name, they support other Christian efforts, including the M-Pact clubs developed by the youth evangelism office of the Home Mission Board, he said. This networking strategy is either being used or organized in approximately 100 cities.

In addition, First Priority has released four 100-page manuals for clubs. They include a student leaders’ guide, youth ministers’ manual, one for business and community leaders and a manual for adults who want to support these clubs. All are published by the Sunday School Board.

These materials are being used by such diverse groups like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Youth for Christ. Proffitt also has coordinated efforts with everyone from Catholics and Episcopalians to Nazarenes and Pentecostals.

“We all have a common goal, to reach teenagers with the gospel,” he said. “We’re not a national ministry, like FCA. We’re a resource ministry to churches. We don’t try to start something independent from the local church.”

The spark for this spreading movement originated in an unusual place — the Supreme Court. Though often maligned for removing prayer and Bible reading from public schools, Brantley said the court’s 1990 ruling in favor of the Equal Access Act spurred today’s movement.

“That was the key that led to student missions work in the United States,” he said. “Before 1990, there was a lack of understanding and knowledge and fear about it. That decision was when the gate opened wide.”

Even though Congress passed the law in 1984 allowing student-led religious organizations to meet on school property, the former youth pastor said considerable uncertainty about their legality continued throughout the ’80s.

This lack of knowledge and understanding and fear over possible court challenges limited the number of Bible clubs, he said. Now there are 210 across Arkansas, close to half of the 450 secondary schools in the state.

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  • Ken Walker