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Vibrancy of public school witness increasing, First Priority leader says

BRENTWOOD, Tenn. (BP)–The leader of a ministry that has helped spread student-led Bible clubs to nearly 300 communities believes Christians should remain in public schools as a positive influence.
Benny Proffitt, president of First Priority, said last April’s violence at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., confirmed they are headed in the right direction.
“The best place to be light is in a dark place,” said Proffitt, a Southern Baptist who heads the four-year-old organization. “Our approach is to get more active than ever. Parents fear their children will be overcome by the world, but Scripture tells us greater is he who is in us than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4).
“I don’t want to be critical of anyone for putting their kids in private school,” he added, saying he understands parental safety concerns. “But the majority of parents can’t afford private school. When we pull out kids out of public school, we’re saying, ‘Let’s pull out what salt and light is left.’ That’s scary.”
Dating back to 1982 as a local outreach in suburban Dallas, First Priority later expanded to Birmingham, Ala. Increased requests for assistance led to forming the nationwide organization, which now has a partnership with the North American Mission Board.
The ministry fields approximately 200 calls a month and hopes to reach 100 new communities in the coming school year. If successful, that would result in about 2,000 student-led Bible clubs.
First Priority emphasizes working with churches to help train students, educate them about their rights and then guide them in forming campus clubs, Proffitt said.
Instead of withdrawing from public schools, he said Christians should capitalize on the opportunities. Among administrators there is a greater awareness of students’ inward needs and an openness to working with the church, he said.
There is also more determination among Christian students to make a difference in this mission field, said Proffitt, a former youth pastor. Rather than fearing losing key student leaders to a post-Columbine exodus, he said, the exact opposite is taking place.
“In one city recently a pastor said, ‘My wife and I have prayed about putting our kids in private school. But we have to trust God that we’ve raised our kids to be missionaries in the world,'” Proffitt related.
“I don’t think Columbine affected the initiative of the students. They were already aware of what was going on. A lot of kids said, ‘That could have happened at my school.’ Columbine [increased] adult awareness. What we’re hoping is more pastors, youth pastors and communities get involved.”
Based in Brentwood, Tenn., a suburb of Nashville, First Priority is in the midst of a nationwide fact-gathering tour.
Staff members and several dozen high school and college students already have interviewed 5,000 young people, ages 12 to 18, in 27 states. The group will visit all 50 states by mid-December and publish its findings in book form next spring.
One of their stops was in Littleton, just two days after the violence at Columbine in which two students shot and killed 12 classmates and a teacher before taking their own lives. Proffitt said that event and others that have shaken the country the past two years is energizing young believers.
There is a new boldness among teens that hasn’t been seen in awhile, such as those in Colorado who were willing to die for their faith, Proffitt said.
“Instead of scaring them, it’s exciting them,” he said. “The Columbine experience just added fuel to the fire. You’d think Satan would learn his lesson. Every time the church is oppressed it grows stronger.”
One Denver-area student spearheading a drive to spread prayer groups across the metropolitan area sees a new day for Christians in school systems.
“There’s an incredible opening for the gospel,” said Josh Weidmann, the leader of Revival Generation. “We get tons of calls a day from kids wanting to start prayer groups. Before Columbine we got five a week. Now we get 18 to 22 a day.”
The group recently published a 40-page booklet on how to start a prayer ministry on campus. It can be ordered for $3 by writing to P.O. Box 3737, Littleton, CO 80161-3737 or downloaded on the Internet at www.revivalgeneration.org.
While statistics aren’t clear because the group didn’t have a chance to follow up on all the calls before school ended, Weidmann estimates more than 150 prayer groups had formed by last May.
That compares to just one three years ago. It started at his school — suburban Arapahoe High — under the leadership of another student who has since graduated.
“Columbine has given us an emphasis,” he said. “We see that we need to unite with fellow students and pray.”
Similar enthusiasm is driving this movement nationwide, said Proffitt. Such events as See You At The Pole and ministries like the National Network for Youth Ministries, Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Youth for Christ Awareness have spread Christian awareness among students, he said.
But now that many have received the information and acted on it, he said, adult leadership is lacking.
“Students are willing and have a desire go into their world to be missionaries,” he said. “But many are being discouraged and defeated because they’re not empowered by their church to be effective. We’re trying to let churches know they need to take a greater role.”
Fortunately, many are responding to this call, he said. In addition, he said other churches that get involved will be pleasantly surprised by the attitudes developing among the “millennial generation,” the term typically referring to those under 18.
Not only are they more open to organized religion than “Generation Xers,” said Proffitt, they have a greater appreciation for family. The leading hero listed by 12- to-18-year-olds is their parents, he said.
“In the midst of all the tragedy and darkness in this country, this next generation could be more reachable than any we’ve had,” Proffitt said. “This is an incredible generation coming up. As the church, we’ve got to reach them.”

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  • Ken Walker