The North American Mission Board pledged leadership and potential financial support in May to First Priority of America, which promotes and supplies resources for Christian clubs on secondary school campuses.
The "strategic alliance" with First Priority of America gives NAMB a seat on the organization's denominational ministry board, an oversight panel with broad authority to help shape the ministry's direction. If NAMB's financial contributions are 10 percent or more of First Priority's budget (currently about $300,000 annually), the agency's representative also would gain approval/veto powers over such areas as core values, major strategies, doctrinal stance, and national ministry staffing.
Currently more than 1,000 Southern Baptist churches of all sizes are active partners in First Priority ministries.
The action came during a regular NAMB board of trustees at the agency's broadcast communications facilities in Fort Worth, Texas.
"I am thrilled with this new strategic alliance," said Bob Reccord, NAMB president. "First Priority is not a program based on the development and sale of a material, but a strategy that is church-based and focused on penetrating the campuses of North America with the message of Jesus Christ. Its strategic difference from most para-church ministries is the very fact that it is local church-based, and that's what we as Southern Baptists are all about."
First Priority has been at the forefront of an explosion of Christian clubs on school campuses, a movement that in many ways is reshaping the focus of evangelical youth ministry. Currently more than 3,000 campus Christian clubs are affiliated with local First Priority organizations in more than 165 cities — up from about 200 clubs in ten cities affiliated with First Priority just three years ago.
The impetus for the growth in Christian clubs comes largely from the 1984 Equal Access Act, which required schools to allow religious meetings if the school also allowed other non-curricular clubs. The religious clubs must be student-initiated and student-led, however, and meetings cannot be held during class times.
It was in that environment that Southern Baptist youth minister Benny Proffit developed First Priority, which helps churches facilitate such clubs. The national organization supports local chapters organized primarily by youth ministers in each participating city. Those citywide organizations in turn provide encouragement and resources for students who wish to start clubs on junior and senior high school campuses.
Time magazine, in an April 27 article on school-based Christian clubs, quoted Proffit on the rapid growth of the movement. "We had no idea in the early '90s that the response would be so great," he told Time. "We believe that if we are to see America's young people come to Christ and America turn around, it's going to happen through our schools, not our churches."
The idea behind the name comes from the Great Commission. "Jesus' last command must be our First Priority … Go and make disciples," reads one informational publication on the ministry. While only 12 percent of young people can be found in church — the traditional emphasis of discipleship — all of them can be found on school campuses, the document notes.
The clubs follow a rotating four-week plan in meetings and activities based on the ACTS acronym: Accountability Week, Challenge Week, Testimonies and Prayer, and Seek Week. During that last week, the gospel is presented and students are encouraged to make a public profession of faith in Christ.
A sampling of endorsements furnished to NAMB trustees was an indication of the movement's impact.
"I believe this strategy is … destined to become our most important approach to winning teenagers to Christ on school campuses," said Richard Ross, a youth ministry consultant for the Baptist Sunday School Board. Ross helped organize the True Love Waits sexual abstinence movement, another youth effort that began with Southern Baptists and became interdenominational. He also currently acts as publisher for First Priority materials.
Doug Couch, youth ministry specialist for the Georgia Baptist Convention, called First Priority "the greatest hope for an evangelistic campus ministry strategy for students in America. Period." And Mitch McDonald of the Arizona Baptist Convention said it is the "missing link for an evangelistic campus ministry," and "the only viable option for reaching students on campus."
The North American Mission Board staff itself also has made a strong commitment to First Priority. The student evangelism team has incorporated the program as one of its primary strategies for dealing with youth. Len Taylor, the team's leader, will be the agency's representative on the First Priority denominational ministry board.
Reccord cited the solid Southern Baptist background and doctrinal stance of First Priority leadership in expressing his personal support for the initiative.
"We are committed to help First Priority's leadership to maximize their strengths and to strengthen any points that may be weak," he said. "Benny Proffit, their president and spokesman, along with Mark and Todd Roberts, who are directors of city development, and Wayne Blankenship, who serves as their chief financial officer, are all very-respected Southern Baptists. This strategic alliance assures that financial support that will be offered by the North American Mission Board will go only to undergird First Priority leadership who are Southern Baptist."
Students were one of the four major targets for the board's work cited by Reccord last year as he announced his vision for NAMB.
"This move is a strategic step in developing an effort to expand Christ's kingdom, and not simply a denomination," Reccord added. "We have already seen twenty-six Southern Baptist regional trainers equipped and ready to go into the field to establish and strengthen First Priority prayer groups on campuses and the uniting of churches in communities to impact their schools. All twenty-six regional trainers are already booked for training through the fall of 1998. God seems to be all over this, and we're simply joining Him in what He's doing.
"Additionally, the North American Mission Board is committed to carry out its assignment from the convention to assist the local church, and we will work in partnership with our state conventions and associations to do so."