For as long as I can remember, many Conservatives have vilified government. The state is the enemy! Public schools? The incubators of humanistic indoctrination. Hide your wife, hide your kids—they’re raping everybody all up in here!
And for as long as I can remember, many Progressives have vilified the church. She’s full of backward thinking zealots, she’s outdated, and therefore she’s irrelevant. You can have your nice little nonprofit gatherings, just stop talking about ancient ethics that don’t apply to modern day contexts. It’s annoying.
But there’s a rub. We have to put people’s names to these assumptions if we’re going to test their validity. That’s because the core of the church and the state aren’t movements.
In 2006, our church formed a non-religious education department called Campus Impressions. We go into schools in our county, putting on high-energy, content-rich assemblies. We also provide small group training and discussion for students. It’s like student ministries at our church, except we don’t mention Jesus. Because these are public schools. Public schools in one of the nation’s most liberal states: New York.
Some on the right said we were crazy. They said we were disowning Christ because we wouldn’t mention Him by name, that “because you can’t have an altar call, you’re misrepresenting Jesus and damning kids to hell.” Worse, we were aligning ourselves to the dreaded state: a godless and secular entity.
Many on the left said we should stay out of things that aren’t our business, that the church has no place working within public education, and that since our Sunday schools don’t even have “qualified” teachers, how could anyone trust us with real education?
But both sides were missing the point. Our goal isn’t to proclaim Jesus. And our goal isn’t to educate.
Our goal is to love children, and by extension, love our community.
That’s it. No religious agenda, and no pretense that somehow we know how to educate kids better than professional teachers.
We just love young people.
We went to principals and superintendents saying, “We’ll say whatever you’re trying to say to your students, we’ll just communicate it in a different way. Yes, we’re Christians, and some of us are pastors. But when we’re here with you, we’re servants, and we want to love these kids like you love these kids.”
So we talk about bully prevention, we talk about pursuing your dreams, we talk about sex, we talk about hard work, loyalty, honor, respect and persevering. We write songs for them, we make videos for them, and we put on skits for them. And most of all, we have fun with them; as is commonly heard before one of our teams hits the stage, “Remember, we’re here to give them everything we have and let them know they’re the best.”
The craziest part of all? It’s free. The schools don’t pay us a penny. We won’t let them, because it defeats the purpose. We’re not here to take, teach or preach. We’re here to serve, and we’re leaving them with more than we’ll ever take away.
The response has been overwhelming. Each year comes with more repeat requests and new schools. We’re considering a full time staff since things are expanding beyond the capacity of our church staff. It’s even stretching outside of our borders as we entertain requests for schools in Central America and Europe.
The point in all of this is that the church and the state can work together. Neither are the enemy, and both play crucial roles in serving any community. When someone says that the state is evil, they need to meet Principal Henry who lives an hour and a half from her middle school; she takes care of her extended family in one city, then leaves to serve the students she’s committed to in another.
And when someone says the church is irrelevant, they need to meet Sam who throws his drum set in the back of his truck at 5:00 am, heads to a local school to play for an assembly as a volunteer. When he’s done, he lets a student bang around on his kit because Sam knows how important it is to have positive role models—he’s grown up without a father most of his life.
If you want to say the state is the enemy, then you have to say Principal Henry is the enemy. And if you want to say the church is irrelevant, than you have to say Sam is irrelevant. Because Principal Henry is the state, and Sam is the church.
You’re right, we don’t sing worship songs in public schools. We’d betray everyone’s trust and accomplish little more than spiritual self-service. And you’re right, we’re not state certified teachers. Because acting like we are would insult those who’ve paid a heavy price to stand in those positions.
We are, however, people who attempt to express the heartbeat of a God who loves without guarantee of anything in return. And we don’t need worship songs or degrees to do that.
If anyone should be dating in school, it should be the church and the state. Yes, some students and their families end up coming into the Kingdom because of our efforts, and that’s a miracle every time it happens. But we don’t want to read the Bible in schools to serve people—we want to act like Jesus. And no, I don’t want the state to legislate our Christian morals; Constantine tried that, and it was a disaster. True legislation is one of the heart, administered by the conscience of a person who’s submitted to the Holy Spirit and enthralled with the church.
The church who understands that love always transcends agenda will find an endless resource of relationships that provoke an expression of Christ-incarnation.
First image: Pastor Joseph Gilchrist speaks to 7th and 8th graders at Carthage Middle School auditorium on self-worth during a Campus Impressions general assembly.
Second image: Backed by the Campus Impressions band, Jennifer Hopper belts out a rendition of Katy Perry’s “Firework” for 5th and 6th graders at Carthage Middle School.