How to Shine the Light of the Gospel Into Public Schools

I’ve had the honor of writing a lot on evangelism, gospel-centered ministry, and spiritual awakenings. I’ve probably never been more excited about a project than a book that just released called Get Out: Student Ministry in the Real World (Rainer Publishing). Why? Because I wrote it with our son Josh, himself a student pastor now. It's a follow-up to my missional, gospel-centered student ministry book As You Go (NavPress). Filled with real-life examples from effective student ministers, this book challenges the church to get outside the church building into the community, and particular to impact the public schools with the gospel. The following is adapted from the Introduction to the book. The Western Church faces a significant change in culture in our time. Student ministry is in the heart of the vortex of change. “The combined impact of the Information Age, postmodern thought, globalization, and racial-ethnic pluralism that has seen the demise of the grand American story also has displaced the historic role the church has played in that story,” Researcher Mike Regele observed, continuing: “As a result, we are seeing the marginalization of the institutional church.”1 Just because your student ministry has been effective in the past featuring events and personalities does not mean it stands ready to face the challenges to the gospel in our time.

Christianity in the West has been increasingly marginalized in our culture; many of us simply refuse to see it. We certainly have not lost all our influence, but on many issues that were once in the center of American society (protecting the unborn, the sanctity of marriage, heterosexual marriage only, to name a few) have now been pushed out of the mainstream of cultural norms. How do we respond? We must think less like Christians enjoying a home field advantage and more like Christians living as missionaries. In their excellent book Everyday Church, Chester and Timmis argue for a shift in ministry focus to meet the challenges of our time, and this shift especially relates to the front line of student ministry: “Our marginal status is an opportunity to rediscover the missionary call of the people of God. We can recover witness to Christ unmuddied by nominal Christianity.”2

Student Pastor Spencer Barnard summarizes how things have changed in student ministry on most public school campuses today:

I'm the Lead Student Pastor at The Church at Battle in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Campus Ministry is a huge part of what we do on all of our campuses. In my 16 years of doing student ministry my strategy has changed a lot. Just in the last five years things have drastically changed. The days of showing up at lunch with pizza for students are over in most places. You have to earn the right to be on a campus. There needs to be a reason for you to be on a campus. Where a lot of student pastors go wrong is that we show up and say we are there to hang out with students. We could do that in the past, but when 30-year-olds or even 20-year-olds show up on a junior high or high school campus, it’s just weird in this culture today.  It worked 10 years ago, but in most places it just doesn’t work any more. There needs to be a reason we are there: we should be there to serve and support the administration. Our role is to be there for the school, and not expect the school to be there for us. With that in mind we have to be careful to follow all the school’s rules and present ourselves in a respectful way.

Here are some of the ways we serve schools:

  • We take food to the teacher’s lounges and teacher in-service days. One of the best things that has happened for us is the government cutting funds for the schools, because it gave us the opportunity to meet their needs first hand.
  • We make our facilities available to them for meetings and banquets. We hosted 10 different sporting banquets this last year and it has earned us a great reputation with our schools and also showcased our facilities to students and parents.
  • We talk with coaches and teachers about leadership training or become Chaplains for sporting teams. We found out that many coaches loved the extra help.
  • We take drinks to the band, cheerleaders, and sporting teams.
  • We are on the Substitute Teacher list. Also, some schools need volunteers to monitor testing.

Getting to know the Principal and the office staff has been huge as well.  We will take with us some Starbucks gift cards or Chick Fila cards to give away as we meet teachers, coaches, or administration.

The final thing we do, and probably one of the biggest connecting points for us with schools, is FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes.) FCA has a great reputation on all of our campuses. We have developed a great relationship with them and because of it they have allowed our staff to become huddle leaders at eight different campuses around our city. This gives us a huge opportunity to connect with students who normally don't attend church at all. We have seen our student ministry grow by about 50% over the last eight months and I would attribute it to how our team has shifted our work regarding campus ministry.

The public school campus is arguably the greatest mission field in America. With so many challenges to the Christian faith in the West today, we need to be reminded that the best way to respond to darkness is to turn on the light: the Light of the Gospel!

1. Cited in Tim Chester and Steve Timmis, Everyday Church: Gospel Communities on Mission (Crossway, Re:Lit: 2013) Kindle Edition, 14.

2. Chester and Timmis, Everyday Church, 10. Italics added.

Alvin L. Reid is husband to Michelle and father to Josh and Hannah. He is a professor of evangelism and student ministry at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, as well as a popular speaker and author. He has written numerous books on student ministry, evangelism, missional Christianity, and spiritual awakenings. Follow him on Twitter: @AlvinReid.

Alvin L. Reid and Josh Reid, Get Out: Student Ministry in the Real World Rainer Publishing, ©2015. Used by permission.