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Schools are not for evangelism - why I'm siding with the parents this time

An evangelistic schools ministry In Northern Ireland was recently criticized by parents for 'sledgehammer' Christianity. The last time David Robertson wrote for us he supported a Christian headmaster against angry parents, this time he thinks the parents have a point.

So, they said to me, this is right up your street. A Christian charity which works in schools in Northern Ireland is facing calls for its publications and ministry to be banned from state schools. The secularists and atheists are up in arms; the Christians want to defend ‘freedom of speech’ and the rest of the world wonders what is going on.

Hope for Youth Ministries has laudable aims. It wants to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to children who, in our increasingly atheistic secularist age, are being brought up without any knowledge of it. To that end they work in about 250 schools, lead assemblies, have bible clubs and distribute leaflets. It was one of those leaflets with ‘the sinners prayer’ which caused a wee fuss in The Belfast Telegraph with parents complaining about this ‘sledgehammer Christianity’.

What can we make of this?  Making comments based on newspaper reports, secularist or Christian propaganda, is always risky but let me offer the following observations:

I have a lot of sympathy with the aims of Hope for Youth Ministries and their desire to communicate the gospel.  I think that if they are appropriate and have had all the usual checks there is no reason why head teachers should not use them in schools as part of the education process.  And if they wish to hold bible clubs which children wish to attend (with the permission of their parents) then more power to them. But….

Schools are not for evangelism They are for education. I would argue that the best education is based on Christian principles, includes Christian teaching and has a Christian ethos, but they are not places for trying to convert people.

As a parent I understand completely why any parent would be upset if their child came home with a leaflet giving them this simplistic prayer and way to become a Christian!  Without a wider context and understanding the prayer just does not make sense. I’m afraid that this kind of thing will often create hostility and bring darkness, rather then enlightening and bringing Christ.

As a parent I understand completely why any parent would be upset

Furthermore (and here is where in the modern evangelical world I would be considered a heretic) I am not convinced that the best way to re-evangelise Britain is by independent children’s/youth ministries going into schools and offering children what is the truth, but in a manner which appears to be somewhat glib and superficial.

I remember one such ministry going to a village in Scotland and every year reporting ’40 salvations’ – which looked good on the news sheet until you realised that that was almost the whole of the school being converted each year! What happened was that the ‘uncle’ who led the meetings which were great fun, and did teach the bible, was so nice and loved by the children that when he asked them who wanted to give their life to Jesus, they all put their hands up.

I’m sorry if this upsets people (I have no doubt that Hope for Youth Ministries is well intentioned and I wish them well) and I know it needs to be more nuanced than can be done in a short article, but this story indicates something of the problems we face in the UK church today. Problems that will not be solved by holding fun bible clubs in schools whilst the education ethos and worldview is fundamentally anti-Christian. Problems which will not be solved by antagonizing parents through sending leaflets home which they cannot understand, and which are as contextual for the 19th Century as they are for the 21st. And problems which cannot be solved if we continue to divorce evangelism from the church and leave it up to individual ‘ministries’ rather than the holistic ministry of the whole church.

Perhaps we need to learn again what it means to be ‘as wise as serpents and harmless as doves’?

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