Going Public: Outreach to the Schools
For an American culture that views the Church and the state as perennial cage-fighting foes, the simple, six-word question was nothing short of taboo.
But members of Embrace Teachers—a church-based outreach to faculty in Omaha, Neb.—had built such a high level of credibility and good will through various acts of kindness all year long that the question they posed to one principal felt altogether natural.
“How can we pray for you?”
Rather than rattling off a list of needs (or looking at the group members like they were from Mars), the principal thoughtfully replied, “I’m not sure. Let me think about it.”
The next time folks from Embrace Teachers found themselves in that principal’s office, they couldn’t help but notice a large box sitting atop his desk. It was stuffed full of prayer requests from teachers, administrators, support staff—even students.
For Ian Vickers—co-founder of Embrace Teachers and director of community and international relations for Christ Community Church in Omaha—this little slice of outreach triumphed not because church members became skilled at persuading others to accept Jesus or winning a political debate, but because they had earned the school’s trust and respect by consistently meeting practical needs without condition.
“Prayer in school happened,” Vickers says, “and not through legislation.”
A growing number of congregations are learning that outreach to public schools doesn’t mean tearing down an iron curtain or diving into a sea of protests and lawsuits.
Jeremy Del Rio, a former youth worker, helps mobilize churches in New York City to “adopt” neighborhood public schools through 20/20 Vision for Schools. He has asked himself: If church members as a whole are charged with public school outreach, what’s the best way to make that outreach happen? Certainly not via traditional methods, which he says have led to an antagonistic relationship between churches and schools.
Serving them practically has proved to be a better way. If churches have any hope of influencing lives within schools, they have to meet schools on their terms. That starts with serving with no strings attached—along with an open ear to helping schools overcome their biggest stated obstacles.
In addition to serving students and their parents, churches are supporting and encouraging teachers too. Along with Vickers’ Embrace Teachers program, other creative outreaches to faculty have taken root in several schools around the country. Bill Yaccino, executive director of Catalyst—an organization that jump-starts relationships between schools and churches in Lake County, Ill.—has found that simple things such as serving teachers a home-cooked lunch in their lounge can be a win.
As you reach out to serve public schools in your area, here are a few dos and don’ts to keep in mind:
-- Frequently cast the vision for serving schools via messages, announcements from the pulpit, small groups and personal example.
-- Be proactive and set up a meeting with the school principal, saying your church wants to learn how it can serve the school.
-- Build trust and respect by meeting school officials on their terms. First, ask what they need, then offer suggestions for how your church could help meet those needs.
-- Be open to creative resource ideas. Keep your eyes and ears open for door-opening opportunities.
-- Be realistic about what you’re capable of providing. Better to start with a huge success on a small scale than a failure on a large scale.
-- Make it easy for people to get involved. Offer a wide range of service opportunities for church members—both big and small commitments. Start by engaging people to serve at a big event.
-- Train and equip lay leaders to coach and guide people who want to regularly engage.
-- Stay committed for the long haul. Systemic change doesn’t happen overnight.
-- Have fun! Service should be a celebration.
-- Cross boundaries you’re not supposed to cross, such as preaching to students, passing out tracts on campus, etc.
-- Believe if you didn’t convert somebody, your efforts are a failure.
-- Force something that isn’t happening. Relationships need to unfold naturally.
-- Give up if there’s resistance at first. Accept the fact that schools don’t have a lot of reasons to trust churches.
-- Forget that there’s no law against prayerful people serving in public schools.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Outreach magazine ran an in-depth article on this subject in the September/October 2009 issue.