By the Rev. Bruce Adams
Some of the most important places in an ancient city were the gates of that city. Those city gates served many purposes.
“The openings of the gates” are described in Proverbs as the place where “Wisdom cries out … the chief place of concourse” (Proverbs 1:20-21). The city gate was used as a public gathering place for the giving of an address or a proclamation. The prophets often preached their sermons in the gates of the city. Thus, the Lord told Jeremiah, “Go and stand in the gate of the children of the people, by which the kings of Judah come in, and by the way they go out, and in all the gates of Jerusalem” (Jeremiah 17:19). Clearly the gateways of the cities of the ancient Oriental world were where the proverbial action was, and these public arenas were where the messengers of God were called to go.
Likewise, today’s church is called to find new and creative ways to go to the gates of the city. Today’s cities, towns and villages have many venues that now qualify as a city gate where people meet to compete, debate, educate and mingle.
Our nation’s churches are increasingly being led to proclaim the Gospel to our schoolchildren. God’s people have wisely discerned that public schools are excellent examples of modern-day gates of the city.
Can this be done legally? It most certainly can! How? The answer is Release Time Bible Education programs. As of 2014, these programs have been operating successfully for 100 years.
Release Time Bible Education is a unique program that allows students to leave school with parental consent to attend off-campus Bible classes during the school day. In 1952, the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed and upheld Release Time Bible Education programs as legal in all 50 states (Zorach v. Clauson). There are three requirements for a Release Time Bible Education program to be legal: Parental permission must be given, instruction must take place off public school property and no state resources may be used.
In the midst of a nation and world that are becoming increasingly chaotic, secular, atheistic, pagan, decadent, violent and just plain wicked, God’s people and His prophets have always been called to stand in the gap and go to the gates of the city. So many of our young people have so much to live with and nothing to live for (let’s not forget the multitudes who do not have much to live with and have lost all hope!). The church must provide Biblically based purpose and meaning, along with spiritual nurture, for their lives that stand against our culture’s obsession with wealth, status and hedonistic pursuits.
Our children need safe sanctuaries where they are permitted to ask deeply challenging and sensitive questions and are allowed to pray without fear or censure. These needs can be readily addressed through enhanced Biblical literacy. This instruction in the Holy Scriptures (2 Timothy 3:16) prepares them to be responsible adults and morally upright citizens and also encourages them early in life to lead a lifestyle of holiness of heart and life.
Release Time Bible Education strengthens homes and schools. Independent research and experiences demonstrate that children participating in these programs perform better academically and have fewer behavior problems. Inculcating our public school students with a biblical worldview positively impacts the culture and the graduation rate of their respective schools. Character and leadership skills are acquired through bonding as brothers and sisters in Christ with other adult teachers from the Christian community. This reduces the need for disciplinary action due to involvement in criminal behaviors.
Unfortunately, because of the misuse of social media, students are dealing with a bullying plague and deluge of pornography which has, sadly, become a part of everyday life in our schools. Prayer and Bible study within a Christian peer group, led by Christian adults, can provide young people with the emotional and spiritual armor to overcome and conquer (Romans 8:37, Ephesians 6:11-18) this modern day spiritual warfare. Consequently, our youth will be well-equipped to grow in “Christlikeness.”
Needless to say, for children whose parents are not Christian or who come from families that are broken and/or unchurched, Release Time Bible Education may be the only fellowship of believers available to them for spiritual encouragement and nurture.
Across the nation, Release Time Bible Education is booming. It is estimated that approximately 1,000 programs involving 32 states are all together educating more than 350,000 public school students at off-campus locations during the school day. Most of the time, the students are granted an elective credit for participating in the program.
In South Carolina, there are 16 Release Time Bible Education programs in operation. Approximately 14,000 students per year are involved throughout the state in off-campus Bible studies. In Florence County, since 2005, approximately 8,000 public school students have been taught by the Christian Learning Center of Florence County.
In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, on Dec. 14, 2012, many pastors and lay persons in Chesterfield County were led by God find a proactive way to reach out to our children. As a result, Chesterfield County Pastors United was born. CCPU is a 501(c)3 nonprofit composed of 20 pastors and six lay persons dedicated to supporting and shepherding The Christian Learning Center of Chesterfield County. In February 2014, the Chesterfield County School Board granted permission to CCPU to implement Release Time Bible Education in Chesterfield County.
I am blessed to report that the Release Time Bible Education Pilot Program, the Christian Learning Center of Chesterfield County, started in August 2014 and experienced a reasonable degree of success. This positive experience provided the impetus to expand into other areas of Chesterfield County.
The initial endeavor involved transporting 24 eighth grade students from Long Middle School to First Baptist Church in Cheraw. In August 2015, 47 sixth, seventh and eighth graders enrolled in the program in Cheraw. In addition, 72 sixth, seventh and eighth graders at the Chesterfield- Ruby Middle School enrolled and transported by bus to St. Paul UMC in Chesterfield.
At the Cheraw First Baptist campus, nine teachers, four assistants, and four bus drivers volunteer their gifts of time, talent and resources one day a week (Thursday) to bring the Gospel to the children of the town of Cheraw.
Likewise, at the Chesterfield St. Paul UMC campus, seven teachers, four assistants, and four bus drivers volunteer their gifts and graces one day a week (Thursday) to bring the Good News of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ to the spiritually hungry children of the town of Chesterfield.
It has been a real joy to be a part of a mission that seems to be making a real difference in the hearts and lives of the children and churches of Chesterfield County. It is extremely gratifying to see so many Christian laity and clergy from five denominations and two non-denominational churches, along with diverse ethnic backgrounds, work as a team to give witness to the Gospel. Their endeavors are a testimony within the gates of our cities that gives glory to God and builds His Kingdom.
I highly recommend Release Time Bible Education as a way to partner with our schools. Our schools are truly the gates of our cities, and the fields within and without are ripe for the harvest.
Adams pastors St. Paul UMC, Chesterfield.