Imagine for a moment. Your child comes home from school and tells you that they had an Imam in school today and they have decided to become a Muslim. Or, as actually happened in our family, your Year 4 child says he’s not happy to do that yoga class at school. Although it was just supposed to be exercise, he didn’t like it when they were told to ’empty their minds and chant this funny phrase’.
We know the pitfalls that can happen when religion or pseudo-religious practices are handled poorly in the school context. It’s no different for Christians when they visit a school. It just isn’t appropriate to say in an assembly, put your hand up to ask Jesus into your life. Proselytisation is a no no, period. No question, no argument.
The question we need to answer is whether or not evangelism is just another word for proselytisation. Or is there more to it than that? And if there is more to it, at what point must we draw the line?
Purpose of Schools
The first thing to be very clear on is the purpose of schools. They exist to educate. The nature of education is a very interesting debate, but inarguably education is the core task of every school. Hence, as a Christian visitor to a school it is essential that we respect that core task. We are not invited to promote our religion, we are invited to contribute to education.
Similarly, every school will have its own ethos with respect to religion. We must communicate well with a school and make the effort to understand its particular ethos. Find out where the boundaries lie. Church schools will be different to community schools, Catholic schools will have different boundaries to Church of England schools, and so on. Doing a bit of homework pays dividends when it comes to building up a successful and mutually beneficial relationship with a school.
What then of evangelism?
Evangelism can be understood in three parts. Two are entirely appropriate and to be welcomed in the school context. The third one, I will argue, is not. These are Presence, Proclamation and Persuasion. In Church Growth circles you might find them referred to as the 3 P’s.
‘Presence’ refers to the way in which the presence of Christians acts as ‘salt and light’. It relates to biblical concepts of witness or testimony. In addition to school staff who are Christians, there are voluntary activities such as supporting school trips and residentials, mentoring, listening services, chaplaincy, the taking of assemblies, and so on.
‘Proclamation’ builds upon presence, making known the gospel by appropriate means. According to John Stott, the gospel includes the events of the gospel story, its witnesses, its claims and promises, and the response expected from its hearers. (1) There is nothing here that lies outside of the recommended curriculum objectives for religious education in English schools. Curriculum objectives suggest pupils should articulate beliefs, values and commitments clearly in order to explain why they may be important in their own and other people’s lives.(2) Hence, so long as the means are appropriate, there is no reason why proclamation should not go on in schools. In fact, the R.E. curriculum embraces it and Christians therefore have much to contribute to the teaching of R.E.
Lunchtime or after-school clubs are another suitable forum for communicating the gospel, provided they fulfil the requirements of being open to all and have voluntary attendance. Some schools even have Youth Alpha. This invites participants to carefully consider and explore their own personal responses and to ask questions. It is in accord with the aims of education provided there is no coercion to conform to a particular viewpoint.
Persuasion is the third and final stage of evangelism as proposed by exponents of the church growth movement. It says that the process of proclaiming the gospel is not complete until the hearer responds. According to one writer,
“Those who believe in persuasion evangelism claim the command “Go therefore and make disciples” (Matt 28:19, NKJV) implies that the minister has an obligation to get results in evangelism… disciples are the result of evangelism.”(3)
It is up to the one proclaiming the gospel to get results. ‘Results’ is narrowly defined as numbers of converts. Is this really so?
Many theologians refute this argument as unsupportable from the biblical perspective. One states unequivocally that the Bible defines evangelism, not in terms of results, but in terms of ‘faithfulness to the message preached’. It is not about results or effectiveness, but about mediating God’s love in Christ. Evangelism, therefore, is an invitation. According to John Stott, ‘to evangelise… does not mean to win converts… but simply to announce the good news, irrespective of the results’.(4)
It’s all Greek to me!
Some seek to root the idea of ‘persuasion’ theologically in the biblical word peitho which means ‘to persuade’, or ‘to bring another to a point of view’. For example, in 2 Cor.5v11 and Acts 18v4, Paul uses this word. The wider Biblical context however shows the need for the power of God and the work of the Holy Spirit. So persuasion is not by clever human argument but by the Holy Spirit. Paul actually refutes that he is able to bring about anyone’s conversion by the means of persuasive words:
“My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible (peithos) words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God”. 1Cor2v4
These arguments are important in the schools context because if ‘persuasion’ is a necessary part of evangelism then it is indistinguishable from proselytisation. Thus it would be entirely inappropriate. On the other hand, if we instead embrace the understanding of Stott and others, then the proclamation of the gospel is entirely in accord with the R.E. curriculum and a valid contribution to education. However we decide to interpret theologically, it helps us see where the boundaries lie so far as schools are concerned.
So is evangelism really for schools?
Yes, if we understand that we are there to contribute to the education of children, not to promote our religion. And if we understand that evangelism is about ‘salt and light’ presence, and about clear communication of the gospel and its implications for the hearer. What we should not do is cross the boundary into trying to actively persuade people – this is inappropriate in schools as it is proselytisation; and for many of us it is questionable theologically. If I am persuaded by someone’s argument, I might be persuaded otherwise by a better argument. But according to the Apostle Paul, the conviction of the Holy Spirit is another thing entirely.
(1) John Stott 1976
(2) Religious Education Council of England and Wales 2013 A Curriculum Framework for Religious Education in England p11-12
(3) Towns 2014 Church Growth: State of the Art ed P Wagner loc 416
(4) John Stott 1975 Christian Mission in the Modern World p69