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School's Out—For Bible Lessons

Jim Roberts

Discover this hidden, legal opportunity you may be missing to reach kids in your community.

It's 10 in the morning in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Alabama, or California. School doors suddenly swing open, and exuberant children spill out to skip their way down a sidewalk to a nearby building or hop aboard a waiting bus for a quick ride to a quiet church.

Minutes later, they scurry into a church. Jennifer hurries excitedly across the room to tell an adult that today she can say all three of her Bible verses without any help. Jason, timid as always, flashes his teacher the first small smile she's seen in weeks. When she asks what he's happy about, he shares that his father is back with the family again. As the children find chairs, the teacher notices that Annette looks a little sad. Is she feeling ill, or is her mother not doing well again?
•••
This scene occurs hundreds of times every school day across the United States. Children from kindergarten through 12th grade leave their public-school classrooms for off-school sites where they receive "released time" religious instruction. All that's required is a signed statement of permission from the child's parent.

Released time, a largely untapped provision for reaching public school children with the gospel, isn't a new idea. In 1914, William Wirt of Gary, Indiana, came up with a plan for off-campus religious education, and more than 600 students attended. Some 50 years ago, the Supreme Court upheld the released-time concept in a court case. The case the court heard, Zorach v. Clauson, dealt specifically with the legality of the program. The court's only stipulations were that instructors hold classes off school grounds and use no public funds. Despite swirling church-state issues in years since, that decision stands today.

An accurate interpretation of the law is "schools have the discretion to dismiss students to off-premises religious instruction, provided that schools don't encourage or discourage participation or penalize those who don't attend. Schools may not allow religious instruction by outsiders on premises during the school day." (State laws do vary. Go to www .releasedtime.org and click on your state to learn more.)

A number of long-standing released-time programs survive today with over 250,000 participating students. For example, the released-time program in Oakland, California, has been in continuous existence since 1943. Today, it serves 11 schools. CBM Ministries of South Central Pennsylvania, Inc., released-time sponsor for more than 35 years, currently conducts classes in 64 schools, in 10 counties, with 1,100 volunteers. Our vision is a released-time program in each county of Pennsylvania by 2005 and in every school district of the state by 2010.

MEETING NEEDS
Why the fresh interest in released time? School personnel are scrambling for answers to issues such as bullying, truancy, and a lack of respect for authorities. Released-time programs seem to be working, and many schools are glad for the positive influence. It seems that school officials are admitting that Christians have some good solutions, and released time is the means they use to instill values in students.

The need is huge. Researchers estimate that of the 53 million children in the United States, at least half are unchurched. A recent survey of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, revealed that only 17 percent of the county's residents attend a religious service on a given Sunday. Given that this county is in a traditional, Bible Belt area known for its strong Amish subculture, church attendance may be even more dismal in other parts of the country. Parents, pressed by other commitments and stressed by circumstances all week long, simply don't take their families to church. These same parents, though, when offered the option for religious education during the school day, often enroll their children.

We know we must reach them while they're young; a high percentage of commitments to Christ come between the ages of 4 and 14. For seven hours each day, this age group is assembled in the public schools of our nation. And they're available to us.

GETTING STARTED
"Okay, I'm convinced. What do I need to do?" It's possible to implement a released-time program in your community. The following guidelines present the overall picture; released-time organizations will gladly help with details.

Pray. Ask for God's help and gather other prayer partners. Pray specifically for open doors and good relations with your local schools. Pray that God will raise up the volunteers you'll need to pull this off.

Do good public relations. Talk up this program every chance you get. Share the vision with moms, dads, grandparents, pastors, teachers, friends, and others. Explain the potential benefits to children, families, schools, your church, and your community.

Prepare. Gather data you need to get things rolling. Call your local school districts and ask for the superintendents' and principals' names, direct phone numbers, and email addresses. Many school districts have Web sites where this information is publicly available.

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