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How to Minister in Public Schools

This week Jeff Lovingood and I teach a class called Missional Student Ministry, a very practical course helping students see how to develop a ministry centered on the gospel with a goal of showing students how to live their lives as missionaries. This includes the importance of moving our student ministries off the church campus as much as possible.

In our new book Get Out, my son Josh and I talk about the importance of getting on school campuses to make an impact for Christ. Let’s face it, the public school may be the greatest mission field in America, but it’s also one of the most closed in our land. The day of a youth pastor showing up with pizzas to eat lunch with students on campus is over in most places.

Effective, missional student ministry sees their ministry as to the whole community, not just to the students attending their church. That mindset places the public school in a vital place for ministry. Here are a few things Josh has learned about ministering at public schools:

First, go through the first door that opens on campus. More often than not, once you have met administrators, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA), Young Life or something similar may be the widest door. These organizations welcome student pastors with open arms. They are always looking for speakers and prayer partners to join them.

Second, practice the funnel principle wherever you are on campus. Matt Lawson, formerly the student pastor at First Baptist Church of Woodstock, Ga., and currently planting and pastoring Story City Church in Los Angeles, Calif., taught me this principle and I want to pass it on to others. A funnel is wide at the top and narrow at the bottom. When we enter a school, the first person we meet is the receptionist, or the widest part of the funnel. She holds the keys to the school. The receptionist is key!

We sign in with her, we tell her who we are there to see and why, and we see her when we sign out later (and, we dress like adults, not like overgrown adolescents). Essentially, if you don’t have a good relationship with her, you probably won’t have a great relationship with the rest of the school. Veteran student pastor Michael Wood is so right when he says the two most important people in the school are the principal and the receptionist.

Be honest and follow the rules when you meet the receptionist. She will greatly appreciate it, and if all else fails, you can at least be a blessing to her. The second layer of the funnel is the principal, teachers and coaches. This also includes the band director. They love their students and players. If you serve them, you will gain an opportunity to meet students. Meet the coaches and teachers who are involved in FCA. Offer services to the coaches throughout their many weeks of practices, i.e., shagging foul balls that go over the fence in baseball practice or offering to help tutor students in different subjects. Bring Chick-Fil-A to coaches doing film work for the next game.

The last practical item serves as the final part of the funnel principle. Take students with you when you spend time with others! The door to long-term ministry at a school is the administration, not the students. But, students matter as well. The smallest part of the funnel is the students. If you’ve established great relationships with these other entities then students will start to wonder who you are and why you’re there. The best way to have influence on the local students is to utilize students already in your local church. When I was an intern (and not filling up a water cooler with ice, etc.), I frequently would tell students in my local church what games I would attend and what days I would be serving on campus. This didn’t happen every day, but when it did I had much more influence than when I went alone. I recall one day when I took freeze pops to the volleyball teams asking Aaron, a senior at the high school at the time, to come with me. Sure enough, there was great rapport because several of the players knew who he was. This sparked a great relationship between myself and the volleyball coaches and players. Today, as a student pastor, I tell students when I’ll be at their campus to accomplish the work of the ministry and the building up of God’s Kingdom. It is truly amazing when students get excited about sharing their faith because they’re seeing you attempt to do so. If you’re not willing to get out and get busy sharing the gospel, don’t be surprised if your students aren’t either.

What is your student ministry doing at your local school? A long-term commitment to serve the local schools can reap a great harvest eventually.  

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Alvin L. Reid (born 1959) serves as Professor of Evangelism and Student Ministry at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, where he has been since 1995. He is also the founding Bailey Smith Chair of Evangelism. Alvin and his wife Michelle have two children: Joshua, a senior at The College at Southeastern, and Hannah, a senior at Wake Forest Rolesville High School. Recently he became more focused at ministry in his local church by being named Young Professionals Director at Richland Creek Community Church. Alvin holds the M.Div and the Ph.D with a major in evangelism from Southwestern Seminary, and the B.A. from Samford University. He has spoken at a variety of conferences in almost every state and continent, and in over 2000 churches, colleges, conferences and events across the United States.