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Working with our primary schools

The primary school is a place where community really meets – and where Christians can serve with integrity. By Martin Sweet

Back to school

Another September finished. Another school year full of opportunities for local churches and Christian groups to engage with the young generation.
One of my office staff frequently comments that in my writing I use the term ‘generation’ rather a lot. I suspect they feel it is too vague. If, as according to Chambers Dictionary, a generation is 25-30 years, and given that Spinnaker is now 30 years old, the children I once met in primary school assemblies when I first set out around 1988 are now parents. Indeed, some may be grandparents.
So what do I mean by the word ‘generation’? Simply the children of all the ordinary people. The word ‘common’ as used in Mark 12:37 has overtones of prejudice and class – but that’s not what I mean. I am thinking about the ‘ordinary’ and not merely privileged or under-privileged. The NIV generously suggests that ‘everyone heard him gladly’. The large crowd listened to him with delight.
It seems a fact that every generation complains about the one following. That may be so, but when talking to teachers and those involved in education or children’s services, it is clear that many issues are having a dramatic effect on children in schools on a daily basis. And one of those issues is the perceived distance between this generation and the church. It appears to be more than any previous generation; these children seem further than ever from ‘faith in God’.
So how are we to reach this generation – these ‘ordinary’ children and their families? Isn’t this the job of the church, to make disciples? So whom exactly are we seeking to reach?
In conversation with Jesus, in Mark 12, a teacher of the law heartily approved Jesus’ citation of the call to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’. Now it’s hard for us here not to picture the people who live in the semi-detached next door. But in the time of Jesus the population gathered in villages and not distant farmhouses. ‘Life was touched at every point by a wide circle of neighbourhood’ (Vine). In other words, you could not live ‘on your own’ in Bible times. You either lived in the close circle of ‘community’ – or you were an outcast.
Perhaps such a concept seems alien to us today. Except in one case: the local primary school. Here the community really meets. Here is a better expression of ‘neighbourhood’, since the local primary school seeks to serve all the families in the neighbourhood. I would suggest that maybe the local primary school is the best place to meet our neighbours!
Being a neighbour, in Scripture, means being helpful. Proverbs 27:10 advises us, ‘Better a neighbour nearby than a relative far away’ (NIV). At the end of the story of the Good Samaritan, when Jesus asks, “Which of these was a neighbour?” the import was clear. Everyone. There was no such expression as ‘good neighbour’ – a neighbour was meant to be ‘good’ by definition. Communities were supposed to be close, and not just physically. The shepherd who lost his sheep and the widow her coin went to their ‘neighbours’ and shared their joy with the village – ‘Rejoice with me!”
At that time integrity was deemed very important in community building, and the apostle Paul suggested that being a neighbour was a role that called for sincerity and honesty. In Ephesians 4:25 he instructs (not suggests) that the church “put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbour” (NIV). I can’t think of a better way for Christians to be in schools that this: offering help with integrity by playing a useful part in their community. We should see schools not just as an opportunity to draw children into our churches, but as an opportunity for us to meet them in ‘their’ world.
At the start of this term I had a heartfelt conversation with headteacher who, on week two, had walked into a massive problem. She was very appreciative of someone who would listen and show concern. And offer to pray. The conversation served to clarify our mission: that Christian schools work (such as Spinnaker’s) is about serving the school community – not letting the school serve our outreach targets. Or to put it another way, do we go to a school only to speak and never to listen? Is it just to ‘do our thing’? I believe that if we move away from a solely presentational approach, our relationship with a school will grow and lives will be touched far more effectively.
Why do I say this? While many may feel that this generation feels a long way from the church, I passionately believe they are not far from God. At times, our thinking about salvation has drawn a gulf between the church and our communities; and yet Jesus confounds our thinking with his response to the man who asked the question in Mark 12. When Jesus saw the honest wisdom of the man, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (NIV). We should take this to heart and gain purpose from the truth that God wants to use us to bless them and, maybe, touch their families by speaking into the lives of their children.
One of the most significant verses in the Bible for me is Mark 1:33 where ‘the whole town gathered at the door’ (NIV) as Jesus ministered. All too often, when visiting a school and seeing the families gathered at the school gate, I wonder how on earth we are going to reach them. We seem so far removed from where they are.
In Mark 12 it is recorded that ‘the large crowd listened to him with delight’ (verse 37, NIV). Or as the Authorised Version puts it, ‘the common people heard him gladly’. Here Jesus was also confronted by religious academics, men who believed they were not ordinary. They saw themselves as privileged. While Jesus was teaching in the temple courts, he questioned the teaching of the religious leaders. In contrast, a large crowd of ordinary people listened to him with delight. Amazingly, the ordinary people ‘got it’ – they loved the fact that Jesus was speaking to them. John 7:46 even suggests that the temple guards were impressed when they went to arrest him: ‘No-one ever spoke the way this man does.’
Nothing is stopping us seeking to engage with this generation. They are closer than we think. They live in our streets. They are our neighbours. They are in our local schools. They are the ordinary people who will ‘hear him gladly’.

Image | Cienpies Design | Freeimages

Martin Sweet writes on behalf of the Baptist Education Group (BEG). The vision of the Baptist Education Group is to encourage every Baptist church to strategically engage in supporting its local school. Visit the BEG page for more of Martin's articles and resources.

Martin is director of Spinnaker Trust, an organisation with over 25 years’ experience, based in SE London, regularly supporting over 100 primary schools in London and the Southeast with RE, assemblies and much more.

Baptist Times, 02/10/2017
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