Faith Memorial Church and their Illegal Involvement in Fairfield County Public School Bible Clubs

wall of separation of church and state

As a pastor, when we are doing our best at the request of others to be of assistance in the lives of others, it’s frankly repulsive where we are today — that an individual can bring such undue and unfounded criticism.

Jonathan Morgan
Pastor, Faith Memorial Church, Lancaster, Ohio

As many readers of this blog might remember, I spent a number years in central and southeast Ohio, pastoring congregations in Somerset and Buckeye Lake. In 1983, I started the Somerset Baptist Church, a congregation I would pastor for 11 years. During this time, John Maxwell pastored Faith Memorial Church in nearby Lancaster, Ohio. Faith Memorial, affiliated with the Churches of Christ in Christian Union, was, at the time, considered one of the fastest growing churches in America. Maxwell, a charismatic, winsome speaker, attracted large crowds of people wanting to hear him preach. Committed to the church growth principles of the 1970s and 1980s, Maxwell established a large bus ministry that brought hundreds of people to Faith Memorial.

I started Somerset Baptist Church using the same principles Maxwell was successfully using at Faith Memorial. The goal was to use whatever means necessary to attract people to the church. Once there, the gospel would be preached, and attendees given an opportunity to become Christians. The bus ministry was the single most effective method to get large numbers of people under the sound of the gospel. This is why virtually all the megachurches of the 1970s and 1980s had large bus ministries.

first church bus somerset baptist church 1985

Our first church bus, purchased from Faith Memorial Church, Lancaster, Ohio in 1983.

The first bus we purchased at Somerset Baptist Church came from Faith Memorial. We paid $400 for the bus, an astronomical sum for a small, struggling church. This bus would provide many years of service until one day an inattentive driver failed to notice that the engine had zero oil pressure, resulting in engine failure. We junked this bus and bought a replacement, also from Faith Memorial.

John Maxwell would later leave Faith Memorial, becoming pastor of Skyline Wesleyan Church in San Diego, California. He is now some sort of positive thinking guru, far afield from his days as a Fundamentalist pastor. After Maxwell left, Faith Memorial’s attendance began to decline. Today, as with virtually every church that bought into the church growth hype, Faith Memorial is a shell of what it once was. Few churches have bus ministries, and most of the churches that do are Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) churches that refuse to admit that this method of growing a church no longer works. Having heard IFB guru Jack Hyles implore them to NEVER, EVER QUIT, these preachers refuse to let go of their bus ministries. To quit means to admit failure, and if there is one thing IFB preachers are not known for doing, it is admitting failure.

I haven’t had a thought about Faith Memorial in many years; that is, until today. Evidently, Faith Memorial Church finds itself in a bit of a pickle over their involvement in various Fairfield County public schools Bible clubs. According to a February 22, 2016, Columbus Dispatch report:

Student Bible clubs in at least two Fairfield County schools have been temporarily suspended after administrators received a complaint that area religious leaders were heading the groups.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a non-profit group that serves as a watchdog over issues involving separation of church and state, sent letters to four school districts regarding Bible studies held in eight high schools, junior high schools and middle schools before class or on lunch breaks.

Such groups violate protections of separation of church and state if they are led or regularly attended by local pastors, said Ryan Jayne, a legal fellow at the Wisconsin-based foundation.

“Public school districts must ensure that student religious groups are genuinely student-initiated and student-run, and that outside adults do not regularly participate in the clubs,” said a letter from the group to Lancaster City Schools Superintendent Steve Wigton.

Similar letters were sent to the Bloom-Carroll Local School District, Fairfield Union Local Schools and Liberty Union-Thurston Local Schools.

Jayne said a community member, whom he declined to identify, saw the Bible clubs posted on the website of Fairfield Memorial Church in Lancaster. A screenshot of the now-removed web page said the groups are “led by volunteers or community youth pastors.”

The Rev. Jonathan Morgan, Faith Memorial pastor, said the complaint is “much ado about nothing” and that the Web page, along with some local church newsletters, was improperly worded.

Pastors do not lead the groups but have been invited to attend at times by students, he said, and there have been no concerns from administrators, principals, parents or students.

Attorney Sue Yount of Bricker & Eckler in Columbus has responded to the foundation on behalf of all four school districts.

“The districts are meeting with building principals and reviewing the parameters of the federal Equal Access Act,” Yount wrote in an email. “This Act provides for the right of students to hold religious activities on school grounds during non-instructional time, so long as the activities are student-initiated and student-led, with non-school persons not directing, controlling, or regularly attending.”

….

Morgan said the clubs have been “incredibly beneficial and longstanding” programs in the schools and that discrediting them would affect the well-being of students.

“As a pastor, when we are doing our best at the request of others to be of assistance in the lives of others, it’s frankly repulsive where we are today — that an individual can bring such undue and unfounded criticism,” he said.

According to Pastor Morgan, his church’s involvement in the supposedly student-led Bible clubs is little more than one of the students inviting someone from Faith Memorial to club meetings. And the statement on the church’s website that stated their involvement was leading the clubs? A poorly worded statement, say Morgan. According to Morgan, pastors who attend these clubs are there at the “request of others” to “be of assistance in the lives of others.” What I want to know is exactly what assistance did Faith Memorial, Pastor Morgan, and other Fairfield County pastors provide to local public school students?

Here is what I know. Faith Memorial is a Fundamentalist church pastored by man with Evangelical beliefs. I assume the Bible Clubs in question are Evangelical in nature. While I certainly support the right of Evangelical public school students to have their own clubs, when churches like Faith Memorial and pastors such as Jonathan Morgan actively participate in these clubs, they have crossed the line and are in violation of the principle of separation of church and state. Morgan would have us believe that he and his fellow pastors are just passive participants in student-led Bible clubs. Does anyone really believe this to be true? Are Evangelicals ever passive about anything? Of course not.

Evangelical pastors go to these clubs to steer students towards the right beliefs and practices. I am sure there are discussions about how to effectively evangelize non-Christian students. I am sure there are also discussions about the culture war hot buttons: abortion, homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and premarital sex. And I am sure that Morgan and his fellow passive pastors would be outraged if students of a Satanist or secularist persuasion started a Godless club and began having local Satanists or secularist leaders materially participate in the clubs. In fact, I suspect these passive pastors would strongly oppose the very existence of these clubs. After all, Evangelicals are not known for tolerance of competing worldviews.

While Fairfield County Evangelicals will likely see the Freedom of Religion Foundation’s (FFRF) actions as much to do about nothing, supporters of FFRF rightly understand that if you give Evangelicals an inch they will take a mile. Let Faith Memorial, Pastor Morgan, and his merry band of passive pastors actively participate in these Bible clubs, and they will only want more access to students. Remember, the goal of men like Morgan is the conversion of every Fairfield County public school student to Evangelical Christianity. Fueled by their belief that the Bible is an inspired, inerrant, infallible text  — a text that commands them to go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature — these proselytizing Fundamentalists will not rest until every student is singing What a Friend we Have in Jesus. And it is for this reason, they must be stopped.

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16 Comments

  1. Gary Kern

    thanks for the incisive comments. I was the one who noticed the church bulletin and reported it to FFRF and I also contacted some of the supts and principals.

    It might be of interest to you to know that the Bible clubs were also mentioned in the First Presbyterian Lancaster “prayer suggestions”. and the time of the Bible studies in the Lancaster school district was listed on their church calendar.

    the principal at LHS informed me that there are actually a total of five youth ministers from various churches who attend these meetings. I informed FFRF of this but I guess they think they have better evidence from the FMC site. (silly me…I wrote to the folks in question and the site was taken down within an hour,,,luckily the folks at FFRF had already captured it)

    one more thing,,the principal at Fairfield Union HS informed me that “many” schools allow coaches/teachers to attend FCA meetings,,,it is my guess that this practice is very widespread around these parts

    Reply
    1. Julie

      I don’t see a prob with it they’re not forced into doing anything and no I don’t attend their church lol

      Reply
    2. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      Thanks for commenting and providing some first hand context.

      Bruce

      Reply
  2. Frank

    I have a simple question; how can you be sure of anything you aren’t personally observing? I’m disappointed with “assumptions” contained within the context of this blog as it is not accompanied by factual proof. I hope the readers understand our students who are involved in these bible groups are lead by the Spirit of Christ first and foremost with supplemental teaching from their church families and pastor.

    Reply
    1. Faye Angles

      I noticed the same as Frank. The blog contains words such as “I suspect” and “I assume” and “I am sure.” Are you sure or are you suspecting and assuming?

      Reply
      1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

        I stand by what I have written.

        I am intimately aware of the Evangelical religious climate in the Lancaster area. I am also an expert on how Evangelical preachers and churches operate. I suspect my conclusions are spot on. Evidently some of the local school districts think so too since they have changed their policies and/or re-educated school staff concerning the law. These pastors/church leaders are the proverbial children caught with their hands in the cookie jar. That the unconstitutional/illegal behavior has gone on for decades is of no consequence.

        I don’t think that these pastors were passive participants in these clubs. It is not in the nature of Evangelicals to do anything passively. Perhaps the pastors and other church leaders involved need to publicly state what they did while “helping” students. So far, all I hear is silence. Perhaps lawyers are telling them to say nothing. After all, to tell the truth leaves them open to legal action by the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

        Reply
  3. Geoff

    You ask for ‘factual proof’ and I ask if you can provide an example of factual proof that is outside the ambit of pure mathematics? So I assume you mean ‘strong evidence’, and I would suggest to you that by far the weight of evidence is that bible groups are not led by the spirit of Christ, rather deluded pastors, and other leaders, some well intentioned, many self serving parasites; but all are deluded.

    Yep that’s my assumption, though I haven’t observed many, and none whatsoever in America. But I can read, I can watch videos, and I can interpret.

    Reply
  4. Gary Kern

    Frank—

    did you read what I wrote above? I do not have solid eye witness evidence..but I have a letter from the principal at one of the schools telling me that 5 youth ministers take turns coming to the meetings.

    not sure what your definition of attending “regularly” is…but there is surely evidence that they , at least as a group, come fairly often. as for leading the group..I received messages from two of the school districts..they claimed that the pastors do not lead the groups. but I would bet that they do not attend those meetings themselves very often.

    but the law states that they should not even be “attending regularly”. I realize you do not know me but this is my real name. I have been concerned about religion in schools around here ever since my kids were young. Principal praying at a school assembly,,,another praying with kids at “see you at the pole”…a HS AD reported in a church bulletin as organizing an FCA group,,,Lord’s Prayer being sung at commencement,,,I could go on….and this is not the deep south…

    Reply
  5. Peggy Jarvis

    No one is forcing kids to attend. They go of their own free will and am glad my grandkids have this chance. Tell your kids they can’t attend and mind your own business. The kids are having fun and learning to run things.

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      Let’s be clear, these clubs are Evangelical in nature, and the goal is the advancement of this religion. The core issue is that the schools, by allowing non-students to lead or direct these groups, are violating the law. The clubs aren’t the issue.

      Reply
    2. Becky Wiren

      So it’s okay to break the law, since leaders from a religion you espouse run these things? What about Muslims coming in and running a group for any Muslims? Oh, no Muslims in that area? What about Jews? What about Buddhists? What about Hindus? Or non-standard Christians like Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses or Seventh-day Adventists? I bet you would be pissed if those evil heathens were around. Well guess what lady, there are non-Christians AND Christians who find breaking the laws bad. And the same law you are against protects YOUR kind from having to be pressured into a religious group THEY DON’T LIKE. Or maybe you can’t spare any sympathy for anyone who believes different than you.

      And my understanding is the students can run these things in school BY THEMSELVES.

      Reply
  6. Grammar Gramma

    I have long advocated that there would be no more call for prayer in schools if each day, one kid in the class would lead prayer. On the day after the little Muslim boy came to the front of his class on his appointed day, spread his prayer rug, turned toward Mecca and began to pray, there would no longer be prayer in the classroom.

    Reply
  7. robert conrad

    You dont like christians “forcing their beliefs” on people.You want them stopped.Shouldn’t you also stop brainwashing child with false science like evolution.

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      Neither atheist or Christian should “force” their beliefs on public school students. Public schools are, by nature, secular institutions. As such, adults have no business evangelizing students on school property. In fact, it is illegal to do so. Students are free to pray or read their Bibles in school, and they are free to have Christian after school groups as long as they are led by students. Religious clubs led by Christian adults are unconstitutional. Schools may not endorse or promote religion.

      Suppose the principal of Fairfield Union was a Muslim. Would you be okay with him leading students in Islamic prayers? Would you be okay with imams coming to the school so they could evangelize students? Would you be okay with the Muslim version of the Gideon’s handing out Quran’s to students? How about Buddhists teaching students mindfulness and how to meditate? How about an after school Satanist club for high school students?

      These question are, of course, rhetorical questions. I already know that the answer to these questions is emphatically, absolutely, without a second thought, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO! You don’t want freedom of speech or freedom of religion. You want preferential treatment for Christianity. You want (demand?) that schools endorse and promote the one true religion — Christianity.

      As far gas evolution is concerned. Only those blinded by religious dogma and Fundamentalist interpretation of Genesis 1-3 deny that evolution best explains biological life. Evolution is science, creationism is not. History tells us that numerous cultures have creation myths. The Christian myth is just one of many. Should students be taught the Christian creation myth? Absolutely, in a comparative religion class, along with all the other religious myths. But, you don’t want this, right? You want your creation myth taught as science. You want teachers to lie to students about how the biological world works.

      So, did I “misunderstand” your position?

      Reply
    2. Geoff

      I’d be careful coming here with that intensely ignorant view of evolution. Others have tried and everyone, without exception, has left with their tale between their legs, metaphorically speaking.

      Reply

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