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.
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.
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.