If not for my public education, I would not be a pastor.
There—how’s that for an opening line? I didn’t have time to get involved in the discussion, but in a recent post on church planting where the author recommended public schooling your (read: a church planter’s) children, a lively discussion ensued in the comment stream. This is certainly something about which people have strong opinions. I have personally been in the midst of all of that discussion. I don’t have children of my own (yet), but I was raised going to public schools, went to public universities, and spent two years as an administrator and teacher at a private, Christian school.
What I heard from some parents at that school was the same thing I’ve heard and read elsewhere all the way from blogs to church people—how terrible public schooling is and here’s all the horror stories about sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll…
Yet in my experience in both the public school and private school settings, the issue isn’t the environment so much as it is the parenting and the discipleship in churches.
The private school I worked at was more technically a hybrid. It was a rather unique cross between a straight-up private school and a home-school cooperative. Originally, it was founded by a group of home-schooling families who wanted to pool resources to provide their children a better education. By the time I had arrived on the scene it had blossomed into a school with nearly 100 (K-12) students, a staff of 25-30, and a school board and various committees. Yet the school itself only met three days a week, still leaving the other two days open for home-schooling and, theoretically, reinforcing the concepts and ideas taught in the classroom.
The school required, with very very few exceptions, that all students 7th grade and above have a Christian testimony, it required the same of at least one parent, and required regular church involvement as well as a pastoral recommendation for a student/family to be allowed in.
With all of this we certainly were able to handle problems and situations differently. If I had a student in my office, we talked about their behavior and the implications of such from a biblical perspective. The school sought to provide as Christian and church-like of an environment as possible. Yet, our students still had issues.
There were cliques, gossip, soap-opera-like drama, and disrespect; some students cussed (though mostly under their breath as opposed to in the open), some cheated, some lied, some did drugs, some had sex, and during my time one became pregnant. One time at a volleyball game, three of our genius boys snuck around the parking lot and drew pornographic pictures on various windshields, including the visiting team’s bus.
I did mention this was a school of less than 100 students, among whom all the high schoolers had a Christian testimony and came from Christian homes and were home-schooled 2 days a week, didn’t I? Oh—and some even tried to use the good boy/girl “Christian” persona to manipulate the people around them.
Like I said—we could deal with things differently and still divvied out our share of suspensions and expulsions; but fallen human nature remains the same whether at public school or in the protection of a private school.
We had some parents who were fully aware of that—they were the good parents who reinforced discipline at home and the great need for Jesus. And then we had other parents who saw their children as perfect angels who would never do anything like that and who only listened to Christian music and watched wholesome shows…right…which is why they sang Lady GaGa and quoted Family Guy in my classroom.
Now my story. Growing up, home school or a private school wasn’t even an option for my family. Both my parents worked, and my dad basically two jobs, to make ends meet. We weren’t poor, but there was a financial struggle that I really didn’t realize until I was older. I never even had the opportunity to take a true “vacation” until my college days. Public school was it.
I was a big (as in tall) kid, yet very shy. I got picked on a lot, especially at the bus stop and on the bus (not much more embarrassing to a 4th grader than being de-pantsed while walking down the school bus aisle). I heard plenty of cussing and locker room jokes about sex. Had fights break out in front of me, saw a drug deal go down in a class room, and learned about the “truth” of evolution. There were plenty of parties, girls became pregnant, and guys got high-fived for the stories of their sexual escapades. Even had a teacher cuss in class—but it was the end of the year and he was retiring, so he didn’t care.
I wasn’t a perfect child—there were plenty of things on that list I didn’t do, but there were also the things I did, partially from peer influence, but completely from having that sinful human nature.
But through it all I had parents who loved me and disciplined me. They valued church, they valued prayer, and they valued the Word. Even when I was a pain in the rear about stuff, they didn’t give me the option—I would be in church. They also weren’t naïve, especially not by my time (being the youngest of 3). They knew I would sneak around and do stuff, but they made extremely clear what they found unacceptable and why. And they made it clear that if I decided to do such things and they caught me or heard about it, I would be in major trouble. That fear actually kept me from doing as much as I could have.
Even though I had the 40+ hour/week influence of public school on my life, by the time I graduated I was set in my beliefs. I still had some rebellious streak things I did when I first went off to college, but I never went the route of fully dropping out of church or questioning the foundations of Christianity in light of all the various godless philosophical and scientific proposals I heard in college. My parents were involved enough in my life and taught me enough that the firm foundation had been laid.
When it was time to go to college, I thought about some Christian universities but ran into more practical problems. Most were more expensive than public schools, and I wanted to get a degree in meteorology—one is very hard pressed to find a Christian/evangelical university with a strong program in such a field of applied physics and mathematics. But by my junior year of college (so, after going one place and then transferring)—I found my school: the University of Oklahoma (Boomer Sooner, by the way).
When I first arrived there, pastoring was not a future option, it wasn’t even on the radar. I was going to get my degree, do grad work, and become a professor.
But on move-in day, some Catholic dude who went to the Baptist Student Union showed up at my dorm-room door with a flyer inviting me to a pizza party welcoming back students (and welcoming new students). Free-pizza at the Baptist place, okay—I’m in. On my way there, I meet another guy in the meteorology program who was going for pizza, then he met and introduced me to another guy in the program who had already been there for two years and who remains one of my best friends to this day.
I got involved there and in a good church. And under the leadership of then BSU-director, Max Barnett, and my church Pastor, Ronnie Rogers, I learned something I never heard in church growing up: the Christian life is to be about this thing called discipleship and investing your life into other people for the sake of Jesus. I spent my first year at this public university being invested in by a BSU staff member, and then was challenged to spend the next two years living in the dorms and looking for opportunities to share the Gospel and invest in the lives of others. And I did.
Somehow I ended up in the “least-reached” no-man’s land of dorms. During my second year at OU, I was the only upperclassman from any campus ministry in my dorm building. I found one freshman who was interested in church stuff, and I discipled him (and he is actively involved in a church plant near Chicago today). But we didn’t have dorm room or study-lounge Bible studies like our friends in other buildings.
I did, however, by virtue of living there get to become good friends with the founder of OU’s Atheists and Agnostics Society (who was yet another fellow meteorology student), as well as a punk-rock skateboarding guy with some Native American spirituality stuff in his “religious” background, a pot-smoking agnostic, and a host of other interesting characters. While my atheist friend made fun of most Christians, mocked them, and would not give them the time of day; God gave me several opportunities to share the Gospel with him—including one of the times Brother Jed (Google him if you don’t know who he is—interesting character) and his cronies came and screamed…I mean “preached”…on campus, and my friend (with some of his fellow AAS officers and members) decided to go out and make fun of him. I joined them and in the course of it ended up with a captive audience of atheist and agnostics with whom I was able to share the true Gospel.
During this time, God changed my heart. I still finished my meteorology degree because I was so far in the program, but I knew without a doubt my true “calling” was to be a pastor who spent my life sharing with, teaching, and investing in people. But looking at my life, I know I never would have gotten there if not for the church and the Baptist Student Union that I found because I went to a secular and public university.
I know my story is just that—my story. Some families and students will honor God best via private or home-schooling. But let’s not knock public schools simply because they’re public schools. My public school experience is a part of my journey in becoming a pastor.
And above all what matters most are parents who are involved, loving, and striving to follow Jesus; and churches and older Christians willing to invest their lives for the sake of the Gospel into students of all stripes.