'To Introduce Adolescents to the Person of Jesus'
"Hey, man, you still driving that Maverick?" calls out a young man standing by the doors of the high school.
"Wanna come over to my house tonight, watch the ball game?" he asks another.
It is lunchtime, and as students pour out of the Washington, D.C., school, many cluster around the young man they call John.
John is dressed casually in a navy rugby shirt marked with the initials "YL." Though he is older, he talks in the style of the students. His voice rises and falls with the same rhythms.
"Hey, John, what movie we gonna see Tuesday?"
"Dunno. What you wanna see?"
"Dunno. Seen 'em all."
As they chat on--about movies, cars, ballgames--John sways and pivots with the same body movements the teen-agers use. The students, with broad smiles, grasp for his outstretched hand.
He is John Wagner, 24 years old, a native of Upper Marlboro, Md., and a graduate of Wake Forest University. He is also a full-time paid staff member of Young Life, one of the nondenominational evangelical groups that in recent years have developed a growing cadre of "youth ministers" who work in and around the nation's high schools, hoping, they say, to convert students to their faith.
Mr. Wagner is among an estimated 4,500 representatives from such youth ministries who operate in communities nationwide. He and other youth ministers estimate they are making contact, overall, with about 10 percent of the high-school population across the country. Many of these students also attend the groups' off-campus clubs, Bible groups, camps, and athletic meets, they say.
The largest youth ministries for secondary schools go by such names as Student Venture, Campus Life, and Young Life; they operate in more than 5,000 schools, according to combined figures from the groups' headquarters. The formal names of the four largest evangelical organizations that sponsor high-school programs are Youth for Christ/USA, Campus Crusade for Christ International, The Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and Young Life. (See accompanying story on page 15.) Their purpose, as Mr. Wagner describes it, is "to build relationships with kids in order to expose them to the Gospel."
But in the last few years, growing numbers of school-board members and administrators have begun to discourage youth ministers from coming into their schools. Some districts have attempted to write policies restricting the access of the young evangelists to schools during school hours, arguing that it is unconstitutional for a particular faith to be fostered in the schools and that the students become a captive audience.
"It's not a new issue," said James C. Carper, an assistant professor of education at Mississippi State University who has studied religion in the schools. "But it's only been addressed this last year." The four or five biggest national youth ministries have existed for more than 25 years, he noted.
But the ministries are now expanding their high-school-related activities, according to spokesmen for the organizations. The Fellowship of Christian Athletes, for example, says its programs grew by 14 percent last year. The three other largest groups also report growth. And another new group called the National Release Time Religious Education Association was formed this year to reach elementary-school students.
More Restrictive Policy
This fall, a suburban Minneapolis school district passed a new, more restrictive access policy for its schools, despite strong opposition from some parents and students, and at least four other districts in Minnesota are considering some type of policy to limit youth ministers' access to their schools, according to officials there.
In Colorado, the Jefferson County and Colorado Springs District 11 school boards are now trying to reach agreement on similar policies affecting religion in the schools. The issue is also being debated in Seattle and suburban Washington, D.C.
So far, members of other religious faiths, such as followers of The Unification Church or Hare Krishna, appear not to have not been involved in the access issue. Observers and educators in several states said they knew of no significant efforts by such groups to work on school campuses.
"It's solely being done by one religious group--the fundamentalist Protestants," said Matthew Stark, a lawyer with the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union. Mr. Stark suggested that the Protestant youth ministers were successful in gaining access to schools because they are associated with a "mainline" religion. "Administrators don't like to say no if groups are within range of social respectability," he added.
The problem of the youth ministers is a particularly thorny one, educators who have dealt with the situation say, because the policies that have traditionally governed the access of outsiders to schools are inadequate for the new issues raised by the evangelicals' methods. Many principals say their policies allow visitors who obtain permission to meet with students they know for special religious or personal counseling, or for other personal reasons. But the activities of the youth ministers, some point out, do not quite fit the intent of such ad hoc rules.
In addition, these educators suggest, the apparent religious intent of the youth ministers' activities often becomes a divisive aspect of community discussion on how to respond.
And while courts have provided some guidance on related issues involving the entanglement of schools with religion, they have not yet di-rectly addressed questions raised by the efforts of the young evangelicals. (See accompanying story, this page.)
The youth ministries do not function like organized advocacy groups, whose representatives usually are not allowed to operate in schools except for some approved purpose--such as speaking to an assemby. Nor do they seek permission to lead formal religious meetings or other events during school hours or on school property.
The youth ministers generally have no prepared program but simply want to walk around school corridors, sit in the lunchroom, or watch athletic drills, in hopes, they say, of making friends with students. They want "to introduce adolescents to Jesus Christ and His relevance to life today," says a Young Life spokesman.
Such methods constitute "a whole new ballgame for a lot of people," said Mr. Carper.
Youth ministers are usually college graduates, trained by their organizations in the youth culture, who expect that their work will take months--sometimes years--of just standing around at school events.
But however undirected their activities may seem, the youth ministers acknowledge that they follow a definite pattern.
They start as spectators at school events open to the public, like ball games and plays, where they can meet a few students; next, they ask the principal's permission to meet those students inside the school, usually at lunch, and to post notices of their meetings on school bulletin boards; and, finally, they seek to move into volunteer staff positions as assistant coaches or tutors.
In each instance, they say, their purpose is to inform students of the off-campus club meetings--the core of their programs--in which they present their religious messages.
John Wagner, for example, said he had spent more than two years developing his contacts with students at Dunbar High School in Washington. The first winter he was assigned there, Mr. Wagner said, he simply attended Dunbar's basketball games, sitting with students and trying to make friends.
In the spring, after he had made some friendships, he introduced himself to the school's principal and asked if he could come into the school regularly, he recalled. "I told him we want to build relationships with the kids in order to expose them to the Gospel. I was real up-front with him. I didn't act like I came from a social-service agency or something." He said the principal did not object.
Other youth ministers also emphasize how careful they are to be direct and cooperative with school principals. They never enter schools without first obtaining permission from the principal, they note, and they always ask what the prevailing policies are, in such matters as posting notices of meetings.
Said Scott Dimock, another Young Life staff member who is a graduate of Duke University: "We tell them, 'You guys are the bosses. We just want to respond favorably. You call the shots."'
Once inside the school, Mr. Wagner said, he started going to the cafeteria to look for the students he knew. That was where he first invited Carolyn Purcell to come to the Thursday night Young Life Club. "I was in the cafeteria having lunch," said Ms. Purcell. "He just came over. We started talking. He asked me to the meeting." That was a year ago; Ms. Purcell has attended the meetings ever since.
Contact Through Athletics
But many youth ministers, including Mr. Wagner, say they find the best way to contact and recruit students is through athletics.
"The big break for me was getting to be assistant baseball coach," Mr. Wagner explained. One day, he said, he was sitting in the principal's office and saw one of the coaches. "I asked, 'You guys need any help this year?' He said, 'Anything we can get."'
Mr. Wagner held that post for two years. "It gave me a reason for being around the school--some sort of identity," he said.
On a recent school day, Mr. Wagner walked through the halls and was greeted by dozens of students. He gave up the coaching job because he didn't need it anymore, he said. But his schedule is no lighter as a result, he added; he simply spends six evenings a week in meetings with students: Bible-study groups, informal outings such as roller-skating, and Young Life Club meetings.
These weekly club meetings are held at his home in a lower-income neighborhood near the school.
One evening this month, about 15 students showed up for the one-hour session. Two guitar players accompanied the groups in a series of songs with religious themes. There were also two skits, and to end the session, Mr. Wagner read from the Bible and told a brief story about the meaning of friendship.
Scott Dimock described how he used a wrestling team to make contacts with students at a Virginia high school outside Washington. "I would talk with the kids between the matches. I'd just say, 'I'm Scott.' They'd ask, 'What are you doing here?' I'd say, 'I'm watching practice.' Usually they don't question you any further."
Mr. Dimock said that after about six weeks, the students began to trust him. "You can usually overcome suspicion just by being persistent. Then you can establish a relationship. At that point I feel I have won the right to be heard."
Mr. Dimock became so popular during the following years that one year the students chose him as commencement speaker, said John Schreck, executive assistant to the superintendent at the Fairfax County Public Schools.
Many principals acknowledge that school policies do not really provide clear guidance on how to respond to the youth ministers' activities, and they say they simply use their "instincts" about how much access to allow them.
John Alwood, principal of Lake Braddock High School in Fairfax County, Va., would like to give the ministers a free rein because he welcomes the added supervision in school corridors.
"Having adults around your building who are reputable is always a good thing," said Mr. Alwood. "They're the kind of people whom I'd just as soon have in, to give some supervision. I encouraged them." (In 1976, The Fairfax County Public Schools passed a restrictive policy on outside visitors, and Mr. Alwood said he can no longer permit youth ministers in his school.)
Others allow the youth groups around the school to meet students because they say the groups' off-campus activities help counter the rising use of drugs and alcohol among students. "They offer a good alternative for those students who don't want to go out drinking at night," said one principal.
Still other principals changed their attitudes after trouble erupted in their schools. Arthur Dussl, principal of Anoka High School in suburban Minneapolis, said that 10 years ago he encouraged youth ministers to come into his school. "It worked fine for many years. They could visit a student if parents gave a letter saying they approved. Then they would be given a visitor's pass, and I monitored their behavior."
But then, Mr. Dussl recalled, the youth ministers became more aggressive. "Students complained, saying 'I'm being bugged.' The school paper ran a debate. Friends didn't talk. There was name-calling, like 'atheist.' The kids in school were feeling the pressure put on. I felt absolutely that it wasn't right. It had really deteriorated to a violation of church-and-state separation."
The problem at Anoka was that "a competition" had developed between different youth ministers and was being fought out in the school, Mr. Dussl explained. The struggle was mainly between representatives of established local churches and youth ministers from Student Life, (now renamed Student Venture), the high-school arm of Campus Crusade for Christ, he said. The students in the nondenominational group were being encouraged to pressure others to join, he said.
Last month, the Anoka-Hennepin school district adopted a policy that effectively bars youth ministers from the campus during school hours, Mr. Dussl said. At least three other school districts nearby are now considering similar steps, school officials said.
In addition to the possibility of competition between youth groups, some principals also worry that if they allow one group to come into the school, they should allow all. Weighing such decisions often becomes a heavy burden, they say.
"It's up to us--if we think it's a legitimate, healthy group," commented Eldon Helm, principal of Cheyenne Mountain High School in Colorado Springs. "So far, I know the ministers and the kids who go to their groups. But if you got splinter groups, cults, it could be a problem," he added.
The problem becomes more complex in large districts in which each principal sets a different policy.
"We found a whole series of different arrangements across the 12 high schools in the county," said James Mortensen, deputy superintendent of Jefferson County Public Schools, an 80,000-student district outside Denver, where a restrictive policy is being considered by the school board. "The principals in the area just don't agree, and this makes it a potential problem area."
The issue of outsider access to schools is more likely to come up in religiously diverse communities, said Mr. Carper of Mississippi State University. Minneapolis, he noted, has strong Lutheran and Roman Catholic communities, as well as evangelical groups.
In the districts in which the issue has surfaced, the situations that most often give rise to complaints are these:
The double role played by some athletic coaches. Several thousand coaches around the country serve as both school employees and youth ministers, according to estimates of the evangelical groups. Athletic teams are an important entry point into student life because so often the team leaders are also students leaders, say spokesmen for the major youth groups.
"We are working with the athletes, the fraternity and sorority leaders," acknowledged Ralph Weitz, a spokesman for Student Venture, "because those are the people who are the leaders. If you want something to be done, you look to a busy man."
One group in particular, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, depends heavily upon school coaches to publicize and to lead their evening religious meetings, called "Huddles." "The Fellowship of Christian Athletes recognizes the coach is the critical link in its ministry," says a brochure. The Fellowship estimates it has about 2,000 high-school and junior-high-school coaches sponsoring Huddles.
The proposed Jefferson County policy would specifically ban the continuation of this practice. According to Glenn Keller, chairman of the 25-member task force that was appointed to study the role of religion in the schools, the committee believed the involvement of paid school staff was "improper."
Mr. Keller added: "We also found that this situation created a peer pressure on students who didn't subscribe to the faith being advanced by the coach. We frankly don't have a quibble that the [coaches] are trying to do good things. But we thought these activities should be removed to other places."
Identification of youth ministers. Some parents and administrators have questioned whether youth ministers are adequately identified when in the schools. At present, most say they simply identify themselves by their first name and avoid using their ministries' names, for fear of "turning off" the students in the initial contact. One group recently removed a religious word from its name for that reason, a spokesman said.
The Colorado Springs District 11 committee report proposes that if youth ministers are allowed in the schools, they should wear badges and sit at identified tables in the cafeteria. Youth ministers oppose the idea, a committee member said.
Use of a school's name and facilities for publicity purposes. School boards are commonly confronted with the question of whether youth ministers should be allowed to link a school's name with their clubs, use school bulletin boards, or pass out their literature on campus. A letter signed by seven members of the District 11 school community in Colorado Springs objected that one Young Life club is allowed to call itself the Mitchell High School Young Life Club and that recruiters from Young Life and other groups pass out announcements about meetings in the cafeterias.
"Students feel protected by their school," stated the board members' May letter to the superintendent, which spurred formation of the special task force. "They assume that any adult they encounter on school property during school time is there with official sanction. They do not view such a person with suspicion. Therefore, such an adult comes to them with the school's moral authority. For District 11 to offer Young Life representatives that protection is equivalent to actively promoting that organization."
Split on Basic Issue
Since then, the District 11 task force has agreed to recommend restricting the ways youth ministers can publicize their activities, said Robert Traer, the chairman and a former school-board president. But the 11-member panel, which includes several Young Life organizers, split on the basic issue of whether outside youth ministers should be allowed on school grounds at all.
Some members wanted to allow only those with "school business," but others, arguing that youth ministers should be permitted "to maintain continuity with kids they're already working with," said they should be allowed to visit those students in school, Mr. Traer said.
The District 11 school board has scheduled a public hearing this week on the panel's recommendations. The Jefferson County panel has already held several hearings on its plan, and the school board will probably consider it next month, a spokesman said.
But many youth ministers say they are not concerned about the possible effect of more restrictive school-board policies.
"I don't really need to get on campus," said John Henderson, who leads an offshoot of Youth for Christ called Salt Company in the Chicago area. "I don't want to make a big issue of it."
"If we can't get on the campus," said Marty Granger, another Youth for Christ minister, "we'll go where else the kids are--ball games, Pizza Hut, or wherever. I take the path of least resistance. I don't want to fight anyone."
The Fellowship of Christian Athletes, which depends on coaches to lead its groups, could be most immediately threatened by school-imposed restrictions on evangelical activities. But John Erickson, the fellowship's president, said he doubted the school boards could enforce the policies even if they are passed. "All I know is that coaches continue to pray with their teams on the field. And I don't know of any that have been fired. ... I get about 10 calls a year telling me, 'The school board says we can't meet,"' he said.
"Then, three or four years later, I find out they're meeting again. I don't believe God's going to allow the fca to disappear off the face of the earth just because some school districts object."