September 18 2015 by Nicole Kalil, Florida Baptist Witness

    As churches continue to seek out new ways to connect with and impact their communities, many are discovering an overlooked mission field right in their own backyards.
     
    It’s their neighborhood public school.
     
    As students all over the state have been heading back to school during the past few weeks, Florida Baptists have been reaching out to serve “the least of these” in ways both big and small.
     
    “Public schools are a mission field, and this is a way we can show Christ’s love to them,” said Jason Mole, family pastor at First Baptist Church in Kissimmee.
     
    Mole said that his church’s work with five area schools stems from Senior Pastor Tim Wilder’s vision to make a difference in the schools around them.
     
    All five of the schools FBC Kissimmee partners with are within three miles of the church.

     
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    Mole’s church likes to capitalize on the fall and Christmas seasons because they offer organic opportunities to serve students, teachers and staff.
     
    For Christmas several years ago, FBC Kissimmee bought a gift for every student at Central Avenue Elementary School. Mole said they bought, wrapped and delivered more than 800 presents.
     
    And to get elementary students at all the schools off to a strong start last year, the church gave away 1,000 backpacks filled with the school supplies required for each grade level.
     
    This year, church volunteers fanned out to four of the schools to serve in whatever capacity was needed, from painting and pressure washing to putting together student packets and landscaping.
     
    Pine Grove Baptist Church in Trenton also capitalizes on opportunities that the back-to school season brings.
     
    Emanuel Harris, worship and children’s pastor at Pine Grove, described their annual Back to School Bash and carnival that benefits students and families in Gilchrist, Dixie and Levy counties.
     
    In its fourth year, Harris said this year’s bash was the biggest so far, with an estimated 1,000 people enjoying free hot dogs and drinks, inflatable bounce houses and water slides. One of the Levy County hospice thrift stores set up a clothes closet for those in need, and 780 backpacks full of school supplies were handed out. While parents picked up clothes and school supplies, children were offered tours of a sheriff’s office helicopter and fire trucks.
     
    Pine Grove also helps feed students in need with a backpack filled with food for them to take home for the weekend.
     
    Mike Reed, senior pastor of San Jose Baptist in Jacksonville, has made meeting the needs of nearby San Jose Elementary a priority for his congregation.
     
    “God can’t work on the campus of San Jose Elementary if the members of San Jose Baptist stay on our campus,” he said.
     
    To that end, members of San Jose Baptist, both young and old, interact with the school frequently throughout the year.
     
    Reed said in previous years their youth ministry has gone to the school to help clean up and plant flowers. Senior adults volunteer in classrooms weekly, providing whatever support the teachers need.
     
    Reed also encourages his members to buy a membership in the school’s PTA in order to help fund them.
     
    Teachers at San Jose Elementary are not left out of the mix. The church makes sure to bless them with breakfast or lunch on the first day of school as well as during teacher workdays.
     
    Jeff Litton, missions engagement coordinator at the Jacksonville Baptist Association (JBA), encourages churches in his association to forge deep relationships with the schools they serve and do more than just help with supplies once a year.
     
    “Get to know staff, teachers, students and families,” he said. “You uncover needs as you get into deeper relationships.”
     
    Reed said it’s important to minister to the school at critical times, like the beginning of a new school year, because it can open the door for more ministry opportunities if something traumatic happens at school or in the life of a student or faculty member.
     
    All the churches that we spoke with for this story agree that a good relationship with the school’s principal is the entry point and first priority for any church.
     
    With a principal’s busy schedule and many responsibilities, Reed said it can sometimes be hard for principals to be able to communicate what their needs are or even to entertain the idea of a relationship at all.
     
    “If you go to a principal and they say they’re not ready, give them your contact information and let them know you want to serve and help,” Reed advised.
     
    Principal Paula Smith at San Jose Elementary said in written remarks: “[The relationship] has been a huge asset for San Jose Elementary for many years and continues to provide us with many blessings! From school supplies to campus beautification and consistent volunteers and incentives, San Jose Baptist has supported our school in various aspects when or wherever there is a need!”
     
    Harris at Pine Grove said that his church’s involvement at school has given them a “respected” voice with their local school board.
     
    Harris said part of maintaining that healthy relationship is respecting the guidelines that the district sets out for separation of church and state.
     
    “We’re very careful,” he said. “We review with the school board the religious liberty guidelines and what line they don’t want us to cross.”
     
    Harris said it’s worth it to play by the school board’s rules because they want to continue to have a voice with the public school system.
     
    “Those who are noncompliant are not asked back and they lose the opportunity,” he added.
     
    It’s an opportunity that Kevin Jones believes churches should not squander.
     
    Jones, assistant professor of teacher education at Boyce College, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s undergraduate school, said that he hopes churches are seeking ways to engage with neighborhood schools.
     
    “As Christians, we are committed to share the Gospel with all people, to pray for the lost and to serve not only one another within the body of Christ or a local church, but also unbelievers,” he said.
     
    Many churches around the state have taken advantage of the gospel opportunities on the mission field known as the public school campus.
     
    Duval County School Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has encouraged all 160 of the schools in his district to partner with a faith based organization, which up to this point have mainly been area churches. A total of 120 of his schools already have these partnerships, and he is optimistic about more schools being positively impacted by these relationships.
     
    “It’s unquestionable that there is a strong faith-based presence in Jacksonville, and we should leverage it to do more for our children and fill in where there are gaps,” he said.
     
    Litton said at last count, there were at least 40 JBA churches with at least one school partner, and there could be even more.
     
    “I would hope that there would be an increase in this type of involvement,” Jones said.
     
    (EDITOR’S NOTE – This story appeared in the Florida Baptist Witness. Nicole Kalil writes for the Witness.)

    9/18/2015 12:35:24 PM by Nicole Kalil, Florida Baptist Witness | with 0 comments
    Filed under: Florida, ministry, public schools




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