Posted: February 1, 2016 by Matt Horan in Uncategorized

First PriorityBy Matt Horan

In Hillsborough County, Florida (which includes Tampa and the surrounding area) recently, the school district superintendent, Jeff Eakins, made remarks at a local church praising the effect on school cultures around the district by a Christian organization called First Priority.

First Priority is a club offered at schools around the district, including elementary schools Roland Park, Tinker, and Turner-Bartels; middle schools Coleman, Franklin, Greco, Madison, Monroe, Shields, and Wilson; D.W. Waters Career Center; Pepin Academy; and high schools Brooks-DeBartolo, Chamberlain, Freedom, Gaither, Hillsborough, Jefferson, Middleton, Plant, Robinson, Strawberry Crest, and Blake.

Students have the option to attend club meetings during lunch by going to a location on campus apart from the school cafeteria.  During meetings students share their faith stories with each other in ways that might also serve to teach others those lessons without them having to learn them the hard way.  In Christian tradition, this is called sharing a “testimony.”  Such sharing is an integral means of creating and participating in Christian community.

Students start the clubs by finding a faculty sponsor and securing a meeting space.  First Priority staff members offer support and guidance as needed, but the club, as all clubs in public schools are, must be run by students.  First Priority, as with any other student-led club that has “chapters” at multiple locations such as YoungLife, InterVarsity, or Fellowship of Christian Athletes, must keep an eye on the balance between giving support and giving leadership.

Court decisions on challenges by members of other faiths or atheist organizations to the presence of Christian clubs on public school campuses have relied fairly consistently on this distinction.  If an outside group has staff members or other adults leading the club, it is seen as a coercive presence that infringes on students rights to be free from state-sponsored religious expression.

However, if the gathering is generated and run by students with support from the outside group when requested by the students, this has been interpreted as within the rights of the students to assemble.

For a variety of reasons, these student ministry organizations believe that following Jesus Christ is the best way for a person of any age to live, including when in elementary, middle, and high school.  It’s only natural, therefore, that they would step as close to this line as possible in order to help students to live that kind of life.

For a variety of other reasons, some in other religions or atheist organizations think that following Jesus Christ is not at all the best way for a person to live, and therefore they watch this line like a hawk as one of the ways they help students avoid living that kind of life.

The agenda of Christian organizations is more people becoming followers of Jesus Christ.  The agenda of other religions is more people becoming adherents to their religion.  The agenda of atheist organizations is fewer people adhering to any religion.  We can probably trust all of these to work towards achieving these stated goals.

What’s sad is when they can’t rely on the merits of their belief system to be compelling enough.  Certainly each has been guilty of it.  The church has coerced people into pews with promises of indulgences, threats of damnation, or the execution of heretics.  Plenty of other religions participated in similar tactics, and what better example is there than groups like ISIS or al-Queda who make no effort to invite people to faith, but rather rely on forced conversions under the threat of execution.  Coercion of any kind does not lead to faith in the God of the coercer, and if someone is being coerced into (or out of) faith, it is right for us to protest, and wrong to keep silent.

While some atheists are usually quite willing to confront the worst caricatures of evangelical Christianity in order to expose the caricature as not worthy of emulating, they can also be quick to the court system to find ways to handcuff Christians and take away the means they might have to make an argument for choosing to follow Jesus Christ.  It recently worked in Hillsborough County after Eakins’ mention of First Priority got the attention of atheist and other religious groups.  The responsibility to put an end to coercion sometimes seems to overshoot its named target, and lands dangerously close to silencing the opposition instead.

It’s inspiring to me to see someone argue passionately for what they believe.  It’s deflating and uninspiring to me to see someone mock what they don’t believe because they are more passionately opposed to it than they are for its alternative, and find that tearing down the opposition is a more effective means of making their point than is lifting up their view as an invitation.

The Christian caricature that is often held up by those opposed to the spread of Christianity is usually pretty loathsome, and most Christians are opposed to them too.  Contrary to what opponents of Jesus Christ would have us believe, abortion clinic bombers and street corner megaphone shouters and the Westboro Baptist Church are not a representative sample of those who follow Jesus Christ.

In a nutshell, here is what you’re being invited to when you’re invited to follow Jesus Christ:

  • Jesus was willing to befriend anybody–even those that society firmly rejected because of their social status, diseases, poverty, or checkered past.  A follower of Jesus Christ is called to be a friend to those in need of friendship.
  • Jesus loved others sacrificially.  A follower of Jesus Christ is called to sacrifice for others.
  • Jesus offered grace, willing to forgive those who mistreated him.  A follower of Jesus Christ is called to go first in an effort to reconcile and make peace.
  • Jesus was God incarnate.  He didn’t wait up in Heaven for humanity to shape up.  He stepped in to be with us, to become one of us and be in solidarity with us in our humanity.  A follower of Jesus Christ is called to step into the lives of others and walk with them through their struggles and pain, rather than waiting for them to just snap out of it.
  • Jesus came to save us from sin.  Sin comes from a decision to serve ourselves instead of others.  He showed us a life spent serving others rather than himself.  Followers of Jesus Christ are called to do likewise.
  • Jesus didn’t come to behave himself.  He came to introduce a new world, a new kind of Kingdom where everyone has value not because society decides it, but because God does.  Followers of Jesus Christ do not see “good behavior” as an end result–they behave in a way that contributes to the work of God to build the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven, where love and grace and mercy and peace are the norm.
  • Jesus is not an “afterlife-boat.”  Eternity is not earned by good behavior, or by believing a correct series of doctrines that are checked at the pearly gates.  Entering into eternity with God is something given not because of what we do, but because of who God is.  Followers of Jesus Christ do not trust in themselves to achieve eternity, but live lives of gratitude and hopefulness in response to the grace of God that allows us to be a part of his important work in this world during our lifetime, welcomed into his presence when our life is at its end, and to ultimately be awakened one day in the New Creation.
  • Jesus is not a superstition.  Faith in Christ is not tossing pennies in a fountain or wishing upon a star in hopes of getting the riches or fame we think will make us happy.  Followers of Jesus Christ don’t follow because of what they’ll get out of it, but because it is a privilege to contribute to helping create a better world.

In the interest of full disclosure, atheists are correct–every Christian is a hypocrite.  Every Christian has fallen short of what a follower of Jesus Christ is called to be and do.  This is why the invitation is not to become a follower of the Christians.  It is an invitation to become a follower of Jesus Christ.

Becoming a follower of Jesus Christ does not mean that you get issued a megaphone and a gavel to start judging the behaviors of others.  It’s called being born again because it is not just an attitude adjustment or a course correction or a behavior modification.  It is a life so vastly different than the self-serving norms of this world that the only way to describe it is as an entirely new life.  It is a life marked by love for our neighbor, sacrifice for the good of others, teamwork, compassion for the suffering, creating hospitable community, peacemaking, gratitude, and hopefulness for the future.

So, a couple closing thoughts…

If you don’t want kids becoming that kind of person, then yes–hire a lawyer and get the Supreme Court to stamp that out.  It sure does seem to work pretty well.

If you want to convince everybody that you don’t need Jesus to become that kind of person, then become that kind of person however you want, and stop complaining about the way that Christians are becoming it.

When a Christian doesn’t seem to live like a follower of Jesus Christ should, don’t gleefully point out their hypocrisy and point to it as a victory.  Whenever someone serves themselves instead of serving others, there are no winners.

Whatever you believe, I invite you to try and win me over.  Anybody can throw darts at the beliefs of someone else.  It is a rare gift when we offer a safe place for conversation in which people can honestly and transparently share our views and experiences in order to understand each other and learn from each other.

Come to think of it… that’s what they do at First Priority.


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