Programs introducing more
students to God’s Word
By Edward Terry, The Layman, December 3, 2009
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. – Each day thousands of students in Tennessee’s Hamilton County public school district hear the Word of God in the classroom through the Chattanooga-based Bible in the Schools program.
A Hamilton County (Tenn.) student participates in a Bible History class.
Home to the largest privately-funded Bible education program in the nation, an average of approximately 3,000 students in Hamilton County per year enroll in Bible history classes. In the 2008-2009 academic year, 4,400 students participated. The non-profit organization has taught Bible history in the local schools since 1922 and today is finding increased demand for the education it offers.
Among the common questions about the program is: “How’s that legal?” Though a 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision removed prayer and devotions from the classroom, it also ruled that the Bible can be studied for its literary and historic qualities. A federal court case in the late 1970s in Chattanooga/Hamilton County resulted in requirements that teachers be certified and employed by the local district.
The court decisions require teachers to avoid denominational controversy or issues, and deem it unlawful to evangelize to the students during instructional time.
“If we did that we would jeopardize our ability to present Bible history in the classroom,” Bible in the Schools president Ralph W. Mohney Jr., explained to a group of Presbyterian pastors and elders during a recent seminar on the program in Chattanooga.
If asked doctrinal questions, Hamilton County teachers encourage students to consult with their local clergy.
Teaching history, and values
The Bible is the only textbook and the stated goal of the program is for “each student to have an informed knowledge of the Bible as a foundation for establishing his own values, character and lifestyle.”
Did you know?
According to the Bible Literacy Project: “A Gallup poll of 1,002 young people found that almost half did not know that Jesus turned water into wine at the Cana wedding, and nearly two-thirds couldn’t identify a quote from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount or the relation of the road to Damascus to the Apostle Paul’s conversion. About one-in-10 thought Moses was one of Jesus’ 12 apostles.”
Five courses are offered in Hamilton County for both middle and high school students. They can elect courses in Genesis, Exodus and Luke in middle school, and Old Testament Survey and New Testament Survey in high school. A majority of those students (70 percent) who attend a school where Bible history is offered will elect to take one or more of the courses before graduation. Teachers must have at least 12 college credit hours of Bible history.
Half of Hamilton County’s Bible history students have no prior knowledge of or exposure to the Bible, officials said. That’s why the program is so important, both in southeastern Tennessee and throughout the rest of the country.
“I believe that today we have a new generation of youth who does not know the Lord and what he’s done for them,” Mohney said. “Fifty years ago we could probably say that maybe they can learn it at home, or from their friends or society … That’s no longer the case.”
Yet the Bible remains the most influential and bestselling book of all time. Many academics consider it required reading for any English-speaking student.
According to a Bible Literacy Project report, 98 percent of leading English teachers across the country said knowledge of the Bible gives students a distinct educational advantage. Another report states that English professors surveyed at leading universities – including Yale, Harvard, Princeton and Stanford – agree that “regardless of a person’s faith, an educated person needs to know about the Bible.” The report surveyed 39 English professors at 34 top U.S. colleges and universities, who said that knowledge of the Bible is a deeply important part of a good education.
A 2007 Time magazine article on teaching the Bible in public schools pointed to the fact that Biblical references are quite prominent in popular literature (Shakespeare alludes to Scripture 1,300 times) as further proof of its substantial influence, both on Christian and non-Christian society. The article also cites popular Biblically-based quotations from Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr., as proof of the Bible’s prevalent influence on American history, culture and ideas.
Bible in the Schools officials agree, and see the positive effects of the program in participating schools and students.
Hixson Middle School Teacher Bill Spencer said he’s seen so-called troubled students turn a corner after spending some time in his class. He’s often seen a change in students who previously cared nothing about grades and good behavior. He sees more of those kids day-to-day than the ones who attend Sunday school and sing in the choir, he said.
“If you’re sitting in a place where MTV is your guide, and your dad’s gone and your mom works all the time and you’re learning all your stuff from your 16-year-old brother who’s on drugs – and all of a sudden you start hearing these principles, you can see that it’s the truth,” Spencer said. “The Bible speaks for itself.”
Other academic benefits
Considered a model program, Chattanooga-based Bible in the Schools has a nearly $1 million budget supported entirely by private funds from individuals, churches, foundations, businesses and other local entities. In return for that investment, the program provides Bible history courses in 15 Hamilton County middle and high schools.
Quoted in the Bible in the Schools brochure, a Hamilton County Schools leader sings the program’s praises.
“Our partnership with the Bible in Schools program allows us the ability to offer an elective opportunity to our students by exposing them to the single most read and influential book in our history – with no impact to the taxpayers,” said Chip Baker, chairman of the Hamilton County Board of Education.
For cash-strapped public school districts, that is another teacher in the classroom, hallways and lunchrooms at no cost to the general public. That reduces the school’s average class size and should lessen the burden on the remaining teachers.
Public school mission field
Through a partnership among several congregations in Signal Mountain, Tenn., including Signal Mountain Presbyterian (EPC), Hamilton County added two more schools to its list of Bible in the Schools participants.
Trying to raise the $150,000 needed to fund a teacher at upscale Signal Mountain Middle/High School and another at Howard School of Academics and Technology in inner-city Chattanooga, the 10-church consortium far exceeded the goal for annual funding. In Hamilton County, the annual cost to fund the program at a school is $75,000 annually, which breaks down to approximately $300 per student.
The Signal Mountain effort brought together Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists and other denominations, along with a unified community in support of the program.
“Seeing those 10 churches come together was a blessing in itself,” Mohney said, adding that 850 people turned out for the fund-raiser and prayer service.
Public school Bible study
Though Bible in the Schools is a leading model, it’s not th
e only one seeing growth and success.
According to the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, its curriculum has been voted into 508 school districts, including 2,015 high schools, in 38 states. Since its inception, more than 360,000 students have taken courses.
The Bible Literacy Project’s “The Bible and its Influence” is the most widely used public school Bible curriculum, according to its Web site. It is used in 350 schools in 43 states and was praised in the 2007 Time article.
On its Web site, the Bible Literacy Project has a stated goal of having its curriculum taught in all 50 states. The organization currently is offering a free set of textbooks for the first public schools in Delaware, Iowa, Montana, Nevada, Rhode Island, Utah and Wyoming that want to teach the course.
Spencer, who also coaches football, said he believes God called him to teach Bible history. His witness includes how it has been a blessing in his life and how it answered many prayers.
His class is among the most popular at Hixson Middle School. It’s no wonder as he implements the newest technology and teaches with an infectious enthusiasm. His demonstration of a lesson on Exodus to a room full of New Wineskins delegates included quizzing the class on basic Bible facts and a dramatic recreation of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. Using costumes and props, Spencer tries to bring the Bible alive for his students. Ultimately his hope is that the Bible history he teaches has a life-changing effect.
Even though evangelizing to the students is forbidden, it doesn’t stop the students from hearing the Word, he said.
“This is a seed sowing ministry,” Spencer said. “God does the harvesting Himself.”