Education as an outreach tool?
Only one of the 138 congregations in Pennsylvania boasts Sunday attendance of at least 200, according to the 2006 edition of Churches of Christ in the United States. Statewide, membership totals about 8,000, accounting for roughly one in every 1,500 residents.
Such statistics make what’s happening at Coventry Christian Schools — nationally accredited elementary and secondary schools associated with Churches of Christ — all the more remarkable.
Just 15 percent of students who enroll at Coventry, about 50 miles northwest of Philadelphia, come from Church of Christ backgrounds, Superintendent Mark Niehls said. But by graduation, 67 percent of Coventry students are baptized into Christ and become members of the church, Niehls said.
“It’s always been amazing to me that we can hardly get people to attend our services or come to our free church Bible classes,” he said. “But people will pay us to teach their kids Bible, as long as we teach them their letters, their numbers, math, science, social studies, too. Isn’t that kind of crazy?”
Crazy or not, Christian schools across the nation find their hallways dotted not just with Church of Christ kids — but also with Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, Lutherans and even Muslims, Hindus and Jews.
“If any parent wants their kid to come to a school where they’re going to be learning about God, learning about his love and being around people who care about them, this is the place they need to be,” said Saarah Hussain, 14, a Muslim who is a sophomore at Coventry.
In the Bible Belt and beyond, 111 elementary and secondary schools with Church of Christ ties serve 37,815 students.
But the National Christian School Association estimates that just 30 percent of those students come from Church of Christ homes.
What attracts the other 70 percent?
Concerns about size, safety or academic quality in their local public schools draw many families. The desire for a faith-based education — regardless of specific theological bent — motivates other.
“Interestingly, it seems that perhaps a quarter (of students at our schools) come from homes that do not regularly attend any church,” said Philip Patterson, president of the association, which maintains a Web site at www.nationalchristian.org.
Patterson and other advocates characterize Christian schools as crucial, easy-to-overlook mission fields. “By reaching the young people in our schools, we have often converted parents and even grandparents of students,” Patterson said.
The precise approach to evangelism — or not — varies greatly by school.
While schools such as Coventry make no attempt to hide their desire to help “every kid come to faith in Christ,” as secondary Principal Paul Fisher described it, others take a more subtle tact.
At Madison Academy in Huntsville, Ala, about 60 percent of students claim religious affiliations other than Church of Christ. Madison’s Bible teachers “are not threatened by questions and attempt to guide students rather than telling them what they should believe,” said Glen Laird, director of advancement.
“We do not see ourselves as a church. We do not see our mission as evangelizing or baptizing, though students are frequently baptized,” Laird said. “We are especially joyful that two Muslim students have been baptized in the last four months.”
At Brentwood Christian School in Austin, Texas, one student who grew up in the Church of Christ and another raised Catholic were baptized recently during school hours with their parents’ permission, President Marquita Moss said.
From chapel and Bible classes to prayer lunches and mission trips, Brentwood Christian tries to saturate everything it does with Christian witness, Moss said.
“Our evangelistic focus is aimed not only at converting non-Christians but also at leading our students from Christian
families to love the Lord, to seek his will and to prepare for his service,” said Moss, whose school draws one-third of its students from Churches of Christ.
‘EDUCATING FOR LIFE’
Coventry Christian Schools, founded by Niehls and other church members 24 years ago, started as a two-day-a-week preschool program in Pottstown, a borough of 22,000 at the center of a farming and dairy region.
The Coventry Hills Church of Christ served as the school’s first home. Over the years, the grassroots effort to offer a Christian education kept growing and adding grades, until Coventry graduated its first class of seniors in 2001.
These days, Coventry serves 422 students in preschool through 12th grade.
Elementary school students meet in a hodgepodge building constructed from scratch. Three miles away, an old public school houses secondary school students.
The Chesmont Church of Christ, established in 1993, draws about 130 worshipers each Sunday to an auditorium at Coventry’s secondary school.
“Already, we have grown to be really one of the larger congregations in our area,” said Niehls, a deacon at the Chesmont church. “The impetus there to get started was to try to maximize our opportunity to outreach to our students and their families.”
Besides Chesmont and Coventry Hills, other congregations with ties to the school include the Shillington church in Reading, the North Penn church in Lansdale, the King of Prussia church and the West Chester church.
Coventry Christian Schools markets itself as a secure, nurturing place of learning that encourages academic excellence and spiritual growth. Tuition is $5,900 a year for high school students, although Coventry offers scholarships for lower-income students.
The school’s motto: “Educating for Life.”
Senior Kelly Jacoby, the Student Government Association president, had just turned 2 when her parents — who do not attend any church — enrolled her in Coventry’s preschool program.
Jacoby, 17, has attended the Christian school since and was baptized three years ago at Camp Manatawny in nearby Douglassville.
“It’s hard for me because I don’t necessarily have that spiritual family at home,” said Jacoby, a member at the Chesmont church. “But here (at school), it’s really been a big deal to have people that I go to church with and that I see every day.
“It’s like God used CCS to develop my faith,” she added, “because I don’t know if I would have ever really gotten that if I had gone to public school my whole life.”
Colin Gordon, a 15-year-old sophomore, came to Coventry in third grade.
“At first, I was like, ‘These people are a little weird,’” Gordon said. “Because I was Catholic, it was so different. But then I started seeing what the Bible had to say.”
He was baptized in 2005. His mother, Christine Gordon, followed him last year.
Even Coventry students who have not converted — and insist they have no intention of doing so — praise the family atmosphere and focus on faith.
Hussain, whose brother, Jafar, was Coventry’s valedictorian last year, said her classmates respect her Muslim faith.
On a recent weekday, Hussain sat with friends at lunch but didn’t eat. She was observing Ramadan, Islam’s holy month, during which Muslims fast until sundown.
“Nobody was like, ‘Oh, my goodness, you’re so weird because you’re fasting,’” she said. “It’s like, ‘That’s cool. Tell me about it.’”
Hussain said she loves going to chapel because she thinks it’s important to start each day focused on God and prayer. “Even though I don’t necessarily believe when they talk about ‘In Jesus’ name, we pray,’ I still respect that and I can still understand where that’s coming from,” she said.
Varun Singh, a 10-year-old sixth-grader who is Hindu, said no one at Coventry denigrates his religion or “says anything that could hurt you a little bit.”
“They’re very respectful to other religions,” said Singh, who was homeschooled before enrolling at Coventry three years ago. “They respect me, and they also question me about my religion. And I question them about Christianity, and that’s how we learn more about other religions.
“So, basically,” he added, “we’re having advanced theology in sixth grade.”
A Catholic altar boy taught by nuns through eighth grade, Stephen Tupitza chose Coventry’s high school over an elite prep school nearby.
The reason: the homey, loving feel.
“There’s not too much difference between Catholics and Christians that I’ve seen now that I’ve gone to this school,” the 15-year-old said. “We’re all Christians.”
Still, Coventry’s chapel service is different from a Catholic Mass, he said: “In chapel, we go in-depth into verses and try to find out double meanings and triple meanings. In Mass, the priest kind of does that for you.”
‘THIS IS THE TRUTH’
Coventry’s 75 part- and full-time staff members and teachers earn roughly one-third to one-half what they might in similar jobs at a public school.
Finding qualified applicants from Churches of Christ can be difficult, but recruiting trips to Christian universities in the Bible Belt help, Niehls said.
“We have a really good team,” he said. “It’s just amazing when you think about where we are in terms of the demographics of the church … that God has raised up these people that will commit to work in Christian education … at a sacrificial wage and be basically a missionary.”
Many staff members, including the superintendent’s son, John Mark Niehls, 24, juggle multiple job titles and responsibilities.
The younger Niehls serves as Coventry’s director of development, oversees school maintenance, teaches eighth-grade Bible and 12th-grade business math and coaches middle school boys basketball.
“I believe in the school, and it’s definitely made a lot of impact in my life,” said John Mark Niehls, whose wife, Kristen, 21, a fellow Coventry graduate, was baptized after the two started dating.
Fisher, the secondary school principal, came to Coventry after graduating from Harding University in Searcy, Ark.
Fisher, a father of three whose wife, Sheri, teaches first grade at Coventry’s elementary school, said he felt a strong desire to work in a domestic mission field away from the Bible Belt.
“I didn’t really want to be down South,” said Fisher, 33, in his 10th year at Coventry. “I felt like Christians needed to diffuse, so we came up this way.”
Whenever parents of potential students step through Coventry’s doors, Fisher said he shares with them the school’s desire to lead every child to faith in Christ.
“I don’t want them to be shocked when their children are told, ‘This is the truth and other things are not true,’” he said. “It’s never really been a problem for us that doctrine, or the difference between a Muslim and a Christian, has become combative or gotten to the point where anybody wanted to pull out.
“I think everybody has always felt respected. We don’t hound them or pound them over the head.”