NORCROSS, Ga. — Academically, Greater Atlanta Christian School ranks as an elite college-prep school, offering Advanced Placement courses in subjects ranging from environmental science to European history.
The Christian school, 10 miles northeast of downtown Atlanta, produces National Merit Finalists on an annual basis and regularly prepares graduates to further their educations at places with easy-to-remember names such as Harvard, Yale and Stanford.
On the athletic side, Greater Atlanta Christian — which serves nearly 2,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade — qualifies as a Georgia powerhouse.
Its facilities, from an aquatic center with an Olympic-size swimming pool to a 12,900-square-foot athletic training center with weight rooms and batting cages, rival those at many colleges. Spartan sports teams have captured 37 state titles in 40 years, winning championships last school year in girls basketball, girls golf, boys soccer and boys tennis. That’s not to mention the drama program’s fifth straight state championship.
“If we said we were simply going to be an outstanding prep school, from a financial and secular point of view, we wouldn’t miss a beat. Some folks would even say it was a step forward,” said David Fincher, Greater Atlanta Christian’s president since 1998. “But that’s not our mission. That doesn’t interest us.”
The school’s mission of guiding children to a life of faith in Jesus Christ started more than 40 years ago.
That’s when a preacher named Jesse Long and other Church of Christ leaders began raising money to build a school on what was then farmland 10 miles from the nearest hamburger joint. Greater Atlanta Christian opened in 1968 with 139 students.
Now in a sprawling suburb near a busy interstate, the school gave birth to the Campus Church of Christ, which has grown to 1,800 members, making it one of the nation’s 20 largest congregations.
Students clad in red, white and blue uniforms attend chapel services each day in the church’s auditorium on the school’s 74-acre campus.
State-of-the-art classroom buildings, a professional performing arts center and a university-style bookstore give the campus a college feel, even as elementary-age students enjoy the swings and slides on modern, brightly colored playground equipment.
Long, now chancellor after 30 years as president, said the school has remained true to the founders’ original vision.
“When I spoke in chapel the first day of school, I said, ‘This will be God’s school. This will be an excellent school. This will be a school of winners,’” he said. A competitive school that selects students based on grades, test scores and other factors, Greater Atlanta Christian serves students from a variety of Christian and non-Christian backgrounds.
Alan Blinder’s Jewish father and Southern Baptist mother were looking for a quality education when they enrolled him at the Christian school six years ago.
But Blinder’s parents mainly left faith up to him, he said.
“So, when I started in Bible classes here in sixth and seventh grade, I started thinking about it more,” said Blinder, 17, the grandson of a rabbi. “In eighth grade, I had an amazing Bible teacher … and I started asking questions more.”
Now senior class president and National Honor Society treasurer, he has traveled on school mission trips the past two years to Vienna, Austria, helping feed African refugees and organize Vacation Bible Schools for their children.
Other annual mission efforts take students to Africa, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico and Russia.
The only spiritual requirement for students to participate: They must desire to know Jesus more, said Melaney Cost, a Spanish teacher who serves as director of missions.
“We want the kids to have that opportunity to step out and take those steps of faith,” Cost said. “I’ve been here long enough to know that beating them over the head does not work, but allowing them to experience God’s nature and God’s love does. It opens their eyes. It opens their hearts.”
NO DOCTRINAL SMACKDOWN
At a spiritual retreat for students last summer, Blinder was baptized in a swimming pool, surrounded in the water by classmates.
Then he turned and baptized his sister, Allie, 14, a freshman.
Such stories of students led to Christ at Greater Atlanta Christian abound.
“In the past two years, we’ve had a couple of kids in our (girls softball) program who have gone on retreats and joined us as Christian sisters,” said Judy Tenney, softball coach and Latin teacher. “It’s awesome.”
In other cases, the school draws families who desire a Christian education for their children but are unfamiliar with Churches of Christ.
Often, those families naturally gravitate to the Campus church because of its proximity and prominent place in campus life.
“We don’t smack them upside the head with a doctrinal lesson the first time we meet them,” preaching minister Jody Vickery said.
Rather, the melding of Christ followers from differing backgrounds allows everyone to learn from each other, Vickery said.
“We have a greater concern about justice here because we have folks that have come to us from a Reformed tradition, and then we get to teach them what we think the Bible teaches about things like baptism,” he said.
Greater Atlanta Christian requires its governing board to be members of Churches of Christ. It also gives preference to Church of Christ members when hiring teachers.
But if no “quality and qualified” applicant can be found from Churches of Christ, Fincher said, “We look for believers of other backgrounds who can bless our children.”
Fincher, who came to the school as a history teacher in 1972 after graduating from Harding University, said Greater Atlanta Christian embraces its heritage and holds steadfastly to the Restoration plea “to be attuned to God and his word.”
However, the school seeks to “avoid at all costs” a sectarian outlook, he said. A few years ago, it even stopped tracking the percentage of students from Churches of Christ.
The designation was difficult to ascertain anyway, admissions director Linda Clovis said.
Three students might list their family’s religious affiliations as “Christian,” “nondenominational” and “Church of Christ” and all mean the same thing, she said.
Rather than tell students what to believe, Greater Atlanta Christian hopes to instill in them “a deep affection for the word of God and tools to discern his will,” Fincher said.
Ken Robinson, the school’s assistant football coach and director of diversity, said he has deep convictions about the truth and frequently shares those convictions with his students.
But he lets students draw their own conclusions.
“I tell my students all the time, ‘We’re free to believe whatever we want to believe; we’re not free to choose the consequences,’” Robinson said.
THE NON-CHRISTIAN VIEW
The school reserves about 2 percent of its enrollment slots for non-Christians such as Rahmaan Lodhia, 18, a senior who has attended Greater Atlanta Christian since kindergarten.
Lodhia, vice president of the National Honor Society, takes a required Bible class along with a slate of Advanced Placement courses in math, English, science and economics.
“Chapel is not my most favorite time because I can’t really do anything there,” said Lodhia, who is Muslim. “Bible classes, the same reason for that one — I can’t really apply half the things that I learn there to my life. … It’s sort of wasting my time.”
But Greater Atlanta Christian has fulfilled his parents’ wishes for a safe, academically challenging environment and given him opportunities to serve, he said.
While he refrains from the school mission trips, Lodhia said he joins in an annual Operation Christmas Child service project by the Beta Club.
He and other students work at a warehouse to sort and package presents to send to needy children.
“I don’t really have a problem with Christmas because it’s helping children around the world, and I think that’s good,” Lodhia said.
Fincher said school leaders believe Christian students benefit from studying alongside non-Christians and learning about their beliefs in an environment where, at the end of class, the teacher can point them toward the cross.
How does Greater Atlanta Christian influence the non-Christian students?
“Some walk away with just a great education and, we pray, a deep ethical outlook,” Fincher said. “Some walk away questioning their heritage and wondering about this world of faith. And some come to Jesus Christ.”
One who came to faith in Christ was Shanil Naik, the teenage son of Hindu immigrants. The ninth-grade honors student, who played baseball and football, began attending church with friends before his death in an automobile accident two years ago.
“We saw the character in Shanil that was better than what we were,” said Ray Naik, who recalled his son pleading to stop and help a homeless person on the way to school. “We were instilling values in him, but we saw that he had better values.”
Before the death of their only son just shy of his 14th birthday, Naik and his wife, Manju, worried that his Christian beliefs could estrange him from his extended family, all Hindus.
After Shanil’s death, overwhelmed by the love and concern shown by the school’s students and staff members, they accepted Christ themselves.
“It was just a very warm feeling,” Manju Naik said of her baptism at the Campus church.
“It’s hard for me to put into words,” Ray Naik said. “You don’t find this … in any other faith.”