Engaging the Public School System
About the Guest
Former educator Stephen Williams talks about his journey to faith and the bunny trails he took to find fulfillment. Now 16 years after embracing Christianity, Williams challenges parents to be proactive and exercise their faith in the public school system in order to be salt and light to the next generation.
Stephen Williams talks about his journey to faith. Now, 16 years after embracing Christianity, Williams challenges parents to be proactive and exercise their faith in the public school system.
Engaging the Public School System
Bob: Are you a Christian parent who sends his or her children to public schools? Have you ever had anybody look at you like, “What are you thinking?” Stephen Williams has some counsel for you.
Stephen: We’re not saying that as Christians you need to be in the public school system, but we’re also very importantly not saying you have to get them out. What we’re saying is you need to be aware of where an anti-Christian worldview can, at times—not all the time—come up.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, August 3rd. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. School is about to start up again, and it’s important for Christian parents to be intentional about a course for protecting a child’s faith and biblical worldview in the public schools. We’ll talk more about that today. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. We’ve talked over the years about the variety of choices that are available to parents when it comes to the decision about how you’re going to school your kids, what your school choice is going to be, whether it’s homeschool or private school, public school. You guys did a little of all of it, didn’t you?
Dennis: Well, we didn’t do the Christian school. We did homeschool and public school, but didn’t go the private school route.
Bob: Do you think, in today’s environment, if you were raising your kids all over again—
Dennis: I can’t say. I really don’t know how God might have led us. I do know we were intentional about it, because we wanted our children to work out their faith where they’re going to live their lives, and that’s with other people who make up the world. Fortunately, there are some great teachers in the public school system who are champions for Christ, and they’re actually being salt and light in the midst of—I think—one of the greatest opportunities that our nation faces.
Stephen Williams is a former school teacher, now heads up a ministry called Prepare the Way Ministries from Bend, Oregon all the way to Arkansas. Stephen, welcome to Arkansas.
Stephen: Yes, I love it here. Thank you, Dennis and Bob. It’s a total blessing to be here.
Dennis: Stephen’s married to his wife Sarah, they have four daughters. He has written a book called Navigating Public Schools. I’d have to say, Stephen, it seems to me that teachers today in the public school system who are men and women of faith have a tougher time because it seems more and more Christian parents are abandoning the school system and heading the private route. Would you agree with that?
Stephen: Yes—or homeschooled. Yes; I would agree. And they’re getting badgered by this false understanding of the separation of church and state.
So yes, I think a lot of teachers are getting kind of backed into a corner and thinking, “Well, how can I be salt and light?”
Dennis: When you grew up, did you grow up in a Christian home—where you were taught faith from your childhood—or did you have to find it later in life?
Stephen: I found it later in life. I grew up in an atheistic home. I had a dad who was a professor in computer science and really kind of, “If you can’t prove it by reason and logic then it doesn’t exist.” So that was kind of my worldview growing up through the adolescence, teen years, into college, and then even into adult life.
Bob: You went to University of California at Berkeley.
Stephen: Yes, “Berserkly”.
Bob: And the worldview you had was reinforced there; right?
Stephen: Sure. Yes; absolutely. I was at times hostile towards Christianity—sometimes neutral. I wasn’t always an atheist, I would say I waffled between agnosticism and atheism.
Bob: Did you intend to go into teaching after you graduated?
Stephen: No, I got a degree in economics from Berkeley—went into economic consulting, and—it was my life story—I kind of bounced from one thing to the next, thinking, “Well, what’s the meaning in life?” First, I was a swimmer, went to the ’84 and ’88 Olympic trials in swimming, and I thought, “If I just make swimming then that will be my identity,” but still that didn’t quite satisfy fully.
Then I got the degree and I thought, “Well, let’s just make a lot of money.” So I went into economic consulting, started to make some cash, and I thought, “If this is all that life’s about, well that’s kind of meaningless too.” I thought if I just chose the right career— That is when I went into teaching, back in the mid-’90s. Still, it was great to teach and see the lightbulb go on with those kids and be a positive influence in their lives, supposedly—as a secular person—but still it didn’t satisfy.
Dennis: What actually pushed you in the direction—then—of finding out more about Jesus Christ and the Scriptures?
Stephen: Right. Beating my head against the wall, kind of pursuing all these different things thinking that will give me identity, I finally—well, do you remember the movie “Jerry McGuire”?
Stephen: I watched this movie as a secular person, and in that movie “Jerry McGuire” there’s this amazing scene where he looks at the woman and says, “You complete me.” I’m in tears, thinking, “That’s it! I need a wife.”
Bob: How old were you at the time?
Stephen: Late 20s—early 30s. I’m thinking, “I have to do that.” I’m not having great luck meeting babes in bars, so I thought, “I’m going to go to a church group. I’m going to go to a singles’ ministry down in the bay area California and meet a quality Christian girl.”
Bob: You were on the prowl.
Stephen: I was.
Bob: You didn’t believe a word of it, but you’re down there looking for some sweet Christian girl who will marry you!
Stephen: I was a wolf in sheep’s clothing in a big way. So yes.
Dennis: Did anybody call you out on it?
Stephen: Absolutely! No one would date me! Finally, this one woman takes me out, public place, coffee, and she says, “Well Stephen, what do you believe about Jesus?”
I go into this long thing about, “Well, let’s take Him with a grain of salt. If you get some values from Christianity and the Bible that’s cool, but you know, nobody really believes that He’s the only way to God.” She like, “That’s why no one will date you.”
She challenged my worldview, and she starts laying a basic apologetic. I said, “Give me a break. I’m well-read. I’ll prove the circular reasoning—give me your best book.” She lays down Lee Strobel’s The Case for Faith—that was in the fall of 2000—and I read that in the winter and it just rocked my worldview.
I started to pursue that, reading other books, getting plugged in with a men’s Bible study, and then in 2001 took an alpha class, committed my life to Jesus Christ, and got completely lit on fire for the Lord.
Bob: Jim Wallace, as you know, talks about the difference between believing that and believing in.
He says you can believe that Jesus is God, that Jesus came back to life, but there’s a point where you have to believe in. Was that a hard line for you to cross?
Stephen: It was. We actually talk about this in our ministry, that apologetics can be an amazingly important tool and partnership with the gospel, but ultimately that head knowledge, you know, even if you have this mountain of evidence—which I did—but now in these Bible studies I’m reading about Romans 8, you haven’t received a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, “but you have received the spirit of adoption by which we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’”
I was thinking, “If I don’t get that relational experience, I’ll walk away.” So man, after I said that the pastor, Bob Rice—who’s now a missionary in Africa—he sent out a prayer chain email and had all these, “Pray for Stephen Williams! He’s on the cusp.” It was just three or four short weeks after that—April 16th, 2001—just radical conversion experience.
Dennis: Romans 8 also has a passage in it where it says, “Nothing can separate us from the love of God.” That love ultimately chased you down, and now, some 16 years later, you’re not only a follower but you’re challenging parents to truly train their children to know how to embrace their faith in a very effective way in the public school system.
Stephen: That’s exactly right. We’ve seen the darkness that’s in the public school system and the fear—whether it’s fear or just people who are not motivated. So we’re praying that this book will really be a breath of fresh air—an encouragement for believers on the public school campuses—that there’s a whole lot they can do to be salt and light.
Bob: I just want to step in here—and you tell me if I’m right—because you’ve been in schools as a teacher.
I think in most public schools there are a handful of teachers who love the Lord and are there with a worldview that reflects their faith, and they’re there on mission.
Bob: Then there are maybe another handful of teachers who have the opposite worldview, and they are as passionate and as fervent for their worldview as the Christians are—and they’re going to shut down and silence anything that would get in the way of a more secular worldview. Then there are a whole bunch of teachers who are in the middle between that. They love kids and they want to teach kids and maybe they think this about a worldview or that about a worldview, but they’re not really the enemy.
The reason I say that is because I think a lot of parents look at any school teacher who is not on fire for Jesus as “the enemy” or as somebody who is philosophically opposed. Most of the teachers I know are just kind of going along with the flow and love kids and want to help teach them.
Stephen: Yes. Bob, I think that’s a very good observation, and in reality that’s true. I don’t think the vast majority of teachers are out there with sort of enemy mindset, so yes, I think—right in the introduction of the book, we’re not saying that as Christians you need to be in the public school system, but we’re also—very importantly—not saying you have to get them out.
What we’re saying is you need to be aware of where an anti-Christian worldview can—at times, not all the time—come up. So to be aware of that—and ultimately, we’re representing Christ there. Those teachers, the vast majority who are not believers, who are not there with this agenda to try to brainwash your children—we’re a witness for them, and for the hostile ones as well.
Bob: You have four daughters?
Stephen: Yes; four daughters.
Bob: And their ages?
Dennis: Hold it—hold it, hold it. You jumped to the word daughters. We didn’t find out if you got the babe at church. [Laughter]
Bob: So now you’re converted, you’re back in the group that you were in—and now more people are ready to go out on a date with you?
Stephen: They were; yes. 2001, and I had some stuff that I needed to deal with first. I idolized marriage, and so I was Christian now, but I had the kind of wife radar thing every time you go to a group, “Well, she’s hot, maybe that’s who I’m supposed—” Anyway, the Lord needed me to lay that on the altar and be content serving Him as a single person. Then He blessed me with an absolutely amazing woman, Sarah. We just started to get to know each other doing ministry together, and for eight months we were just brothers and sisters in Christ—serving the Lord together.
Then I felt the Lord, “Not just brothers and sisters in Christ anymore,” and we got married in 2003.
Bob: Let me go back to your four daughters, and the question I have. They’re school aged, some of them?
Stephen: Yes; 12, 11, eight, and four.
Bob: So three of the four are in school.
Bob: Public school?
Stephen: Yes, they’re in an alternative public school charter model, but it’s kind of nice; it’s alternative, so it allows a lot of the time in the home with education. There are some great charter school options out there.
Bob: But this is not a specifically Christian or values-based charter school?
Stephen: No, it’s public, so you can’t spend money on Christian curriculum.
Bob: Now, you made that choice consciously—deliberately—as parents?
Stephen: Yes, and we just supplement the curriculum with our own good Christian stuff.
Bob: So, what you’re doing as parents is saying we have to be actively involved in every part of our child’s education. If we’re going to have them in a public school environment we can’t just hand them over and say, “Send us back a well-educated child.” You have to walk the path with them; right?
Stephen: Absolutely, and in the book we start right off early on in chapter three and say, “Who is your family’s anchor?” So this starts in the home.
We go back to Deuteronomy, where Moses says—I’ll paraphrase it—talk about the Lord, you bring Christian principles and doctrine and theology when you’re sitting down for breakfast, lunch, and dinner—when you’re traveling in the car, in the minivan—be discussing this at all times. We really—Sarah and I want to be intentional—we want to encourage everyone in this book—that’s where it starts. It starts in the home to be intentional, informing this comprehensive, biblical worldview as a family.
Dennis: Your home needs to be an embassy. An embassy is a place where ambassadors live, and we’re training the next generation of ambassadors for Jesus Christ. 2 Corinthians chapter 5, verse 20—Paul talks about how we are ambassadors for Christ—imploring people to be reconciled to God. You do that in a winsome way.
You don’t train your kids to pull out a big, heavy, black Bible and open it up and point their fingers at their classmates—you teach them how to be salt and light in the midst of really a place that needs lots of salt and lots of light.
Stephen: That’s exactly right; yes. Preach it, brother. I agree.
Bob: Have you hit any obstacles—any roadblocks—as you’ve had your kids in public school, where you’ve rethought your decision—or any challenges you’ve come up against as parents that have made you go, “We have to figure out how to deal with that one.”
Stephen: Yes. I mean, we kind of walk people through in the book, but I think everybody needs to be aware, “What could come up that is going to be opposed to the Christian worldview?” that maybe you need to take action on. Dennis, you were talking about taking action when you were in the public school system, and I think that’s one of the things—parents need to be proactive—they need to be involved. One of the key points that we really try to stress is parents need to be involved.
Bob: What are the kinds of things that you’ve had to engage with, or where you’ve talked to parents and they’ve had to engage?
Dennis: Let me just tell that story really quickly of what he’s referring to. When our son was student body president he was invited to a sex education class and peer awareness, where they were training their peers to know how to deal with HIV AIDS and all the inclusion that surrounds that.
The bottom line is there was an outside agency that had come in the school system that was basically abusing our children—our adolescent children—around sex education, and needed us as parents to get in there in a winsome way and talk about it and reason with them about, “What are you doing here? What’s the goal? Why is this happening?” We were able to ultimately get this shut down nationwide, and it was happening in public schools across America.
Stephen: Praise God.
Dennis: I think a follower of Jesus Christ needs to realize, you can have an impact, not only on a life in your school, but you can have an impact in more than one school just by virtue of getting involved and having your eyes open, your ears listening, and your heart beating for the things that trouble God’s heart, and protect our children.
Bob: You did that, I think we need to point out, by being wise, being compassionate, being kind. You didn’t come in with swords and pitchforks and say, “We’re shutting this deal down,” you said, “Can we reason together?” and you got a responsive audience to that.
Dennis: We did. In fact, I appealed to the leader of this organization and I said, “Would you send your chief of staff down here to talk to us parents about what’s taking place?” The message was clear: “Let’s take a step back here and evaluate, ‘Is there another way to accomplish the objective?’”
Stephen: I love that, to speak the truth in love. Like you said, we’re ambassadors. We need to have a winsome way, but we don’t just roll over and be a doormat. One of the things we want to bring up, as a teacher I discuss, where are curriculum areas that can potentially be hostile to a Christian worldview?
Look, there are great abstinence-only programs throughout the public school system. They’re not hostile to us, but there are lot of them—funded by Planned Parenthood or others—that are hostile to a Christian worldview. So whether it’s history or science or literature or anti-bullying curriculums—a lot of these are fine, but sometimes you get an anti-Christian worldview woven into them, and that’s when we need to be proactive and step in.
Bob: So, give me a list of maybe the top five areas that—if parents are going to have their kids in public school—they just ought to be alert to.
Stephen: Yes. We actually list them—chapters seven, eight, nine, basically—it’s history, you can have a revisionist history that kind of removes God from the curriculum and it’s kind of a secularized history. There’s science, where basically every time we do a talk there’s somebody who raises their hand and says, “I was told I was stupid for believing in creationism.”
Science is a big one. But yes, literature—what types of literature are chosen? There are many of them that have agendas that are anti-Christian ones. Sex ed, anti-bullying, safe schools; what holidays do you celebrate or not celebrate? Common Core—there’s a whole list of areas that we kind of walk Christians through in the book and how you—these are just potentials—they’re not an exhaustive list. An anti-Christian worldview can come up in any place—morality.
Let me give you an example. I was a teacher, and one time we’re meeting as a fifth grade staff, and it came up with the idea of morality, that we as teachers—I said, “Well, of course we teach morality.” All of them unanimously said, “Well, no we can’t. That violates the separation of church and state.” I just thought back, “How am I going to be salt and light here?”
So they’re starting to agree, “Oh yes. That violates—you can’t do that, you can’t—”
So I just posed the question—I said, “So we can’t teach that it’s not okay to lie, and you’re saying we can’t teach that it’s not okay—” And I just started to go down this list of standard moral—kind of go down the Ten Commandments.
Bob: Cheating. I mean, cheating’s pretty basic in a classroom; right?
Stephen: Right. I ended with, “So we can’t teach that we should treat others the way you want to be treated?” You just saw the penny drop and all of them said, “Oh, well; no, that’s fine.” So moral relativism—that can be a big one in our school system. So just how to deal with those issues, I think, is important.
Dennis: I think what you’re all about in your book is empowering parents to get engaged and involved in the public school system, and I just want to encourage them, it is intimidating. I’ll never forget the first time we walked into the junior high where our kids were going. There was something about it—it was foreign land to me. It was not familiar turf.
But after a while—with six kids and you’ve been in there a number of times—the administration gets to know you, the teachers get to know you—they realize they’re for the educational system that’s taking place there, and it’s not that you agree with everything that’s being taught. In fact, we would raise issues and sit down with teachers in a very kind, compassionate way and say, “Is there another way we can accomplish this objective without having to read this kind of literature?” We found the teachers to be quite agreeable.
I think parents today need to realize they don’t need to take the hostile view that everybody’s out to get you. Certainly there are those who are there who are out to get you, but the vast majority are just there to educate your children, and all of them need to be treated with the utmost respect.
Bob: As a parent you can’t simply think, “Well, my kids are in school now, I don’t need to be thinking about that—I don’t need to be worried about that. I’m sure the public schools are going to reinforce the same values we have here at home.” You may be thinking to yourself, “I went to public schools and I turned out okay.”
It’s a different day.
Dennis: It is different.
Bob: It’s a different world, and you’re going to have to be more involved in your child’s life and in their education and in what’s going on at the school than maybe you imagined. To have a resource like the book that Stephen has written, Navigating Public Schools, is just to have an ally—a tool—available to you so that you can be wise as you get ready to send your kids back to school this fall.
We have copies of Navigating Public Schools in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can order it from us online at FamilyLifeToday.com. Again, the website is FamilyLifeToday.com. You can also order the book by calling 1-800-FL-TODAY. 1-800-358-6329. That’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word “TODAY.”
I think all of us are aware as we have this kind of a conversation that there are places in our culture today where holding fast to what the Scriptures teach about marriage and about family is going to put you at odds with what the culture is saying is true. As Christians, we have to figure out, “How do we lovingly, kindly, winsomely speak the truth in love? When do we bite our tongue? When do we speak up? And when we speak up, how do we do that?”
Our goal here at FamilyLife Today is to provide you with practical help—with some reinforcement—to help you think rightly about marriage and family according to how it’s defined in Scripture—and then to help you know how to speak about that with family members or friends, relatives, school teachers. We want to effectively develop godly marriages and families. We’d love to see every home become a godly home.
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Now, tomorrow we want to talk about what you do if your child’s teacher is talking about the Bible, saying, “It’s fine for faith or for church or for Sunday school, but it really doesn’t belong here in the public schools and it’s not the same as your science textbook,” things like that. How do you deal with that? We’ll talk more about that tomorrow. Hope you can tune in for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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