Teaching Bible During Public School Days Grows Nationally

Teaching Bible During Public School Days Grows Nationally

By Diana Chandler, senior writer, Baptist Press

HILLIARD, Ohio (BP) — LifeWise Academy founder Joel Penton was on Bluetooth, driving a vibrant red and yellow school bus fashioned into a camper, heading from Ohio with his wife and five school-age children to the newest academy sites in Arkansas, Tennessee, and Georgia.

He wanted his family to be present as LifeWise Academy launched its latest local chapters teaching elective, off-site Bible education to public school students during the school day, Penton told Baptist Press April 10. The program offering released-time religious instruction is fully protected by law that has survived challenges at the U.S. Supreme Court.

With an original goal of 25 sites in the first five years after its 2019 launch, LifeWise Academy is already offered to 330 schools in 14 states and confirmed to serve over 450 schools in 19 states by the fall of 2024, Penton said.

“The goal is to make Bible education available to every one of the 50 million public school students nationwide,” he said, “and in doing so introduce them to the Gospel, which will change their lives forever.

“We recognize the mission field that is our local public schools,” he said. “Every week we’re talking about Jesus and we’re urging kids to trust in Him and find their hope in Him.”

Every week we’re talking about Jesus and we’re urging kids to trust in Him and find their hope in Him

In Zorach v. Clauson in 1952, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled released-time religious instruction is legal during the public school day if it is held off-site from school grounds, is not supported by public funds, and requires parental permission for enrollment.

Southern Baptist pastor and LifeWise board member Stephen Hubbard leads his church, Ebenezer Baptist Church, Logan to support the program by providing funds, offering prayer support, volunteering, serving on local chapter boards and donating buses to transport students.

“I cannot even begin to fathom a reason why any local church would not embrace, pray for, financially support, encourage volunteers to be involved in the local programs,” Hubbard said, “and if their church is within a close proximity of a local school, even allow LifeWise to use their church as a meeting location.”

LifeWise provides churches opportunities to present Christ to elementary-through-high-school students who might not attend church, to teach character to students and to present the local church within the community, Penton said, even building positive relationships with local schools.

Ebenezer supports local LifeWise Academy chapters in Hocking, Perry, and Fairfield counties. At a building it owns in Perry County, Hubbard said, the church opens a restaurant during the annual Perry County Fair and donates all its proceeds to LifeWise.

We want to see the hearts and minds of students change

“We want to see the hearts and minds of students change,” Hubbard said. “We want to see their character change, because we believe that’s what’s going to really transform the community and then in turn enable the church to continue to do what it does in the community.”

Ebenezer is able to support LifeWise through its cooperative design, Hubbard said, encouraging churches to join with others in establishing and supporting local chapters.

Penton, a nondenominational Christian who homeschools his children, designed LifeWise to work across gospel denominational lines, and offers an adaptable 10-step program to launch LifeWise chapters.

While each local chapter manages the logistical work, has a leadership board, and raises its funds for the program, LifeWise accepts certain responsibilities for the program, carrying and paying for liability insurance for all local programs, Penton said.

Penton had been active in evangelical outreaches to public school students, but after school hours, for a decade before launching LifeWise. He launched the program in 2019 after school administrators in his hometown of Van Wert asked for his help with their released-time religion instruction program.

“Now I didn’t even know what that was; I’d never heard of that. And they explained to me” what it was, he said. “They had 95 percent of the entire school enrolled in the program. Their question was, ‘How could we get this to grow? Could this expand across the country because almost no one’s even heard of this.

“I said I think you need to put this in a box, make it a plug-and-play program that any community can implement. Their response was, basically, ‘That’s a great idea. We don’t want to do that, but we think you should do that.’ And I said OK.”

He encourages all gospel churches to embrace the program.

“Can you think of anything more important than reaching our next generation with the word of God?” Penton asked.

Students participate in LifeWise Academy programs during the school day at an alternate location.