School Zone - Church planters connect through school partnerships

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By Tobin Perry 

VANCOUVER, B.C. – The odds appeared steep in 2010 when Jeff Phillips and his family moved to Vancouver, B.C., to start a church. A youth minister for a decade and a half, he’d never been a lead pastor or a church planter. Both native Texans, Jeff and his wife, Sara, were taking their family to one of the most post-Christian, multi-ethnic cities in North America.

Yet as Phillips started The Crossings Church, he intentionally involved his family in a place many North American evangelicals are avoiding rather than embracing—public schools.

“We have two kids who are both in public schools,” says Phillips, the planting pastor of The Crossings Church. “We did that for a reason. We feel like it’s the best way to engage the culture.”

Over the last four years, the lives of the Phillips family and the Lord Roberts Elementary School have become completely intertwined. Phillips coaches the school’s basketball team. He organizes the school’s field day events. Sara has been president of the school’s PAC (Parent Advisory Council). For four years they’ve brought refreshments—often homemade muffins made by Sara and the other ladies at The Crossings—to the school’s teachers once a month.

“It’s been a great blessing,” Phillips says. “It’s been our number one way that we’ve impacted the lost through our church.”

How can our little church help?

In the past five decades, since the 1962 U.S. Supreme Court decision outlawing sanctioned prayer in public schools, evangelicals have often had an uneasy relationship with public education. That decision and the growing acceptance of evolution and homosexuality in public schools have led to an enlarging divide between evangelicals and public schools. Driven—at least in part—by this dissatisfaction, the number of homeschooled children jumped by 75 percent between 1999 and 2013 (according to a 2013 report in Education News).

Yet increasingly, Christians say these public schools need help. Barna Group’s Schools in Crisis booklet (a part of its Frames series) reports that 46 percent of Americans believe the quality of public schools is declining (compared to only 15 percent who believe there have been some improvements). 

But a new generation of missionaries and pastors, like Phillips, who all grew up after this increasing separation between evangelicals and public schools, are re-engaging not with condemnation but with a heart to serve.

Chicago church planter Scott Venable says the principal of A.N. Pritzker Grammar School in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood was surprised when he first came to her with an offer of help.

“In my experience, when I’ve seen churches and schools work together, churches have come in with their own agendas,” Venable says. “I set up the conversation with the principal from the beginning with ‘What is your agenda for this school?’ ‘What is your dream for this school?’ I think she was a little taken aback when I asked her, ‘How can our little church help you achieve your dream for this school?’”

That little question became a game-changer. Venable’s offer wasn’t primarily designed to aid his up-and-coming church plant. In the spirit of Jeremiah 29:7, Venable had begun to “seek the welfare of the city.” He jumped in to help wherever he could. As a church planter with no church yet, his schedule was relatively open. He helped with everything from playground duty to coaching sports teams to providing goody bags for teachers to tutoring.

Though this wasn’t his initial goal, Venable’s acts of service to the local grammar school have led to a variety of ministry opportunities, including a weekly Kids’ Club where children can have fun and hear about Jesus in a safe environment.

A citywide effort

Few cities in North America have seen churches come together to impact local schools quite like Portland, Ore. CityServe, started by the Luis Palau Association, hopes to connect a faith partner to each one of the 471 schools in 19 districts in greater Portland.

Southlake Church, a large Foursquare church in the suburbs, has been a prime example of this Portland movement. Southlake has partnered with inner-city Roosevelt High since 2008. What started as a cleanup project at the school turned into a full-time commitment from the church. Over the last six years the church has completed a variety of cleaning and landscaping projects. Church members have mentored students, hosted barbecues, provided a clothing closet, supported teen parents and provided donations for drama, facilities and athletic needs. The story of the church’s partnership with Roosevelt will be a part of a documentary released this fall entitled “Be|UnDivided” (

But it hasn’t been only large churches to impact Portland schools. Even before church planter Clay Holcomb held his first worship service, his church had partnered with a local school to provide food for kids on free and reduced lunch plans on the weekends when they didn’t receive meals from the school. His Trinity Church in nearby Happy Valley, Ore., started off providing food for 20 kids a week and later partnered with another church to increase that number to 40.

From the start Holcomb says he wanted Trinity to focus on the needs of the surrounding community rather than church growth. Providing backpacks of food for local students gave him just that kind of opportunity.

“This is what I tell church planters now—if your vision is just about what your church looks like, then you’re missing the point,” says Holcomb, who also serves as Send North America: Portland city missionary. “Your vision has to be, ‘What will this community look like when this church is at its peak?’ To me, that’s a line in the sand. If all you’re thinking about is your worship services, your children’s program, your website and your ministry programs, you’re missing the point and most likely your community isn’t going to care.”

From campus to living room

Many churches that have partnered in recent years with local public schools stress the importance of coming in without an agenda (even—or maybe especially—an evangelistic one). When New Orleans church planter Matt Tipton, of Hope Church, had his first conversation with the principal of Airline Park Academy for Advanced Studies, a public magnet school in Jefferson Parish, La., he clarified ground rules for serving in the school context. Most of them were basic—like no proselytizing. Yet keeping them, Tipton says, has led to opportunities to spread the gospel in other venues.

Tipton has served as the school’s Parent Teacher Organization president, where he learned firsthand how to serve the school. Thanks to church partners in other places of the country, he has brought teams to the school to meet some of those needs—like landscaping and construction. In the meantime, he has built relationships with many parents and teachers. All know him as a local pastor. Multiple husbands have come to him with marriages headed toward divorce, giving Tipton opportunities for gospel-infused conversations. He says at least one woman his family has met through their involvement has come to faith in Jesus and is an active part of Hope Church.      

“We really work hard to follow the rules,” Tipton says. “We’ve also really worked to build relationships because that’s the context where the gospel is declared. We declare the gospel with parents from the school far more in our living room than on the school campus.”

Jeff Phillips discovered a similar dynamic in Vancouver. Over time, by simply serving administrators, teachers and students, God has provided gospel conversations that would have never developed elsewhere. Four years into his church plant, Phillips can see spiritual fruit that has developed through his family’s relationships in the school. One grandmother and grandson both came to faith in part through a relationship they had developed with Phillips as the boy’s basketball coach.

Through relationships he has developed in the school, Phillips started a monthly church-sponsored game night for kids where he regularly shares the gospel in innovative ways with as many as 40 kids.

“Each one of these kids is coming from our school,” Phillips says. “None of them has any idea what the church is about—and they’re just coming in.”

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2014 edition of On Mission magazine. To learn more or subscribe, visit 

Visit to view a video of Send North America: Portland City Missionary Clay Holcomb and the interaction of Trinity Church with local schools. To discover ways your church can better engage your community, check out the Send Network site at For a variety of resources to help you partner with a local school, visit 

Tobin Perry writes for the North American Mission Board. 

Date Created: 10/30/2014 3:50:14 PM

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