Two approaches to free speech

December 13th, 2017

My wife, Becky, and I spoke at a children’s ministry conference. After leading four sessions, we felt tired, amazed, and encouraged.

The fatigue came from standing for several hours, a direct result of my age (let’s leave Becky out of that description). No more words needed.

The amazing moment, though, deserves attention. Consider how you and I can feel amazed when a) something surprisingly good happens or b) something surprisingly strong-in-the-other-direction happens.

Yes, a “b” moment took place. And it deserves consideration. 

To start a session that focused on the lessons ministries can learn from schools, Becky and I invited the audience to share one-word ideas about how public schools affect their children’s programs. Several people offered thoughts, and few even used a single word, as instructed. A good beginning, until a person near the back could contain herself no longer and began to shout.

Yes, she yelled. Not a good communication choice for any setting. The “amazing” part, though, emerged in what she said. She had passion, she had energy, she had deep conviction, and she had a very loud voice.

To paraphrase, she shouted that the church should have nothing to do with schools because when schools kicked out prayer, they kicked out God, and that’s why guns and metal detectors are now in schools. It all happened because there’s no prayer and, therefore, no God. So, churches shouldn’t do anything with schools.    

I’m reporting what took place, not commenting. To her credit and our relief, for the rest of the time she shared nothing else. Message delivered; no other words were needed.

So we experienced one approach to free speech. A quite popular one; shouting a polarizing position for all to hear. Or read, when including online rants.   

The remainder of the session went well. Those who attended intently listened to ideas and enthusiastically engaged in discussions. Positive consensus quickly formed around the wisdom in believing that too many kids have holes in their hearts, not holes in their heads. Ultimately, the room considered specific ideas about how a church and a school can form a partnership that benefits students and provides what many kids need most—a reliable, caring relationship.

After the session ended another person decided to exercise free speech, yet in a very different manner than we experienced earlier—and gave us a very real reason to feel encouraged.

A lady introduced herself to Becky and shared about serving thirty years as an elementary school principal. In a very calm voice, in a quiet and personal conversation heard only by my wife, the principal said, “I want to thank and encourage you and your husband for the message you’re bringing and for the work you’re doing. (Fact check: the work is done by my organization, Kids Hope USA.) Every principal in America will want this program in his or her school. Keep going!”

Data shows that she knows what she’s talking about. Today, in just six key markets, just over 3,000 public elementary schools now wait for a church willing to form a partnership through our program. But that’s not the point of this column.

Here it is: Too many people believe what the first lady shouted, and might even believe that yelling will do good. And those folks also wonder why a gap exists between churches and schools—ignoring the reality that perpetuating those beliefs and blasting them out actually widens the very chasm they bemoan. But in America, they have the right to free speech.

Fortunately, in the church-school “debate,” another voice continues to gain notice. Specifically, this principal and many educators like her. They share words of hope—for kids, for communities, for the future. Whenever they speak, the gap begins to disappear. It’s their right, too.

Anyone, from church or from school, can join in this conversation taking place every day across our country. And the people who will benefit the most? Those whose voices are soft and the least heard: students.

We hear a lot about the freedom of speech in America today. The constant challenge is to determine which opinions deserve attention. I’m grateful for the voice of a school principal who used very low volume to make a high-value point—churches and schools can, and should, work together.

Because life together is life at its best. 

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