Middle-school outreach ministry brings 'Christian Released Time' to local students
By Jessica Brodie
FOUNTAIN INN—The smell of cheese puffs and cream-filled cookies fills the fellowship hall at Pisgah United Methodist Church as, one by one, about 60 eighth graders file in.
“Hey, Pastor Matt!” a girl calls out as the boys jostle each other, angling for the best spot in the food line.
But just like that, the clamor settles down, and the kids take their seats in orderly rows behind tables with Bibles. They’re here for Christian Released Time, a once-a-week middle school elective hosted by Pisgah, and the clock is ticking. It’s time to learn about the Bible.
This week, the kids are studying Luke 15—the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son—and the Rev. Matthew Greer ramps up the excitement in telling the stories. Using slapstick, good-natured teasing, plenty of self-deprecating humor and even a costume, Greer breaks down the meaning, then looks at the class with an expectant gaze.
“Sooooo, what’s this all about?” Greer asks.
“Um, God forgives our sins?” a girl volunteers.
“Right!” Greer says, grinning. “That story shows how great our God is. There is always a path back home to God.”
The students nod, seem to get it. And then debate ensues—even when we’re really bad? Why would He forgive us? Is He by our side even when we could care less? How bad is too bad?
Before even a single foot begins that telltale restless teenage tap, the bus is there, ready to drive them back to their middle school, ready to pick up the next grade of kids for their session. With “byes” and “see ya next weeks,” the kids are off, and the room is quiet again.
“This is probably the best thing I do, and it’s something I inherited—I didn’t even come up with the idea,” Greer says, a huge smile on his face as he prepares for the next lesson, volunteers busy slicing up dessert and pouring more cheese puffs. “It’s great.”
Christian Released Time is a project of Christian Learning Centers of Greenville County, which started it many years ago with a goal of being in every middle school in the county. Pisgah is one of two UMCs currently involved with the project; Augusta Road is the other. Churches of all denominations team up with public middle schools to offer a basic Bible curriculum for students, who attend during an elective period (such as art or music). Instead of the elective, they agree to be bussed to a local church offsite to learn the word of God.
Pisgah UMC partners with Hillside Baptist Church to serve the kids at Ralph Chandler Middle School every Wednesday morning from fall to spring. Hillside picks the students up, and Pisgah hosts. More than 120 students are enrolled, and the numbers climb each year.
“It’s a good partnership,” said Hillside Baptist’s pastor, Eddie Howard. “Middle school students are eager to learn, and we want to make sure they have a basic foundation to build their life on. It’s the best subject to grow on.”
Pisgah is a small church, with about 45 in worship each week, and Greer has encouraged the congregation to think of these kids as their youth group.
“You don’t see them necessarily on Sunday morning, but this is the youth of the church,” Greer said.
And from this involvement and excitement, other youth outreach ministries have started at Pisgah like a chain reaction, from a backpack food program to a youth mentoring program to a Christian program at the high school and more.
Heavy stuff with the humor
Joyce Raulston, longtime member of Pisgah UMC, volunteers as much for herself as for the kids they teach.
“I get a blessing out of it,” she said. “Most of the time, (Greer) explains the Bible stories in a way I’ve never heard before.”
Edwin Terry, a sixth-generation member whose great-grandfather founded Pisgah in 1791, has volunteered with the ministry the last seven years. He said reaching out to the community’s youth is critical, especially today, when so many families are crippled by divorce and other struggles.
“A lot of these kids don’t go to church—their mama and daddy don’t take them—and we’ve got some hard cases in here, but you know, they keep showing up,” Terry said. “I know maybe some come just to get out of class, for the free food, but some of them don’t. And if you can reach just that one, then it’s all worth it.”
Indeed, many of the kids are not strangers to struggle. The students who attend are “country kids,” Greer said, showing cows or doing Motocross in their spare time, but there are also meth problems in the community, and many of the kids are not innocent about this. One girl’s uncle was recently taken off by immigration officials. Another boy is one step away from jail.
“Some of the kids have real problems,” Greer said. “We know some of the issues, there’s some heavy stuff, and they bring it to the table.”
But it’s also a true pleasure, not only being able to help the youth but to have the chance to relate to them in an easy, natural way. Greer was a special education teacher and did youth ministry before becoming a pastor, and he absolutely loves what he gets to do each week.
“None of my adults would ever let me do what I did with that one kid, with the cloak?” Greer said, laughing. “And they’re honest! You ask, ‘How would you feel if your brother did that,’ and they say, ‘I’d punch him!’”
It’s also nice to get them offsite where they can pal around with people not in their regular clique: you might find the softball girls talking to the high-class girls, or the bookish types with the class clowns. Greer and the volunteers said they see transformation in some of the kids: enthusiasm for the word of God and for turning their lives over to God.
“One girl brought a girl, who ended up bringing almost a whole table of kids,” Greer said. “One girl started wanting to be a singer; now she wants to sing for the Lord. We’re seeing change.”
Judging from the deeper questions and the eager hand-raising going on amid the giggles and the “OMGs,” Greer might just be right.
Besides, he quips, “The snacks are really stale and not that good, so you know they’re truly coming for the word of God.”
To learn more about your church getting involved with a middle school, call Christian Learning Centers at 864-236-0450.