When Oneida High School stopped invocations at varsity football and basketball games amid concerns that the prayers constituted school-sponsored religious activities and violated the First Amendment, sophomore Kayla King sprang into action.
King approached her principal and assistant principal about allowing voluntary, student-led prayers before such games. Then she broached the subject again. And again.
“I’ve pretty much nagged Mr. Terry (assistant principal) every day about it,” King says.
At Scott High School, meanwhile, two seniors — Ashton Rector and Shyann Norris — have been rallying students and teachers alike to help them raise money for a summer mission trip to Costa Rica.
There, Rector and Norris will join other Christian teens working in an orphanage and a school. It’s a trip the students — life-long friends and members of the school’s cheerleading squad — are taking after, as Norris puts it, “Deciding to step out on faith.”
And at both schools, hundreds take part in student-led religious activities through clubs, namely Students With A Testimony (S.W.A.T.) and Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA).
For years, religion has been a bit of a taboo subject among teenagers — even in this rural, deeply-religious community deep inside America’s Bible Belt.
But even as surveys have indicated that Christianity is in decline across America, there is a reversal of trends afoot among the iGeneration: teenagers — like King, Norris, Rector and others — are not only identifying as Christians, but staunchly defending their faith and sharing their testimony with peers.
For administrators and teachers, that means a balancing act between allowing room for student-led religious activities while not getting involved in a way that could be perceived as running amok of court rulings against school-organized religious practices.
For students, it means a balancing act between sharing their faith and — in some cases — risking ridicule from classmates because of their beliefs.
A DIFFERENT APPROACH
“The inhibitions teens had about speaking out on faith when I was growing up just aren’t there anymore,” says Melissa Rector, principal at Scott High School.
Most Generation X’ers — like Rector, a 1997 graduate of Scott High — can recall a day when carrying a Bible to school meant risking the wrath of classmates. Openly praying before lunch in the cafeteria would have meant snickers and whispers. Joining a religious club instead of the “cool” club would have meant being shunned.
These days, religious clubs — S.W.A.T. and FCA — are the cool clubs. And while praying before meals in the cafeteria or carrying a Bible may not be the norm, it isn’t unheard of, either.
“Over the last five to ten years, I have definitely seen an increase in teens who are not just willing to share their faith and testimony, but who also consider this interaction to be a major part of their identities,” says Rector.
“It is not unusual for me to overhear teen conversations centered on worship messages or popular Christian artists or local revival services,” she added. “Students will make prayer requests or share their testimonies via social media, and it opens a door for teens to talk about these things not just online but also in person.”
Part of the change has been youth overcoming the stigma that separation of church and state prohibits religion from being mentioned at school.
“When I first started teaching, if a student mentioned God, you could see the kids’ eyes get big,” says Oneida High School baseball coach Shawn West. “They didn’t understand the parameters of what could be said, what couldn’t be said, that sort of thing.”
Kayla King — the Oneida student who is battling for student-led prayer at sporting events — agrees.
“I’ve had opportunities to share my faith with classmates during free time at school and the majority of the time I’ve just received a blank stare because people are just amazed that I openly give my testimony in school,” she says. “All in all, religion is a touchy subject, especially in a public school, but in my opinion everyone has their own denomination and beliefs and should be able to share them.”
It is that willingness to share that has led to change, King says.
“I feel like it’s an, ‘Oh, well, I heard so-and-so giving their testimony, so I’m gonna give mine with no fear of crossing the line and offending someone,’” she says. “It all leads back to that one student who wasn’t afraid to take a stand on what they believe and share it with others. That gives students the courage to express their faith.”
UNITY BUILDS CONFIDENCE
Students With A Testimony — S.W.A.T. — is credited with eroding much of the stigma that Christianity is off-limits in school, along with creating a level of comfort for Christian students.
Both Oneida High and Scott High have an active S.W.A.T. club. At Scott High, Rector said the club, along with FCA, is among the school’s most active youth groups. Members of S.W.A.T. recently organized “worship lunches” at the school. Held each Friday, the student-organized lunches feature a devotional message from an invited guest — typically a youth minister from a local church. Students taking part in the events take their lunches to the school library, or an empty classroom, where the activity will not disrupt students who do not want to take part.
Other student-led religious activities at the school, organized through S.W.A.T., include prayers around the flag pole to start the day. Students take pride in their ability to be open about their faith.
“I like how we can stand up and pray in front of everyone (at the flag pole),” says Ashton Rector, who is completing her final weeks at the school and recently signed a cheerleading scholarship with University of the Cumberlands. “If cars are driving past, they can see us. It isn’t something we have to hide.”
At Oneida, meanwhile, nearly one-fourth of the school’s 400-strong student body are members of S.W.A.T., which meets at Oneida United Methodist Church next door to the school.
“They can go over there and they can sing, they can worship, and it’s their time,” says Shawn West, who serves as one of three faculty sponsors of the club. “It’s a great venue for the kids to be able to express their Christianity and not feel so confined.”
West adds that S.W.A.T. has “relaxed the tensions” among students who were afraid to be open about their faith, making them more comfortable — which has in turn made a difference in the school.
“Over the years that S.W.A.T. has been at our school, I’ve watched the Christian attitude — and, by that, I mean a Christ-like attitude — and our kids’ demeanor change. I’ve seen less punk-like stuff in our school,” he says.
“I’ve never seen a student body so beloving of our special ed kids,” he adds. “Those kids aren’t belittled. They’re embraced. It’s just a Christian-like attitude towards those kids.”
Between 70 and 90 students attend each S.W.A.T. meeting at the Methodist church. That number, West says, would be higher if the timing did not conflict with other school activities.
For example, Jed Newport — starting halfback on the school’s football team — says he would love to take part in S.W.A.T. but he is also devoted to Best Buddies, a school program that pairs high school students with elementary students for leadership and guidance.
“I can’t do both, but there are tons of people in S.W.A.T. and everyone seems to enjoy it and love it,” Newport says.
Dallas West, who graduated from Oneida last spring and is currently enrolled at University of the Cumberlands, echoes the baseball coach’s opinion that S.W.A.T. has made a big difference at the school.
“When kids have got something to be a part of, it gives them something to stand on,” he says. “They don’t feel like they’re alone.
“We didn’t have that in middle school when I was there,” he adds. “I knew kids who were saved, but we were all newly saved, running around trying to do God’s will, and we got made fun of. In high school, S.W.A.T. gave us something to stand on.”
Or, as Shawn West puts it: “It has given the kids the feeling that it’s not embarrassing to be a Christian. Which is a fantastic thing.”
MAINTAINING THE FINE LINE
The prevalence of student-led religious activities at school — and the fact that many teachers and administrators at each high school identify as Christians themselves, which is hardly surprising for a small community in the Bible Belt — does not mean that caution is thrown to the wind, as alluded to by Oneida’s recent rules change stopping pregame prayers at sporting events.
In fact, both Rector and West were reluctant about speaking to the Independent Herald about their students’ involvement with religious activities, and both pointed out that the activities are 100 percent student-led.
“Students invite the speakers on their own,” Rector said of Scott High’s worship lunches. “A guest log is kept, students sign a person on the speaker log, and they communicate with the speaker themselves.”
Rector does approve the log, as she would any guest speaker, in order to be sure of who is in the building as a safety precaution. But she does not take part in the worship lunches, nor do her teachers.
“Teachers will sit in for supervisional purposes, but they never take part in the messages,” she said.
That cautious attitude prevails at Oneida, as well. There, Kayla King’s efforts for student-led prayers have been well received by administrators, but they are also making sure their Ts are crossed and their Is dotted before proceeding.
“Mr. (Kevin) Byrd and Mr. (Jason) Terry both agreed with me that it is important, but we would somehow have to find a way to make sure we don’t cross the line with the prayer by making sure it is constitutional and that we abide by the separation of church and state,” King said.
Meanwhile, students at both schools said they strive to be respectful of other students who may not share their beliefs.
Jordan Hughett, a junior at Scott High School who takes an active role in the school’s unique Museum of Scott County and plans to make a career in the museum curator field, once invited a classmate to a church function and she declined, saying she did not attend church. His response? No problem.
“You can’t crush somebody’s spirit,” he said. “We’re supposed to be a light. We’re supposed to show that there is a good side.”
In other words, don’t be guilty of “Bible thumping,” as the secular world likes to refer to Christians who are over-exuberant in their efforts to convert non-believers to their way of thinking.
Grace Kidd, an 8th grade student at Oneida Middle School, said she often invites classmates to events at her church, Winfield Baptist, but she is cautious about it.
“I choose my wording carefully,” she said. “I won’t be mean about it if they don’t want to go.”
OHS sophomore Kaylan McCartt said she invites classmates to New Haven Baptist Church regularly. But, she added, “I would never try to make someone feel uncomfortable about it.”
“There will always be those around who want nothing to do with your stand, especially a Godly stand,” adds Chase Lay, a recent Scott High graduate who was preaching in church services even as a freshman. “However, we cannot reject or hate those people.”
FROM CHURCH TO SCHOOL
Strike up a conversation about Christianity and most readily agree — without the instruction and guidance of churches in the community, there would be no open display of faith in the community’s schools. Studies have consistently shown that teens are among the most active Christians, with six in 10 American teenagers attending religious functions each week, according to a 2010 Barna Group survey.
Youth groups make a difference. Each of the students who spoke with the Independent Herald said that they take part in a youth group at their church.
“I love being able to spend time with the people in my youth group that love God as much as I do,” said McCartt. “I know it will be a positive influence in my life and I like to try to pass that along to the younger ones in the youth who look up to me.”
Or, as Rector says, “There is strength in numbers.”
Ashley Ellis, associate pastor at White Rock Baptist Church, says a new focus in the way some churches approach their youth has made a difference in teenagers’ willingness to take a bold stand on their faith.
“We try to treat kids just like adults,” Ellis said of White Rock’s worship services. “It’s their service, it’s their house, it’s their place of worship. We give them opportunities for singing, or requesting prayer, to get them more open to the idea of speaking out.”
But, he added, the church is careful not to pressure its youth members.
“We don’t want to force them,” he said. “We want it to come natural to them. So, then, even if they are ridiculed for their faith, it doesn’t matter as much because it’s their faith and their beliefs.”
Churches also equip their teen members with the tools they need to make an impact on their peers. At Winfield Baptist Church, which has one of Scott County’s most active youth programs, that means — of all things — apparel.
Sitting in her mother’s workplace — the Scott County Visitor Center — after school, Grace Kidd shows off her Converse shoes. “I Am Second” is written across each shoe. On her wrist, she has an “I Am Second” bracelet.
The “I Am Second” movement — second to Christ and second to fellow man — is a national movement, embraced by the mega-popular Robertson family of Duck Dynasty fame, among others. It has been adopted by the youth group at Winfield Baptist. For Kidd, who is a member at Winfield, it serves as a voice.
“People will ask me what it means,” she said. “I’ve had kids ask if I can get them some ‘I Am Second’ stuff.”
Typically, such things are fads, not unlike the “What Would Jesus Do?” bracelets and t-shirts that suddenly began showing up among teenagers more than a decade ago before fading away as quickly as they arrived on the scene.
But, for Kidd, “I Am Second” is literally wearing her testimony on her sleeve — or on her wrist, as the case may be.
At a school portrait session recently, the photographer noticed Kidd’s “I Am Second” shoes — she has several pairs — and asked what the phrase meant. She had an opportunity to witness to the man. In that instant, the tables were turned; the adult became the student, the student his teacher, and one teen’s faith in Jesus Christ was shared with someone else.
Kidd says, again, it goes back to a change in the churches’ approach.
“The way for kids to see the reality of faith is to be a part of it,” he said.
STRENGTH IN NUMBERS
Students taking a stand for Christ is not exactly new. Dallas West recalls singing a gospel song, “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” at his 8th grade promotion ceremony at Oneida Middle School. As a high school student, he was leading the choir at Bethlehem Baptist Church, where he still serves as choir and music director, and he had recorded his first gospel album by the time he graduated high school.
Chase Lay was preaching by the time he was 13, before he ever began classes at Scott High School. When he graduated in 2012, he became the first student in school history to lead his class’s baccalaureate service, which he called a “wonderful experience.”
“The only negative side to that is that my nerves were so wigged out that it took a long time into the message before I could get my nerves out of the way and just preach,” he said. “(But) that was so special because so many of my classmates I’d tried to love and help personally or privately, and now God was giving me the blessing of helping them from the good word. That was so rich and sweet.”
As more students have began standing up and being openly counted as Christians, they have found strength in numbers.
“I’m blessed to have Christian friends that I can share my faith and testimony with,” King said. “It’s definitely one of my biggest blessings, because they support me in the things I do.”
Newport said that when he isn’t involved in activities at his church — Oneida Church of Christ — he has friends who invite him to their own activities and events.
“There are always people that will make fun of you for your faith, but I try to hang around people who have similar beliefs and ideas as I do,” he said.
Hughett has grown up in a home that is decidedly Christian — his father, Don, is pastor at Bull Creek United Baptist Church, and his mother, Lounicia, is a Sunday School teacher there.
But school can be a different animal — especially as middle school students leave eighth grade behind and are cast into the melting pot of a consolidated high school such as Scott High. Like King at Oneida, Hughett said he has a support group of friends who share his beliefs.
“Sometimes I do feel like I’m alone, and it can be discouraging because some people say they’re something and they’re not when it comes to faith,” he said. “But I have several good friends who go to church and believe in God. I have a friend who is aspiring to be a preacher, another who wants to go into the mission field. I have a support group of friends, and I have friends who aren’t Christians but who are good, moral people, and they respect what I believe.”
STEPPING OUT ON FAITH
When Scott High assistant basketball coach Chuck Jeffers suggested that Shyann Norris and Ashton Rector look into the mission trip to Costa Rica, they were not sure they wanted to go.
“It took us a long time to decide that we were really going to go,” Norris said.
Rector said their minds were changed during a revival at their church, White Rock Baptist.
“The turning point for me was a message that said, ‘Go rest with the Lord,’” she said. “It got to me. I thought about how we come to school every day and we’re so blessed, and we forget other people. We forget how blessed we are and how fortunate we are here in America.”
Norris added, “There are no limits to God’s grace, so we decided we should step out on faith and do it.”
And step out they did. They have held fundraisers, including donut sales and t-shirt sales . . . even had fellow students purchase their “Man Up” shirts and wear them to school on a designated day, which they termed “Man Up Monday.”
“Some students have said no when I asked if they wanted to buy donuts,” Norris said. “But when I tell them it’s for a mission trip, they’ll say, ‘Oh, I want some donuts.’”
Norris and Rector will leave for Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., on July 6. There they will train for two days before heading to Costa Rica for nine days. Their time in the Central American nation will be spent working in an orphanage and a public school.
While not every student’s stance will take them out of the country, Rector’s and Norris’s description of “stepping out on faith” can be used to describe the growing number of students who are taking a visible stand for their religious beliefs.
“High school is totally different for us because our freshman year we got saved, and everything changed,” Rector said.
“From then on, we were like, ‘I shouldn’t be ashamed of this at all,’” Norris added.
‘NOT ALL SMILES AND LOVE’
Some students have not risked repercussions for being open about their faith. McCartt, for one, said that Christianity is not a topic that causes “bullying or controversy” at her school.
“Everyone may not agree on it, but it doesn’t cause conflict,” she said.
And Lay said he was never teased about his beliefs, though he added that his size — he is built like a college fullback — may have had something to do with it.
“I was sometimes neglected over (my beliefs),” he said. “Sometimes people wondered why I stood so strict on some things. However, the Bible teaches if we live for Him, we will suffer persecution.”
But, he added, “I received so much respect from most students. People respect those who try to live it. Not only that, but they respect the Christians that don’t ‘cram’ their stance on others. Not everything was smiles and love, but there was a great respect.”
On the other side of the coin are students like Dallas West, who experienced negative reactions because of his faith.
“People would make fun of me and say, ‘There goes that Jesus freak,’ and stuff like that,” he said. “I heard that stuff.”
But, he adds, most of those experiences came in middle school. That is where S.W.A.T. played an important role in high school, he said.
King, too, says she has experienced the consequences of wearing her faith on her sleeve.
“To be honest, I feel like I get made fun of sometimes because of my personality and how I openly talk about my faith,” she said. “But then I also feel like I have the respect of many people because I’m not shamed of my savior and they know that.
“I wish the people who make fun of Christians could be in my shoes for a day and realize how it feels to be made fun of for something that nobody should be ashamed of,” she added.
Grace Kidd is one of those students who feels that others will respect those who take a stand for their faith, even if they don’t share those points of view.
“If people cuss or are perverted, they won’t do those things or say those things around me,” she said. “Some people don’t care, but most actually respect my beliefs.”
Starting as a seventh grader last year, Kidd and some of her riends began praying at lunch in the Oneida Middle School cafeteria.
“People walking by will actually stop and wait until we’re through praying sometimes,” she said. “If teachers are handing stuff out, they usually don’t interrupt us.”
At the end of the day, all students agreed, the tradeoff for the occasional consequence is the positive effect their stance has on the world around them.
While most students have stories of classmates or friends who they have invited to church or some other religious function only to be politely declined, sometimes they are surprised.
“We had a friend who was a cheerleader with us and we had the opportunity to ask her to go to a revival at church with us,” Shyann Norris said. “We didn’t think she would. But she did. That was really cool.”
At Oneida Middle School, Grace Kidd does not hesitate to carry her Bible to class, where she reads scripture as time allows — part of her goal to devote time each day to reading.
“Another classmate started bringing her Bible to school,” she said. “And, yesterday, I looked behind me and another boy in my math class had his Bible with him. I hope this is the start of a trend. I’m pretty excited about it. It’s just two people, but it’s still two people.”
Coach West sees the same thing at the high school level.
“I see kids in the hall carrying their Bible, going to S.W.A.T. or wherever,” he said. “That makes me feel good. That’s why, if someone from another school called me tomorrow and said, ‘Hey, coach, we have a position open to coach baseball,’ I would have a hard time not turning it down.”
Meanwhile, it is an attitude that has carried over to — of all places — the football field. When Oneida head coach Tony Lambert made an off-handed comment two years ago that his team was going to prioritize “faith, family and football, in that order,” someone took it and put it on a t-shirt. Soon, it became the team’s motto. And that was just fine with Lambert and his players.
“I love playing for a coach and coaching staff who are open with us as well as the community about their faith,” Jed Newport said. “It’s very encouraging to me to know that they love the Lord and I think it helps me grow and become a better Christian knowing that I have the support of my sports family and knowing that they will support me no matter what.”
In a sports culture stigmatized by the approach of taking a back seat to no one or nothing, that attitude might come as a surprise from a player who spends Friday nights running over opposing defenses.
But, given the trend of teens’ firm stance on their Christian beliefs, perhaps it is not a surprise at all.
“I know that my coaches will hold me responsible for my actions, and I’m glad they do,” Newport said. “In the long run, I know it will make me a better man and Christian. I can’t thank my coaches and parents enough for helping me by showing me what God has done for me.”