By David Dawson
Baptist and Reflector
FRANKLIN — Driven by the belief that “school safety” should not be limited to fire drills and first-aid kits, many churches in Tennessee are doing their part to protect the spiritual safety of students, too.
Numerous initiatives and programs have been designed in recent years to cover students in prayer as they enter a new school year. One of the most prominent programs is the “Weekend of Prayer Over Students” — a proclamation that was signed into law by the Tennessee State Legislators and Governor Bill Haslam in 2014.
Originally marked as a one-day proclamation, the initiative was approved by Tennessee legislatures as a two-day event in 2015. The first weekend in August has been officially designated as the Weekend of Prayer Over Students by the state’s lawmakers.
This year’s Weekend of Prayer is scheduled for Aug. 5-6 and will include prayer walks and prayer gatherings at schools all across the state. The Weekend of Prayer is spearheaded by First Priority, a network of churches who operate with the objective of sending students as missionaries to their schools.
“It’s so important for us to pray over these students — not just that they will be good students, but also to pray over all the things that are going against this generation,” said Haley Wherry, the executive director of First Priority. “Today’s students are dealing with multiple issues at the same time. They are bombarded with things like drug addiction, broken homes, along with the other struggles of normal teenage life. They are constantly under attack by the enemy.”
Wherry says, “there is no greater call than that of united prayer for our children and their futures.” And many churches in the state are responding to the challenge, he observed.
Duck River Baptist Association is renewing its Kingdom-focused prayer emphasis this August, with the goal of having each DRBA church adopt one or more schools to pray for throughout the school year. Each of the participating churches is being asked to have an on-campus prayer walk — called “onsite with insight” — at their selected school(s), and then set aside a special time for prayer at least once a month throughout the school year.
At many of the prayer walks, the participants will break up into small groups and navigate through the halls of the schools. The groups will stop at various places – the classrooms, the lockers, the cafeteria, the parking lot – and pray for students and the staff at each stop. At other schools, where the prayer groups aren’t allowed on campus, the group will often gather across the street or somewhere nearby the school to pray for the students.
David Evans, evangelism specialist for the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board, believes that having an intentional focus on students through prayer is paramount.
“Some people may ask, ‘Why are we having a prayer focus on a specific group and why should we pray for students?’ ” Evans said. “And here is how I usually answer those questions: ‘It’s because oftentimes students don’t know to pray for themselves.’ They are young in faith, at best. And that’s where we need to step in and pray for them. Think about it. Where would most of us be if someone had not interceded for us?”
Bobby Busch, principal at Joseph Brown Elementary and a member of First Baptist Church, Columbia, said he believes the prayer event is making a positive impact and he would like to see more and more schools and churches involved.
“Prayer is imperative — every school needs it,” said Busch. “There are battles and challenges at any school you go to. We need to pray for the students and the teachers, too. It’s making a difference.”
To help churches understand the importance of praying for students, Wherry — a member of Heritage Baptist Church in Johnson City in addition to his role with First Priority — said he encourages church members to view each school as a mission field.
“Our schools are basically like cities. We’ve got a school in my town with about 4,000 people in it — and it’s a city that’s lost,” he said. “We need to pray for salvation (for students), and pray for them as an unreached people group.”
Wherry has experience with unreached people groups. He and his wife, Kelly, are Mission Service Corps missionaries with the North American Mission Board.
Wherry said the Weekend of Prayer is gaining momentum, and he believes it will become even stronger in the future.
“There’s no way of telling, numbers-wise, how many people participated (in previous years),” he said, “but I do know that here in northeast Tennessee, we had more than 2,000 people last year who came to the prayer walks. And those were just the ones we were aware of.”
The reason the program is having an impact, Wherry said, is because so many churches have unified on this specific prayer need.
“The great thing about the Weekend of Prayer is that it is a charge to everybody,” said Wherry. “Even the churches that have a heart for the students have never really been challenged in terms of the idea of praying. So, the Weekend of Prayer is really a unifying thing. It gives them a chance to say, hey, we are all in this together.”
Wherry said having Tennessee lawmakers involved in the process has helped bring awareness and acceptance to the idea of unified prayer for students.
“One of the coolest results that I have seen is that churches who have tried to reach out to the schools (in the past) have run into that ‘separation of church and state’ myth — and they have been told that they don’t belong in the schools,” said Wherry.
“But now, with the Weekend of Prayer, these churches have had the opportunity to go to these administrations and say ‘the government of Tennessee says this is when we are supposed to be praying for your schools. So, can you give us some prayer requests?’
“It is opening the door between the church and the school,” said Wherry. “It’s just the church saying that we want to love on the school. And we want to start by praying for you.”