LifeWise Academy Brings Bible Class to Public School Students
Public school students in more than 300 schools are studying the Bible during the school day thanks to an innovative non-profit called LifeWise Academy. This might set off alarm bells from the secular set, but the program is indeed legal and is being embraced by communities across the country.
Under released time laws, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1952, students are allowed to be released from public school during the day to attend religious classes. The program must take place off school property, be privately funded and parent permission is required for participation.
‘Single greatest missed opportunity’
Joel Penton, a former youth motivational speaker and Ohio State football player, is the founder and CEO of LifeWise Academy. He says he was even surprised upon first hearing Bible education during the school day could be done legally. He now refers to released time religious instruction as the “single greatest missed opportunity of the American church to reach the next generation with the Word of God.”
He modeled LifeWise after a Bible education program founded in 2012 in Van Wert, Ohio, in which 95 percent of the elementary students participated and walked to the off-campus education center. LifeWise was officially founded in Columbus, Ohio, in 2019 as a plug-in-play program that can be scaled to any U.S. school district. It started in two schools and quickly expanded; even during the Covid pandemic, Penton says the program’s growth exceeded their expectations. It is now in 325 schools in 12 states, reaching an estimated 35,000 students in rural, urban and suburban areas, with a large presence in Ohio and surrounding Midwest states.
Restoring Bible education to American public schools
LifeWise, he says, is simply trying to restore Bible education to American public school students. Many people do not realize that up until the last 100 years, American school children read the Bible in the classroom. For instance, during the Colonial era, the New England Primer, the common textbook, taught the alphabet using Bible passages-teaching the letter “A” has a sentence and image about Adam and Eve. During the 1800s, the growth of secularism and science, along with a series of court cases in the 1900s, led to the Bible being officially removed from public schools.
Religion helps with anxiety, depression and fosters gratitude
LifeWise’s efforts couldn’t come at a better time when anxiety, depression and addictions are skyrocketing while church attendance, Bible education have plummeted. Many studies show that religion and religious education positively affect character, mental health and academic achievement. Even non-religious organizations, such as the National Alliance of Mental Illness, confirm this. According to NAMI, “Both religion and spirituality can help a person tolerate stress by generating peace, purpose and forgiveness.” Further, it states that research indicates belonging to a religion helps reduce suicide, alcoholism and drug use. NAMI also found that people who belong to a religion feel a sense of community, and rituals associated with religion help people cope with loss, among other benefits. Religious teachings, it also acknowledges, teach valuable life lessons including morality, compassion, forgiveness and gratitude.
Local churches are also appreciating and supporting LifeWise’s education, as it’s driving attendance. “Many students who come through LifeWise have had no religious education and some have even never been inside a church, says Derek Stemen, VP of advancement at LifeWise. He adds that they’ve also seen numerous cases in which families start attending a local church for the first time or start going again, after their child is enrolled in a LifeWise program.
How does LifeWise work?
LifeWise has a 10-step process to help communities adopt its program, from collecting signatures and giving guidance on fund-raising to forming steering committees, getting school approval and recruiting and training teams. LifeWise classrooms can be rented space, renovated existing spaces, new construction or modular buildings. It helps communities overcome many hurdles: For instance, if students can’t walk with a chaperone to a classroom, they can be bussed. LifeWise provides schools with a standard curriculum that avoids controversial interpretations of the Bible. Unlike before and after-school Bible education programs, it attracts students who wouldn’t be able to attend otherwise, which it credits for its high participation rates. And finally, no students are compelled to attend the program, or feel excluded if their parents opt for them not to participate because it takes place during electives periods.
Penton says it’s faced its share of obstacles from groups that oppose its mission. It’s currently being sued by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which is urging Ohio’s 600 school districts to reject its programs. Penton doesn’t seem worried as he believes the law is on the side of LifeWise. It’s pushing forward with a plan to be in all 50 states. Yes, he says, even blue states like California.