I remember a time in the late seventies through the middle eighties when hundreds of churches were involved in after school tutoring programs. Is that still happening? I haven't done a survey to find out, but I also haven't heard much about such programs lately. Is it just old news, or have these programs actually faded away? A Google search will still bring up a few news articles about programs here and there, but what pops up more often is advertising for paid tutoring programs of various types.
It seems to me that the most important work a church could do in 2011 would be to make a difference in a child's life. In a recent issue of the Christian century, John Buchanan was musing about the number of children who have never heard an adult read out loud to them, or had someone other than a teacher ask them if their homework is done. Would the church be a more attractive place to young adults if they remembered it as a place where, when they were growing up, there were loving adults who wanted nothing more than to help them succeed in school and ultimately in life?
It wouldn't just be mission and outreach work for our churches either. I think there would be a lot of very real benefits to the congregations that undertook such a program. I don't mean this to sound cynical, but it seems to me that a congregation that was focusing on and involving many adults in a tutoring program wouldn't have time to have a church fight. Don't you think, too, that if a high percentage of adult members were involved in a tutoring program that gave them great personal and spiritual satisfaction, it's possible that they might even give more generously to their church?
Even though many of us live a fair distance from and must travel by car to our churches, the churches themselves still exist in close proximity to schools. Often, they are close to the very schools where there are few funds for extra programs and many students in need. Administrators in those schools might be thrilled for an offer of help. They might even be willing to do things like rearrange bus schedules to accommodate those students who took advantage of tutoring programs. By adding a simple and wholesome snack to the program, a church could make a double impact.
I hope that I am completely wrong and that programs like this are just as alive and well now as they were in the eighties. But just in case I am not, how about you being the person who proposes an afterschool tutoring program at your church. When Jesus said, "Let the children come to me," I don't think he just meant that we should be nice to kids. I think he meant that we need to give kids a God experience by giving them a good experience.
Let them come into our churches for tutoring [or maybe your church is best suited for an after school recreation program] and let them hear us say, "Whoever you are, wherever you are on life's journey, you're welcome here."
The Rev. Marja Coons-Torn is Conference Minister of the UCC's Penn Central Conference.