MORRISTOWN — While the name of Jesus and prayer are taboo on many public school campuses, Jesus is alive and well on several campuses in East Tennessee thanks to the efforts of a Mohawk pastor and Baptist lay leaders who are involved in First Priority.
First Priority is a Christian Bible Club that is student initiated, student led, and is perfectly legal on public school campuses.
And what’s more, students are accepting Christ as Lord and Savior on these campuses.
John Rogers, bivocational pastor of Beulah Baptist Church, Mohawk, became involved with First Priority while he was a layman at Alpha Baptist Church in Morristown.
He went to his initial First Priority one week and the next week he was told “you’re on your own.”
Fourteen years later, Rogers is still heavily involved with First Priority.
About a year after he began working with the program, Rogers was called as pastor of Beulah Baptist Church. “It was like walking into a nest of school teachers,” he recalled, noting that there were five to six schools in three counties represented in that congregation.
Rogers shared his vision of what could be done with First Priority clubs on the public school campuses and the teachers in his congregation responded.
Since then Rogers has helped students start about eight First Priority Bible clubs in four counties — Hamblen, Greene, Cocke, and Jefferson.
Jeff Harvel, an evangelist from Morristown, is a frequent speaker at First Priority meetings.
He observed that as Rogers helped get the clubs started at the various schools he did not encounter any opposition from principals.
“The hand of God opened the doors,” Harvel said.
The request for a First Priority club must come from students, Rogers said. Each club must have a faculty sponsor and many of those have come from Beulah and other local churches.
Students even enlist the speakers, normally their pastors or youth ministers. First Priority is non-denominational, but many of those who speak on campuses are Tennessee Baptists, Rogers said.
The club meets once a week for about 30 minutes prior to the start of the school day, he noted.
Rogers still uses the original First Priority format which involves a four-week cycle: Accountability Week, Challenge Week, Testimony Week, and Seek Week which involves an evangelistic message.
First Priority is successful because you have a cycle of meetings that includes the evangelistic message, Rogers said. “It’s not just a social gathering.”
Harvel agreed. “It’s a proven process that works.”
Dixie Rodgers, a member of First Baptist Church, Morristown, and a teacher at West View Middle School, has been involved with the program since it began on her campus more than 15 years ago.
“Once every four weeks the plan of salvation is presented to the students at our weekly meeting,” she said, adding that she is always amazed to see a student who has never attended a First Priority meeting go to the meeting where the gospel is shared.
“I am even more amazed and thankful that after the group hears the gospel, that student, who has never attended, raises his/her hand that he/she has prayed to receive Jesus as Lord and Savior.
“You see, my God draws these precious souls to Him. He knows each heart, each need, each desire to fill the void that exists in the hearts of so many students,” Rodgers said.
She noted her job with First Priority is easy. “All I have to do is show up. God does the real work — the work of changing hearts and showing students that He loves them unconditionally.”
Rodgers noted that once it appeared that First Priority would no longer be allowed in her school, she researched the rights of students to meet as a Christian group before school.
“Being the rule follower that I am, I didn’t want to cause problems. Being a follower of Christ, I knew I needed to make a stand. As I prayed for guidance, God opened a door that only He could open. The club was able to continue without interruption,” she noted.
Tammy Turner-Fox is a member of Beulah Baptist and a teacher at McDonald Middle School in Greene County. She is a strong proponent of First Priority.
“In times in which we live, we know that so many teachers get in trouble for mentioning God’s name or giving Him any recognition. First Priority is the perfect opportunity to be able to legally get to testify about Jesus Christ,” she said.
Turner-Fox also noted that she has seen a decline of the family in the years she has taught school.
“For some students, First Priority is the only ‘church’ they get to attend or the only place they hear about the Word of God.”
Jimmy Fox, also a member of Beulah who has been involved in First Priority for 12 years, agreed.
“Most of the kids in my school are unchurched and the only opportunity they have to hear the gospel is through First Priority clubs,” he said, adding that he has seen “many children come to Christ because of it.”
Rogers observed that a leader of a First Priority club at a school in a neighboring county left and kids were concerned that First Priority would no longer be held.
“A young boy came up to me and asked me to keep it going because his parents would not take him to church. He told me, ‘This is my church for the week.’ ”
Carol Byrum is another Beulah Baptist member who teaches in Cocke County. She recalled that over the past 10 years many students have told her that they were saved after hearing the message of Jesus at a First Priority meeting.
“Over the years I have watched students grow in their faith and witness,” Byrum said.
Harvel noted that kids who make decisions in the club meetings are provided with Bibles if they don’t have one.
Rogers praised the teachers on the campuses who help sponsor the clubs. “Every time a teacher sponsors a club they are hooked. They are a part of what God does on those campuses,” he said.
Rogers also noted that when students have problems or spiritual questions, those First Priority sponsors are the teachers they turn to.
Harvel and Rogers agreed that the public schools provide an opportunity to take the gospel to where lost people are.
Turner-Fox noted that she has heard it said that the public schools have become one of the greatest missions fields available.
“That is so true,” she affirmed.
Though he is extremely busy as a bivocational pastor (he owns a construction company), Rogers has no thoughts about abandoning First Priority. “I see people saved every month. That keeps me encouraged,” he said.
Since he first became involved with First Priority, Rogers estimated he has seen between 1,000-2,000 kids accept Christ as their Lord and Savior.
From a teacher’s perspective First Priority has been more rewarding than she could have ever dreamed, Dixie Rodgers said.
“After being a stay-at-home mom for 15 years it became clearer to me why God called me back into the classroom. In addition to having a missions field in the classroom, the door was opened (through First Priority) to extend that field beyond anything I could have ever hoped or imagined,” she said.