Mar 05, 2009

It's the age of MySpace and Facebook, text messages and e-mail, and for some fundamentalist evangelists, maybe even e-proselytizing.

According to reports from two Washington state newspapers, a local middle school student recently received this MySpace message from a 19-year-old church youth leader:

"Hey, 628 tonight! 6 o clock, free espresso for visitors. Super rad games and activities. Hang out with cool people. Plus you are really cool so it would just make it that much cooler. Are you going to be there? If you need a ride, I can hook it up:)"

"628" is Turning Point Church's youth group for sixth through eighth graders, and youth group leader Emily Masten sent that message to Rianne Olver's 11-year-old daughter after meeting her at Totem Middle School in Marysville, Wash.

Olver, concerned that an adult was soliciting her child and offering to pick her up without parental permission, filed a complaint with Marysville School District.

"To me, it's really disturbing to know there are adults at the school sitting down with the kids saying, 'Hey, can I have your MySpace and your phone number," Olver told the Everett Herald. "It's a huge red flag. It's really creepy.

"If she wants to go to church, she can to go church," Olver said of her daughter. "But I don't want her being bribed into going to a church."

The public school allows church volunteers to serve as informal mentors, keep an eye on students during lunch and plan games and activities, Assistant Superintendent Gail Miller told the Herald.

Mentors are not permitted to mention religion unless students bring up the subject, and they are not supposed to ask students for phone numbers or MySpace information, she said.

Turning Point Senior Pastor Mike Villamor claims he tells the volunteers to follow these rules. The church has sent representatives into the schools for years, and vows it is looking into the incident to figure out what went wrong.   He also insists the congregation just wants "to give every person an opportunity to hear about how much God loves them," and has no desire to recruit anyone.

But it appears Turning Point's people are known for doing just that. Four years ago, Nick Poling, a former Totem Middle School student, said emissaries from the church would hang out in the school's open-air hallways and hand out Bibles.

"[They said] that we should all to go to Turning Point Church because it's a cool place to be," he told The Stranger. "They were out there waiting for us when we came out for the buses.

"I just was kind of confused," said Poling, "as to why the administration would let them do that."

Miller claims since Olver's complaint, the school district has told Turning Point Church to stop sending volunteers until an investigation is completed.

Pastor Villamor says the church has "voluntarily taken all our teens off of the school campuses, just as a statement to the school district and even to the mother, to let people know we want our interns trained correctly."

Regardless, it's clear that if the school district allows these volunteers back on to campus, it would be a huge gamble. Schools must be careful that their volunteers abide by school rules and stay within constitutional boundaries. Schools cannot risk exposing students to any sort of religious coercion.