April 2009 Church & State | People & Events

Fundamentalist Christian groups bent on evangelizing public school students are turning to some new tools: increasingly popular social networking Web sites.

A woman in Marysville, Wash., said she was shocked to learn that her 11-year-old daughter had received an invitation to an evangelistic event through the child’s MySpace page. The invitation came with an offer of a ride from a 19-year-old youth group leader.

The mother, Rianne Olver, said her daughter apparently met the youth group leader at Totem Middle School. Members of the Turning Point Church have been volunteering to help out in the school, and in the process approach students about attending religious events.

According to Olver, the message her daughter received read, “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. The message came from youth group leader Emily Masten. Olver, concerned that an adult was soliciting her child and offering to pick her up without parental permission, filed a complaint with the 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 go to 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 Villamor made no apologies about using social networking sites. 

“Facebook, MySpace, that’s what they exist for,” he said. “Wicked, vile bands use those to invite kids to dangerous environments.”

Another pastor, Jeff Knight of the Rock Church in Monroe, told the Herald it’s only natural that churches would use Web-based tools to reach youngsters.  

“Given all the other communities in the blogosphere, I would have a hard time saying, ‘Hey, a youth pastor shouldn’t create an online community,’” he said.

Turning Point Church has also used low-tech methods to reach students. 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 go to Turning Point Church because it’s a cool place to be,” he told The Stranger, a Seattle-area weekly paper. “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.

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.”