How Queensland’s state schools remain ‘mission fields’ for ‘harvesting’

“But Dad! Dad! We learned it at school!” This was how my son defended his claim that “God created the whole world”. 

Evidently, this was a ‘fact’ he had been ‘taught’ in Religious Instruction (RI) class at his state school. He was also told that Jesus loves him and died to save us all but was miraculously resurrected.

And these unverifiable beliefs were taken as truths beyond reproach because he learned them at school.

I wondered who was more naïve – my six-year-old son or me for assuming state schools wouldn’t facilitate evangelism.

For me, this moment crystallised what’s wrong with RI and motivated me to campaign against it.

Even given the above experience, I was unsurprised by a 2021 video of a volunteer describing state schools as “amazing mission fields” in conversation with Citipointe Church pastor Tim McDonald. 

 “I saw over 100 children make an active, willing decision to go and follow us and be in the kingdom of Heaven”, gushed the volunteer.

McDonald responded:

“Wow. Wow. So incredible. Anyone lead 100 people to Christ this week, as well? That is a powerful, powerful mission field. What an incredible, incredible thing. Now, we also are blessed here in Queensland, as you said, legislated that this is legal to happen in schools.” 

The volunteer continued:

“It’s almost like having a church in the school system…the mission opportunity is incredible. And, with that, you can have a potential to harvest hundreds for the Lord. And disciple them afterwards”.

According to government policy, state schools must halt curriculum learning for up to one hour per week for RI classes. Children from Year 1 onwards attend RI in the religion nominated by their parents, assuming lessons in that faith are available. More than 95 per cent of RI is Christian, mostly preaching a conservative version of the faith.

Segregated from their classmates, non-participants cannot continue with curriculum learning. Instead, they do unstructured free reading or revision supervised by a teacher. These days, only 25 per cent of students opt in to RI.

Given our stagnating literacy and numeracy rates, we are losing precious class time for the benefit of a shrinking minority.

The materials used for RI are neither vetted nor approved by the education department. In 2016, I published several articles outlining inappropriate and disturbing classes, including the roleplaying of beheadings as part of the David and Goliath fable, and age-inappropriate horror stories about vampires

Other lessons told kids they “will die” if they are selfish, and they are like dirty towels in need of cleansing.

Following a 2016 Queensland education department review, some of these lessons were modified or removed.

The fundamental problem with RI is that learning settings are appropriated to present beliefs as facts. RI is evangelism posing as education.

Children as young as five and six are told to take falsehoods as fact, myths as history, and unverifiable propositions as certain knowledge.

Untrained volunteers assume the authority of teachers using unapproved materials to preach rather than teach.

In the Sydney Morning Herald on 27 June 2016, I noted that Connect RI materials, developed by Youthworks, taught that the Bible is God’s word: that it is historically reliable and still relevant today.” The stories about Adam and Eve, and Noah’s Ark, are presented as historical facts, despite both having been disproven by science.

Disturbingly, studies have found the teaching of Creationism commonplace in Queensland schools. A current Connect lesson, ‘Big Questions’, contrasts the Bible narrative of Creation with the theory of Evolution and asks students to say which option appeals to them more.

Even though Christian RI advocates deny proselytising, the evidence is pervasive and damning. RI materials provider Quizworks said “they exist to evangelise children”.

The provider of Connect, Youthworks, has previously claimed that making disciples “is why we exist”.

The 2016 Queensland education department review found the materials contained examples of possible proselytising. It noted: …legal advice provided by faith groups has indicated the view there is no legislative basis for prohibition of proselytising in the EDPA or EDPR [the relevant Education Acts].”    

Children are encouraged to participate in prayers similar to the example below from Youthworks Connect 2016: 

“Dear God, thank you that Jesus died on the cross so I could be part of your family. I am sorry for wanting to live my own way, but now I want to live your way. Please forgive me and help me to learn more about you. Amen.” If you prayed that prayer in your head, welcome to God’s family! You’re a Kingdom Kid.

A recent Monash University study by Dr Jennifer Bleazby raised concerns that church groups were using the lessons to indoctrinate children. Dr Bleazby was ‘alarmed’ the program risks fostering the uncritical acceptance of beliefs and misinformation. 

More than half of the Queensland teachers surveyed in 2020 by the Australian Education Union (AEU) reported seeing religious instruction providers try to convert children.

Additionally, the study revealed that 85 per cent of teachers thought that religious instruction should take place outside of the classroom. 

The Citipointe video sparked outrage from Labor MPs. Don Brown, the member for Capalaba, said: “As a father of a son who just started Prep at a state school, this video sickened me to my core. A church bragging about harvesting our kids for their ‘disciples’ in our state schools.”

The Citipointe video was the catalyst for a motion by ALP members to move RI out of curriculum time. Our educators agree. The Queensland Teachers’ Union and the Queensland Association of State School Principals also want RI taken out of curriculum time.

Evangelical religious lessons have always been contentious. A scathing 1972 report commissioned by education minister Sir Alan Fletcher branded RI “educationally unsound”.

In 2023, we live in a diverse and pluralistic society where only 45 per cent of people identify as Christian and less than 15 per cent regularly attend church.

RI is an anachronism and a relic of a bygone age when we were universally Christian.

Enough of untrained adults preaching to children. Enough of the deceit in presenting beliefs as facts. Our kids deserve better. And so do taxpayers, who already contribute to religious schools and churches, and should not be further burdened by subsidising the squandering of class time in secular state schools.

Class time is for teaching, not preaching.

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Image: Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash; Polina Rytova on Unsplash.

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