Chuck Bomar’s new book, Serving Local Schools, offers sage advice for churches that desire to engage with and serve their communities. He argues that serving local schools is the best entry point into a community. In fact, Bomar believes “it is critical for every church to engage local public schools on some level” (14). The first part of the book lays out a biblical foundation for this claim, with the remainder spent on practical “how-to” questions and considerations.
In chapter 1, Bomar answers the question, “Why public schools?” His first claim is that churches should be a resource to serve the community. Public schools connect a broad cross-section of people; therefore, Bomar contends, a church that wants to serve the community will find that schools are the perfect starting place. “They provide the perfect pathway for us [the church] to be who we are called to be and to reflect who we believe God to be” (34).
Bomar then transitions to discussing the foundation for Christian service. Throughout the second chapter he repeats the refrain, “Jesus had a way about him.” Focusing on Jesus’ example, he exhorts Christians to live a life of service. He explains that Christianity is not merely about following the moral example of Christ, but that our service should be motivated by God’s love for us. “We are the recipients of grace, a love we did not deserve; and because we have been loved in this way, we naturally respond by loving others” (46). This unique motive is what sets Christian service apart from all other service. The indicatives of the gospel are the basis for the imperative to serve as Christ served. Bomar shows that ultimately our love is to mirror the love of the Trinity. Just as each Person of the Trinity looks to and loves the other, we should also be outwardly focused and love our neighbor.
In the third chapter, “Loving the Marginalized,” Bomar suggests that Christian love should focus on the poor and disadvantaged. He explains that in the Bible “poor” is not simply a socioeconomic category. It refers to a person’s spiritual state, not simply a financial state. He also argues that the poor should not be thought of as those far off in other countries: “We’re all called to be missionaries, right where we live” (65). We should humbly serve those who are in our immediate community. Bomar explains that Christian service is humble because it is an exercise in generosity, not power.
At this point in the book, Bomar transitions to practical matters. Having laid a foundation for why we serve and why public schools are a good starting point for service in our communities, in chapters 4 through 8 he answers the question “How?” Chapter 4, “More than Theory,” is full of anecdotes about the ways in which public schools in Portland, Oregon, connected with Bomar’s church to receive help in meeting their needs. Bomar says, “I think this kind of relationship can and should be the norm throughout our country and around the world” (75–76). He says this should be the case because partnering with public schools allows the church to have a faithful presence in the community, to do something for the good of its neighbors, and ultimately to offer itself in the service of others. Bomar puts a strong emphasis on God’s people coming together to serve. He states that Bible studies and small groups are important, but they should lead to action that helps foster unity.
In chapter 5, Bomar provides examples of how to be creative with projects, programs, and people. Chapter 6 contains advice for strategically getting to know people at a public school. He makes his point vividly when he says, “You will want to know who holds the keys to doors you’d like to open and how to develop meaningful relationships with those folks so you aren’t constantly banging your head against a wall” (115). To help find these people, Bomar shares a list of “gatekeepers,” such as principals, school counselors, or front office managers. Chapter 7 discusses the legal precedents for the separation of church and state as it pertains to schools. Bomar gives practical advice and examples of how to navigate the laws regarding the separation of church and state. One of the points of tension, he suggests, is the fact that preaching the gospel is not allowed in a public school. In the final chapter, “Understanding Contexts,” Bomar discusses some of the differences between urban, suburban, and rural areas. Although these contexts vary in many ways, he argues that they have one thing in common: “The school district is a way to embrace the biblical mandate of love through the gospel toward the poor and disadvantaged in that community” (157). The chapter concludes with advice and questions for learning about your context and imparts an exhortation to do something.
In addition to these eight chapters, Serving Local Schools includes two appendices: “Safe Families” and “Compassion.” These are two programs that Bomar’s church has started, and which he offers as models of what a church can do in conjunction with the local public schools.
Overall, Bomar presents a strong case for using public schools as an entry point for the church to engage the local community. He shows that a great number of connections and opportunities to serve the community can be discovered through these means. If this was the extent of his contention, he would have a compelling argument. However, he overstates the case, claiming that engaging local schools is the “key,” “should be the norm,” or is “critical.” He does not offer adequate evidence to support such a strong conclusion. In addition, while Bomar lays a strong theological foundation for Christian service, there is a lack of detail and nuance that leaves something to be desired. For example, there is no discussion of the diaconate and their roles, which one might expect in a book about Christian service and mercy ministry. There is no distinction between the work of the church and how an individual Christian might choose to serve their community. It seems that while helping the local public school would be a great way to start serving one’s community, it is not the only way, nor is there anything in Scripture dictating that the church as an institution should serve through that avenue as opposed to any others. In short, the place of Christian liberty in deciding how to serve is an oversight of Bomar’s argument. All of this said, if one chooses to engage with the school district in order to serve the local community, Bomar provides excellent practical advice in the second half of his book.
Andrew Menkis (MA, Historical Theology, Westminster Seminary California) is head of the theology department at Washington Christian Academy in Olney, Maryland.