AT the Catalyst Church, at Brassall near Ipswich, 106 religious instructors and assistants gather for training to prepare for their 2018 instructing in state schools.
Similar training sessions are happening in centres across Queensland as an army of volunteers – from every denomination – take on the task of delivering the message of Jesus in the classroom.
“It’s very satisfying, I’ve learnt a lot myself,” Amy Hollier, who delivers religious instruction at Silkstone State School, said.
“It’s one thing to know about a subject, but when you start to communicate it you see it afresh and learn it even deeper.”
Mrs Hollier started in the classroom when her daughter entered the school five years ago, and she’s been surprised at the religious knowledge gap among many of the young students.
“Definitely some of them know nothing. They’ve never heard that the Bible teaches that God created the world, and most of them don’t know who Jesus really is – what he came to do and what he promises for humanity,” she said.
“If you are starting with Year 1, 95 per cent of the kids at the school don’t know the answers to those questions – in a Christian context.”
A survey of 650 religious instructors show that they come from a variety of church backgrounds; 24 per cent Baptist, 13 per cent Catholic, 12 per cent Anglican, while Uniting, Presbyterian and Pentecostal churches make up nine per cent each.
And while there are many first-timers attending training, of the 650 religious instructors across the state, many have a decade or more of experience.
A quarter of all instructors are former teachers or current part-time teachers, and the average age is 57.
At the Ipswich training day, about 20 new volunteers arrive just wanting to participate and undertake training.
The instructors are briefed on the latest state school safety guidelines and child protection.
Under a Code of Conduct they discuss integrity and impartiality in the way they present, and promote what they do to the public.
Trainer and Baptist pastor Cheryl Clendinning, with more than 30 years’ experience, is also on hand to explain the finer points of GodSpace, an inter-denominational program widely used in Queensland and New South Wales.
It is a three-year curriculum designed to inform and engage children aged five to 12 in a relationship with God and his Word.
“They (the children) have a choice to go on a journey. They are explorers and adventurers and navigators and voyagers,” Reverend Clendinning said.
Rev. Clendinning believes there’s a strong place for the religion in state education, even though there are opponents who want the program scrapped.
“I appreciate they can have different views but Christianity has been the foundation of our society. Other faiths have joined in,” she said.
“It’s not forcing anything on anybody. It’s providing an education. If you want to parallel with other curriculums: we introduce all our children to mathematics, but they don’t all become mathematicians at the end.”
Christian RI Network regional co-ordinator Suzie Overell said there was a thirst for religious instruction in state schools.
“You go in to those schools and you see approximately 70 per cent of students whose parents chose RI for them,” she said.
“A lot of parents want their child to have a holistic education and that includes a little taste of religion.”
Mrs Overell said RI classes were generally for 30 minutes each week, and Bible stories were presented through a “clear, age-appropriate engaging curriculum which is in accordance with the Department of Education and Training’s policies and procedures”.
“You are not belting them over the head with the Bible. Once you share the biblical stories in a very loving way it falls into place for them, they enjoy it, and most love to pray,” she said. “With over 30 years experience, I’ve seen the positive impact that CRI makes to childrens’ lives.”
Experience counts in the classroom
Former Christian Brother and long-time teacher Paul Hodgkinson has unique insight into religious instruction in state schools. At 83, he has spent the past 20 years delivering RI.
“I was teaching in Catholic schools for around 40 years and I find it much better at the moment being an instructor in state schools,” he said.
“By reading the name of Jesus at the start, they (the students) experience His presence within and He gives them his holy spirit to understand the mysteries.
“Little children understand the deep mysteries of the Trinity and the incarnation and with that experience their behaviour becomes a whole lot better – and the teachers notice this.
“They (the teachers) say: ‘When you come into the room somebody comes with you’. And I say: ‘No, He’s already there. He’s in the kids’.”
Ms Hollier agrees there are many fruits of volunteering as a religious instructor.
“Each day is different. You have really exciting, satisfying and fun classes where the students ask really good questions and you know they are really starting to understand God’s love and who Jesus is and the beauty of the Good News,” she said. “Those days, you just walk away with a thankfulness and a joy to see that their world view is changing for the better.”