Hope Academy is just one school startup model of many models. But if you’re planning on starting a new God-centered school for children of the city I want to encourage you to dream big, start small, and grow slow.
In my more than 30 years of ministry, I have to say that the biggest mistake in serving the Lord has been consistently underestimating God. Over and over and over, I have underestimated God. It reminds me of the book, Your God is Too Small by J.B. Phillips. That is not the God of the Scriptures; that’s the god that I have made Him into. I made Him into basically someone who is a little bit smarter, stronger, and able than the best of us. That is not God! God is God. And over and over I continue to plan as if God is not who He says He is.
To give you an example of that, when our school was about five or six years old, we had maxed out the church building that we were in. We had classes meeting in a janitor’s closet at one point. It was just unsustainable. We had been looking for years for what the next place was for the school, and couldn’t find anything that was working. And finally we found a photographic film processing factory nearby that had gone out of business when everything went digital. We were going to buy their factory for a million and a half dollars, and put another million and a half dollars to convert it into a school that would serve about a 150 kids. No gym, no cafeteria, no playground. It was just a barebones thing. And we assumed, “Well, that’s what the Lord has given to us, that’s our next step.”
We began to move ahead with that plan. Then one morning, I got a call from our Board President.
He said, “Russ, we’ve got a problem.”
I said, “Really? What’s going on?”
He said, “You won’t believe this, but as the workmen were doing some soil sampling at the new building, they found arsenic in the soil.”
I said, “They found what?”
Across the street there was a factory that made pesticides, and some of the arsenic that they used had contaminated other places nearby. And the only solution for this was to remove six feet of the topsoil, to truck it away, and to replace it at a cost of another million dollars. So we had to abandon the project. We had told our parents, we had told everybody that we were doing this new thing. We had started raising money for it, and it all came to an end.
I began to despair, “Lord what are you doing? What are you doing?” And then the Lord brought this to mind. He said, “Whenever the Lord gives you a No, it’s always because he’s got a better Yes. Trust me.” And sure enough, 18 months later, we bought a seven-story former hospital that the public schools had put 44 million dollars into to convert into a K-8 school for 600 students. They used it for 15 years and then they sold it to us. One of our donors stepped up and bought this building for Hope. We literally turned the key and walked into a completely ready school all prepared for us. We said, “When God told Joshua that He was going to drive out the nations and give him cities he didn’t build and vineyards he didn’t plant” (see Joshua 24:13), we always add, “And school buildings you didn’t renovate!”
Over and over and over my problem is that I haven’t dreamed big enough. God is always doing something bigger.
But at the same time, I want to encourage you to start small. Dream big, but start small. Don’t despise the days of small things. One of the temptations when you hear about a maturely developed school that’s 17 years in development, you think, “I could never do that!” Or “That seems way too big!” Don’t compare yourselves with mature schools. It would be like a five year old despairing that he wasn’t as strong as a twenty-five year old, or that he wasn’t as fast. A five year old isn’t supposed to be that strong or that fast!
So there’s a day of small things. One of the ways we think about what we’re doing is that we are growing “oaks of righteousness” (Isaiah 61:3). When you’ve got kindergarten, first grade and second grade, all you have are little saplings. You are a long way from having oaks of righteousness. But don’t despair because acorns become oaks if you stay with it long enough. Today, we have acorns and oaks – and you will too. Think of a parenting analogy. God doesn’t give brand new young parents sixteen year olds, does He? He gives you little babies, and that’s by design! Sixteen years later, you’ll be prepared and mature, and ready to handle a sixteen year old, and a school of the kind of scale and size that Hope Academy is today. Don’t despise the day of small things, and getting started.
Don’t despise that your school might only be helping a few people. You know the old starfish story – the little boy walking on the beach, taking starfish that have washed up on the beach and throwing them back into the sea. An old man comes along and says “Little boy, stop for a moment, stop what you’re doing! Just look up ahead of you along the beach – there are thousands of starfish here. You’re not going to make a difference!” The little boy stops, he picks up another one and he says, “It will make a difference to this one!”
That is what we need to remember – all these children are God’s children. They all are infinitely valuable. Helping one or two or five or thirty-five is a gloriously meaningful, important, necessary thing. It will have eternal consequences. There might be 42,000 people in my district, and I’m only serving 475 of those students. But I’m serving 475 children whose lives are never going to be the same.
So dream big, start small, and grow slow. Here’s another story.
Before we started Hope Academy, my Board President, Jeff and I were at a retreat on the shores of Lake Huron. We decided to make a fire in the cabin. As the fire was going along, I stood up and went over to it and took three big logs and put them onto the fire. And guess what happened? I smothered it. The fire died out. And we said, “You know what? This is a metaphor for Hope Academy. We are going to take a grow slow approach.”
There have been a couple of times during our experience when we violated our grow slow approach, and each time we did that we almost sunk the school. There was a time when we started our Middle School and another time when we started our High School, where we said, “In order to provide the level of programming that most parents expect from a Middle School or a High School, we really have to have a critical mass of students.”
So we opened the doors and we brought in a large number of Middle School students, and later on High School students, that hadn’t come up through our system. And in both cases it worked out terribly. We almost sunk the school. It was analogous to the way a healthy body, when it gets an infection, can tolerate a small infection. But if you bring in a massive infection – which happened when students brought in their toxic school culture from elsewhere into our school – it almost kills the patient.
The same is true with regards to the fundraising piece of what we are doing. In most schools, new students are additional revenue. In our schools, new students are another bill – another $7,000 bill. You can only grow at the pace that you can raise the money to serve those students. That demands a grow slow type of approach. I know that all of us are impatient people, and want to grow faster. But let me encourage you that we benefited from a grow slow approach.
Let me just leave you with one scripture from the Gospel because I believe that this is a unique moment of time in our history. Early on in Jesus’ ministry He went to Nazareth, and went to the synagogue on the Sabbath. They handed him the book of Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll, and He found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free. And to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).
I believe with all my heart that our schools can do this more effectively than almost any other thing I can think of. If I had the choice of bringing this message to an inner city neighborhood by planting a church or starting a school, I think from what I know now, 95 times out of a 100 I would start the school first, and then the church. I don’t think there’s anything with the kind of promise and power to impact an inner city neighborhood with good news for the poor, freedom for the prisoners, sight for the blind, and freedom for the oppressed, than the kind of schools that we’re talking about. And I think for many of us, if we won’t do it, the Lord will move on and find some others who will.
Because he is determined to do it – to use this unique opportunity of the urban education crisis for believers, in the power of the Spirit, to bring real hope and real change. Hope in God changes everything.
So dream big, start small, grow slow.