For years, our church has had the privilege of hosting local high school baccalaureate services. There are numerous high schools in our community and we have partnered with two on occasion as the host of this special service for graduates.
When I first began serving on pastoral staff at our church (21 years ago as the Student Pastor) I was asked to serve on an advisory team of parents, students and school representatives to plan the service, since we now had the newest facility in town and became the de-facto host.
I gladly served with these volunteers each year, but soon discovered that the crowd and enthusiasm for the event was determined not by the school (which doesn't officially host a baccalaureate due to concerns over church/state offenses) or the church representation, but by participation of students and parents.
After just a few years, we began to be more intentional in the planning as church leaders and a sense of consistency grew.
However, as the years have gone by, attendance (which is voluntary) has waned at baccalaureate services.
Senior Year Traditions
Times have changed. Graduating from high school is a significant accomplishment. There are new celebrations of graduation that have developed. For instance, the now mandatory senior pictures taken in front of a rusty barn or a random tree with PhotoShop airbrush effects that make every graduate magazine front-page worthy. Then, there are the ridiculous "promposals" that take place each spring (My favorite is the one depicted on the insurance commercial below.)
What Is a Baccalaureate?
With all that's new and celebrated, the Baccalaureate has all but disappeared.
Each of the six high school's in our community have graduating classes of hundreds. Yet, each school seems to only have only a few dozen in attendance for baccalaureate services. Of those in attendance, it is plainly evident each year that the majority are not sure what the event is supposed to be about and only come because their parents heard it was happening and said "We're doing this. You're a senior."
Each school's service is different. In fact, the services vary each year based on the leadership and planning team. It is clear in the services I have attended, either as a pastor, friend or parent, that many involved in the planning do not understand the meaning and significance of the baccalaureate.
While the history of the service has its roots in medieval Europe as a custom of presenting laurels for those earning their Bachelor's Degree, it has over time been designated as a celebration for those graduating from high school. It is religious in nature, and specifically Christian, though in some areas in the name of inclusivity and tolerance, it has become a multi-faith event. However, the combination of all faiths actually removes the historic significance and true meaning of it being a Christian celebration of worship. Therefore, to have an "all-faith Baccalaureate service" is actually not possible in the truest sense of the word.
That being said, many, if not all American public schools have relegated the baccalaureate service to an off-campus, non-school sponsored community or local church event. It is no wonder why attendance has dropped over time.
What Is The Value of the Baccalaureate Service?
This is a question that begs to be answered as planning and scheduling of the events continues in our churches. If the event is little more than a pseudo-graduation event. . . a "graduation before the graduation" to just add to the senior and his/her family's schedule toward the end of the journey, then the value is weak, if non-existent.
However, if the gathering is the strategic and intentional gathering of the church to celebrate and honor God as the children He's blessed us to disciple, raise, and journey through life with are experiencing a "Rite of Passage" then there is much value.
The Church Joins the Journey
One service does not a discipling journey make. This is true. Yet, in the midst of the noise and busyness that develops throughout the spring semester of high school seniors, a moment of thankfulness, worship and strategic pause and worship is more than needed.
"There Is No Gain in Hosting These Events."
If a church seeks to host Baccalaureate events for the sole purpose of getting more members, that likely will not happen. Why? Because the vast majority of those who attend these services are already active students in local church ministries and in most cases are members of churches already. Therefore, if the host church seeks to gain new members/attenders from this crowd, the truth is that motivation is based on "sheep stealing" and not Kingdom-growth, even if unintentional.
There is Much Gain in Hosting Together
So, this leads me to the possible shift for our community. With six high schools and dozens of churches (and I'm speaking only of those evangelical churches with like doctrine and teaching) it seems that much value could be gained by hosting ONE BACCALAUREATE SERVICE for our community schools in a central location (a church, theater, school, etc.) with ONE FOCUS - blessing these students through this rite of passage and worshipping God together.
I envision students from numerous high schools walking in, sporting their green, gold, orange, white, blue, white, black, gold, and red. Worship would be rich. The message challenging, yet encouraging but definitely saturated in grace and far from "follow your heart" that often comes at commencement speeches. Parents will be honored. Families will be recognized. Graduates will be walked through a rite of passage unlike many will find elsewhere.
And God will be worshipped.
What's the gain? The church united for the sake of the Gospel.
The Enemy's strategy is seemingly winning in the culture and in many families. The church, united on the Word of God, focused on His Kingdom (and not our little kingdoms) for His sake and His glory, through prayer and love will push back the darkness.
Maybe next year.