By Jeff Finley
What’s the appropriate reaction when a local school promotes a club sponsored by the Satanic Temple?
Joe Wickman — the lead pastor of New Life Ministries in Endicott, New York — decided not to ignore the situation but instead to mention it during Sunday church services and advise his Free Methodist congregation how to respond wisely. The video of his remarks has since been viewed more than 3,700 times on Facebook and nearly 700 times on YouTube. In a new episode of “The Light + Life Podcast,” Wickman discusses with host Brett Heintzman what led him to speak out.
“One of our local elementary schools sent home flyers and sign-up sheets for a club that’s an after-school program called the After School Satan Club,” Wickman said. “I started getting messages from parents and community members that were just understandably outraged and scared — confused. I thought it was a hoax, but when I looked into it, it turns out that it’s actually a legitimate club that’s attached to and run by the Satanic Temple.”
“This could go sideways really fast.” – Joe Wickman
Wickman understood the concerns of parents and other community members while also being concerned about how some people might respond.
“I thought, ‘Wow, people are upset. Parents are afraid for how their children are going to be influenced and rightly so,’” Wickman recalled. “But I thought, ‘This could go sideways really fast.’ What I pictured in my mind was Christians — who were upset and doing more feeling than thinking — were going to bear out their grievances. … I said, ‘I’ve got to really choose my response and our response as a church carefully.’”
He reflected on the advice of one of his early mentors in ministry who told him: “Satan always overplays his hand.” Wickman explained, “If Satan was more subtle, content to stay in the background, he might be even more successful.” However, “by his nature, he’s greedy, and he can’t help himself. He pushes too far.”
Satan Versus Good News
According to a Feb. 13 CBN News article, After School Satan Clubs are being organized in multiple states and primarily “targeting public schools that have already approved Good News Clubs [Christian after-school groups affiliated with Child Evangelism Fellowship] to host meetings during after-school hours.”
The Satanic Temple’s website claims that “proselytization is not our goal, and we’re not interested in converting children to Satanism. After School Satan Clubs will focus on free inquiry and rationalism, the scientific basis for which we know what we know about the world around us.” The Satanic Temple claims not to “believe in the existence of Satan or the supernatural” and that “to embrace the name Satan is to embrace rational inquiry removed from supernaturalism.”
The portrayal of the After School Satan Clubs as innocuous, however, isn’t winning over Wickman.
“They’re promoting on paper an atheism when they have their mascot as Satan himself.” – Joe Wickman
“The most generous estimation I could make is that they’re being coy. The more accurate estimation is that they’re being really disingenuous,” he said. “They’re promoting on paper an atheism when they have their mascot as Satan himself. So I’m not saying that they are cognizantly worshipping Satan. I think many of them probably believe their own lies that they’re in fact a do-gooder organization full of people who think people should ‘make up their own minds, and children should be presented with alternatives.’”
However, “what you and I know spiritually is that whether or not somebody else thinks Satan is just a playful mythical creature or not, we do believe in the fact that he is real,” Wickman said. “That is not to be trifled with.”
Avoiding the Trap
Wickman sensed the After School Satan Club is really a trap.
“We live in a culture that makes a career out of expressing outrage, and all it does is it breeds more outrage,” said Wickman, who considered, “If our folks are not given a voice to follow, they’re just going to take to Facebook. They’re going to shoot off the angry communications, and then Christians and the gospel are going to get a black eye. So what kind of a witness is it if all we do is express rage?”
Wickman told his congregation not to fall into the trap.
“I was impassioned as I spoke, because children are precious, and Jesus looks on vulnerable ones with a great deal of care,” said Wickman, who added that his passion included his desire to defend the defenseless. “But I wanted to communicate an alternative to outrage and to take the anger — to take the exasperation that folks are feeling — and to call them to take that energy and instead of leveling it against a school system, instead of leveling it into a Facebook post, to actually leverage it for engagement.”
He cautioned against brief displays of anger to make people feel better, and he reminded them that New Life is sharing the gospel with children who are becoming disciples of Jesus Christ.
“I channeled the folks to curb their anger and actually turn it from outrage into engagement.” – Joe Wickman
“When a child who has heard the gospel at church and they’ve heard it from mom and dad, when they go to school and they tell the teacher’s aide, ‘Jesus loves you,’ you’ve got a little missionary right there in the school who’s doing more good than an after-school club could ever do bad,” Wickman said. “I channeled the folks to curb their anger and actually turn it from outrage into engagement.”
A Good News Club launched last year at the school. Wickman warned his fellow Christians, “If you lean on a school board, they can just make the decision that nobody gets to use the public space. If you want to apply pressure, you’ll probably pressure a school district into kicking out the Good News Club as well as the After School Satan Club, so choose wisely. We’ve got an evangelistic ministry meeting at the school as well as the After School Satan Club, and that’s why I think that this is a ploy in order to get Christians wound up to incite them to put pressure on a school board and get the gospel kicked out of the after-school program time slot.”
Finding Faith at a Young Age
Wickman traces his passion to how he came to faith in Jesus Christ as a child.
“A Free Methodist pastor invited my folks to come to church. It was within a couple of months of us attending our local Free Methodist church that I was sitting in the school cafeteria at my elementary school, and I remembered that the nice lady in church told me I could ask Jesus into my heart anytime I wanted,” he said. “At that lunch table at Clayton Avenue Elementary, I said, ‘I’m going to do that,’ and I prayed. To this day, almost 40 years later, I can remember the chair I was sitting in when I received Christ.”
Wickman believes the most fertile soil for the gospel can be found among children and teens.
“I think that children and teens are the most fertile soil for the gospel that we have.” – Joe Wickman
“I accepted Christ in a public school where nobody was telling me about Jesus, and so I think of these children,” Wickman said. “I think that children and teens are the most fertile soil for the gospel that we have. … I just have such desire for us to continue to reach children, to continue to reach teens, and they’re the best missionaries in their schools that we could have.”
Wickman said he received more feedback within 48 hours about his club comments than he normally receives during an entire month. He believes the situation provides a springboard for the gospel. While New Life has attendance of 600 to 700 people each Sunday, thousands of people have viewed the video of his club comments via various platforms. Some people have responded by volunteering for children’s ministry.
“I think we hit a nerve where people were feeling raw, and we just provided a little bit of wisdom from the Lord to just go along with the Scriptures where we’re warned to not be outwitted. We were warned to be aware,” he said. “By addressing this, we showed folks there’s nothing we can’t talk about. We don’t have to be afraid, and we can just employ God’s wisdom from the Word and not be fooled so that the enemy doesn’t get to leverage this.”
Jeff Finley is this magazine’s executive editor. He joined the Light+Life team in 2011 after a dozen years of reporting and editing for Sun-Times Media. He is a member of John Wesley Free Methodist Church where his wife, Jen, serves as the lead pastor.