In the August 2009 issue of Harper's Magazine, Brooklyn-based writer Rachel Aviv penned an article titled "Like I was Jesus: How to Bring a 9-Year-Old to Christ." I was intrigued enough by this article to shoot her an e-mail and ask her some questions about her experiences researching this piece.
How would you describe the Child Evangelism Fellowship?
The Child Evangelism Fellowship is an international ministry that claims to save more than one million children each year - generally between the ages of 5 and 12. Since 1937, the ministry has been holding Bible clubs in homes, public parks, and housing projects, but in 2001, they won the right, in the Supreme Court case Good News Club vs. Milford Central School, to hold Bible clubs in public schools. At each Bible club, they ask "unsaved" children if they want to devote their lives to Christ - this process can take less than 10 minutes. Some children they reach have little or no previous knowledge of Jesus.
How were you able to get media access to the Child Evangelism Fellowship's team in Connecticut?
With some difficulty. I first tried ministries in New Jersey and New York, and they both said they did not feel comfortable having me tag along with their missionaries since I was writing for a secular publication. The leader of the Connecticut ministry, named Josh, was just 23, and he wasn't interested in politics. I told him I had always been interested in how a child imagines God. As a kid I had been uncomfortably superstitious and convinced that every mundane thing I did had some sort of cosmic ramification. Josh, too, was naturally curious, and perhaps a bit anxious, about what exactly it means for an 8-year-old to believe.
Describe a typical day in the life of the team you observed.
After the missionaries arrived at a housing project, they would knock on every door in the neighborhood inviting children to their Bible clubs. They handed out a flier which describes the Bible clubs (which were held every day for a week) as an hour of fun singing songs, playing games, and hearing Bible stories.
The missionaries also frequently approached children outdoors, while they were riding their bikes or hanging around the playground. They might enter the conversation by saying something like, "Do you want to hear a story? It's the best story in the world." When the kids expressed interest, the missionaries would tell the gospel to them right there. When talking to the younger kids, the missionaries used what they called an Evangecube, a seven-panel plastic toy that tells the story of Jesus in pictures. They told the children that "accepting Jesus is as easy as A B C. 'A' stands for Admit you are a sinner. 'B' is for Believe that Jesus went on the cross and died for your sins. And 'C' is for Choose to accept him as the boss of your life and go to heaven forever."
How did the kids and their parents who were being recruited respond to these team members?
I was surprised by how receptive parents were to the missionaries. Although parents were invited to watch the clubs, most never did. Some of the parents thought of the clubs as a kind of free baby-sitting. I am doubtful that many of them realized that their kids would be asked to convert on the spot.
As for the children, some seemed to simply enjoy the snacks and games. But there were many who took what they learned very seriously, even if they couldn't quite comprehend what it meant. In the Harper's story, I write about one boy who had injured his knee prior to the Bible clubs and, when he was "saved," he was sure that his knee would be healed. He kept waiting and waiting for Jesus to fix his knee. When it took longer than he had imagined, he decided that Jesus always responds with a one-week delay.
What follow-up, if any, was provided for these children once the clubs were over?
A few of the children who were saved over the summer might continue to interact with the missionaries if Bible clubs were held in their public schools. The ministry also returned to a few of the housing projects and held weekly Bible clubs during the school year. But there was a substantial portion of children who never saw the missionaries again
What is the relationship of the Child Evangelism Project to the local school boards?
It is my understanding that in many Southern states this relationship is very cozy. In Connecticut, it was a bit more strained. The administrators knew they had to let the Child Evangelism Fellowship use their facilities because of the Supreme Court decision, but there seemed to be a good deal of confusion about what was actually taking place at the bible clubs. I talked to one superintendent in Wolcott, Connecticut, where the Good New Clubs had been held, and he was under the impression that the missionaries helped children do their homework. But, of course, the missionaries are not trained to give homework help. Many of them are still in high school, some even in middle school.
What did you observe were this group's overall objectives?
The Fellowship wants to reach children while their minds are blank slates and they are still free of secular education. The Fellowship has a textbook, which is required reading for all missionaries, and it lists Satan's top 10 attacks on the child. In addition to violence, drugs, and sex, the list includes "humanism" and "ethics." The Fellowship is nostalgic for an earlier time in our history when there was just one "truth" - not multiple truths, as most modern educators believe - and the church was a more established fixture in public life. After the Supreme Court victory, Matthew Staver, a Liberty Counsel lawyer who represents the Fellowship, said that the decision "literally turned back the historical clock." He calls Good News Clubs an "effective Sunday school, which can now be transported to the public school by Christian teachers immediately after the last bell."