In past summers, Child Evangelism Fellowship has targeted children in Boston, Denver, Chicago, Little Rock, Salt Lake City, and the Twin Cities for conversion to their brand of biblical fundamentalism. This summer they chose Portland, Oregon. It may have been a mistake.
Some child advocates argue that proselytizing children for religious conversion is immoral. By contrast, Child Evangelism Fellowship boldly proclaims what they see as a God-given mission:
Child Evangelism Fellowship® is a Bible-centered worldwide organization composed of born-again believers whose purpose is to evangelize boys and girls with the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ and to establish (disciple) them in the Word of God and in a local church for Christian living.
One of their key tools is an after-school program called the Good News Club, which takes place in public grade schools across the country. Good News Clubs mix snacks, games, art projects and stories with upbeat moral lessons and the theology of blood sacrifice. In a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court, Child Evangelism Fellowship argued that they were entitled to operate in public schools because they are running a social and moral enrichment program akin to Scouting.
Much to the dismay of church-state watchdogs, a majority of the court agreed, but to call Good News Clubs moral enrichment by secular standards or to liken it to Scouting, is a stretch. Despite Evangelical influences in the Boy Scouts, scouting programs to a large degree emphasize virtues that are prized across both secular and religious wisdom traditions. Good News Clubs teach dark, divisive and potentially traumatic doctrines that are unique to fundamentalist forms of Christianity.
Attorney Eric Cernyar participated in Good News Club as a child. He now monitors Child Evangelism Fellowship activities and documentsclub practices such as deceptive marketing, authoritarian conditioning, diminishing nonbelievers, shame indoctrination, fear indoctrination, attacks on science education, and the cult technique of “mind control.”
The Good News Club curriculum is filled with over 5000 references to sin and thousands more to obedience, punishment, and Hell. It stresses Old Testament narratives of a retributive God who must punish sin, warns children that they will suffer an eternity in Hell if they refuse to believe, and stresses complete obedience as the supreme value. Good News Club tells children as young as preschoolers that they have “dark” and “sinful” hearts, were born that way, and “deserve to die” and “go to Hell.”
One Good News teaching tool is the “wordless book” in which colored pages represent key doctrines of atonement theology. The black page represents sin, seen as evil born into every human that keeps a person from getting to heaven (represented by a gold page). Red is the blood of Christ, whose death was necessary payment for sin. White represents the pure righteousness of Jesus and people who are saved by his atoning sacrifice. It’s as simple as “A,B,C”—Admit your sin, Believe Jesus can save you, and Choose Jesus as your savior. Green, the color of growth, represents the newly-saved child’s life as a budding Christian.
Each summer since 2008, Child Evangelism Fellowship has run a saturation blitz called Good News Across America in which “hundreds of volunteers” descend on a targeted city to run Bible schools “in community centers, parks, apartment complexes, playgrounds, boys and girls clubs – anywhere children gather.” Child Evangelism Fellowship boasts of reaching 2700 Denver children through these five-day “evangelistic clubs” and swelling attendance at one church from 75 to 235, almost half of whom were children.
This summer over 100 missionaries will set up shop in Portland from July 14-26 when they will partner with 32 local churches to recruit children as young as five years old to summer day camps. If all goes according to plan, come fall these churches will institute Good News Clubs in Portland public schools. But some locals aren’t so keen on the idea. They point to the experience of Seattle parent, John Lederer, after a local church “planted” a Good News Club in his daughter’s grade school. Lederer was troubled by the treats used to entice children and the way volunteers blurred the line between school and club. But he also hated the effect on the community. “Before we were all Loyal Heights parents together. Now we’re divided into groups and labels: you’re a Christian, you’re the wrong kind of Christian, you’re a Jew, you’re an atheist.”
For perhaps the first time, this summer Good News Across America will face organized opposition. As volunteers step up preparations for the Portland blitz, a coalition called Protect Portland Children is stepping up outreach to local media, parents, child advocates, and school administrators. Protect Portland Children says they mean no disrespect for local churches and volunteers. Rather, they hope to “spread the word that the Good News Club’s extreme teachings can be psychologically harmful to children” and that Child Evangelism Fellowship “is now targeting Portland with a major recruiting campaign.” “One of our goals is to help the next city they target and to make this a national conversation,” says member Kaye Schmitt.
Protect Portland Children points to the investigative expose by journalist Katherine Stewart, author of The Good News Club,. Like Seattle’s Lederer, Stewart dug deeper after witnessing Child Evangelism in action at her daughter’s school. And they are taking tips from Cernyar, whose website Intrinsic Dignity examines legal precedents related to use of public facilities, providing guidelines and models for parents and administrators who oppose religious bullying in public schools. Despite the Supreme Court ruling, Cernyar urges parents and district administrators to push back: “It is possible for a school district to regulate its forum to protect its students from psychologically and emotionally harmful after-class activities.”
Child Evangelism brings to the fight the clout of a national organization with over 700 paid staff in the U.S. and Canada alone and a seasoned legal team. They face a loose-knit group of volunteers. To speak in biblical archetypes, it’s a story of David against Goliath. But in one regard the opposing sides may well be evenly matched: their sense of righteous mission. On the Intrinsic Dignity site, Cernyar puts it this way:
Children have a right to develop in conditions of freedom, open inquiry, and empathy, and in respect of their inherent dignity and equality. Our mission is to challenge practices—beginning with private organizations infiltrating our nation’s public elementary schools—that shame and terrify children and assault their self-esteem.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus sends his disciples out into the world with these words, “be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” It’s a shame that some Bible believers seem to have missed the second half of the sentence.
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Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Subscribe to her articles at Awaypoint.Wordpress.com.