By Katherine Stewart | 13 February 2012
When an after-school “Bible study” program called the Good News Club showed up at the Santa Barbara public school where journalist Katherine Stewart sent her children, she decided to take a closer look at its sponsoring organization, the Child Evangelism Fellowship, and other groups like it. Stewart was surprised to learn that there is more religion in public education today than there has been in the past 100 years. Her book, “The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children” (PublicAffairs), explores the wide range of initiatives to infiltrate public education while simultaneously undermining support for it. In the following excerpt, she investigates the source of the religious right’s new focus on children and schools.
Thy Neighbor’s Children: The 4/14 Window
by Katherine Stewart
Excerpted from “The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children”
The Religious Right is not a single organization, and yet it is surprisingly well organized in a certain way. It is a “grassroots movement” by definition, not answering in any formal way to a command-and-control hierarchy. And yet the grass often seems to grow in surprisingly tidy rows. The coherence of the movement, such as it is, rests on a set of ideas, and an avalanche of resources pours down upon whoever happens to share those ideas. If there is anyone in charge, it is the big-picture strategists who, through a number of well-coordinated events and organizations, are able to mobilize the movement around a few simple messages.
Luis Bush is one such thinker. A missionary strategist who trained in Intercultural Studies at the Fuller School of World Mission in Pasadena, California, Bush built the first half of his career around the concept of the “10/40 Window.” His thesis then was that Christian missionaries needed to target their efforts on the area of the globe between ten degrees and forty degrees north latitude. Subsequently, missionaries were dispatched to swaths of North Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East in order to convert “unreached people groups” in the designated latitudes.
Then at a Transform World Connections conference in September 2009, a gathering of high-level mission strategists, Bush announced a new unifying vision for missionaries around the globe. He called it the “4/14 Window.” The largest and most strategic group of people in the world, he said, are children between the ages of four and fourteen. Kids are the key to the “Great Commission,” or the theological tenet, popular in the evangelical world, that there is a mandate to convert all of humanity to evangelical Christianity.
Bush’s argument was simple and blindingly effective. He pointed out that 85 percent of conversion experiences occur to people between the ages of four and fourteen. He also said that when you get them young, you have a better chance of keeping them for life. “It is imperative that we see children and young people as a strategic force that can transform a generation and change the world,” he wrote. “Our vision and hope is to maximize their transformational impact while they are young, and to mobilize them for continuing impact for the rest of their lives.”
Bush’s ideas lit up the skies of the missionary community like a bright flare in the night, illuminating the path for evangelicals worldwide and missionaries in particular. “Political movements (like Nazism and Communism) trained legions of children with the goal of carrying their agenda beyond the lifetimes of their founders….Even the Taliban places great emphasis on recruiting children,” wrote Dr. Wes Stafford, president of Compassion International, one of the largest worldwide missionary groups, in an introduction to Bush’s 2009 book, The 4–14 Window: Raising Up a New Generation to Transform the World. “May God inspire you to join us in His battle for the little ones!”
Bush also provided the theoretical rationale for the charge on public schools. In a nutshell: it’s a matter of taking the battle to the enemy.
“While universal primary and secondary education may be considered a worthy goal, its ultimate effect can sometimes be negative,” wrote Bush. “Unless the teachers and administrators are Christ followers, the world view that is taught will not transform the minds of the 4/14ers.” Bush continued, “Secular education does not enlighten, rather it dims one’s grasp of the ‘real reality’ rooted in the truth of scripture.”
In order to get the message to the American heartland, the “ideas people” need to come down to earth. One very important vehicle is the conference circuit, a combination of face-to-face meetings, seminar-style discussions, book sales, and missionary “festivals.” All serve to help put the missionary world on the same page.
In order to learn about the process, I register for Missions Fest Seattle 2009—a sprawling, “nondenominational,” three-day conference for thousands of evangelical Christians involved in missionary work around the world. The gathering is taking place just two months after Bush’s announcement of the mission world’s great philosophical shift. I want to learn more about how the ideas of the philosophers are communicated down to these foot soldiers. I also want to understand how one joins them. Mission “expos,” or fests, take place every few months in various parts of the United States and the world. The Missions Fest in Seattle has been an annual event since 2005. The venue this year is Westminster Chapel, a stone-and-glass megachurch in Bellevue, just across the lake from downtown Seattle. The main hall accommodates 1,100 people and the rest of the structure can hold thousands more.
On a grey fall day, the Fest is bustling. The first thing that one notices about the convention is that it has a familiar, business-to-business feel. One hears in-jokes, shared lingo, and the buzz of breezy exhilaration that arises when people with a common passion encounter one another.
The other thing one notices is the children. There are pictures of them everywhere. And there are real, live children here, too—although just now some of them are heading out on a guided field trip to Seattle’s Discovery Institute, an organization that promotes the theory of intelligent design. But if this were a business convention, it would seem that the chief business is children. Many of the advertised missions either aim directly at children or involve children in some central way. The Young Life ministry, for example, brings the Good News about Jesus to adolescents. World Vision is dedicated to feeding, educating, and spreading the gospel to impoverished kids overseas. Antioch Adoptions seeks to channel the children of unplanned pregnancies into adoptive Christian households. Youth Missions International trains young people for missionary work. The convention program exclaims: “Our purpose is to get kids involved in the harvest” 3/4meaning involve them in converting the “unchurched” to evangelical Christianity.
For the younger children present, there is an ongoing program in the church’s brightly lit basement area. There are games, lessons, speakers, and even field trips. The Creation Association of Puget Sound, for example, offers to take kids ages six to twelve on an excursion that will study “God’s Amazing Creatures” and present them with proof that God created the earth in just six days between six and ten thousand years ago.
Front and center in this festival is the Child Evangelism Fellowship, an organization that has established around 3500 after-school groups in public elementary schools whose aim is to convert children as young as four to evangelical Christianity. The CEF is Missions Fest’s “featured mission” this year—an honor that comes with a monetary prize. Its main booth is positioned directly opposite the entrance, right next to the convention’s welcome booth. The CEF also has a second presence, an informational booth farther inside.
Prominently displayed in one CEF booth, in blown up letters, are the words of the renowned nineteenth-century English preacher Charles Spurgeon: “A child of 5, if properly instructed, can as readily believe and be as regenerated as anyone.”
My first experience with training to become a CEF missionary in the public schools begins with about two dozen fellow attendees in a large side room, at a seminar called “Teach N Transform—Transform Your Counseling Skills.” Our seminar leader is Jan Akam, a solid woman with a heart-shaped face and ruddy cheeks who appears to be in her sixties. She is the director of the CEF chapter in Snohomish County in the northern part of Washington State.
Akam starts with a brief introduction to the CEF. “We have shared the gospel with over nine million kids worldwide,” she says. The CEF has more than twenty-seven different programs, she tells us, but she quickly focuses on the Good News Club program and its setting, the public schools. “I used to teach Sunday school. But when I heard that you can go to a public school and share the gospel with kids who have never heard about God, I got really excited!”
Then she gets down to business. Her aim is to teach us how to lead children to salvation. “What happens when a child says to you, ‘I want you to lead me to Christ?’” she asks. “A lot of people get panicky. This class will walk you through the steps of counseling a child.”
“Ask them, ‘What is God’s punishment for sin?’ Tell them that the punishment for sin is being separated from God forever.
“Ask a child, ‘Can you think of anything you can do to get rid of your sin?’ Guide them toward salvation by asking questions like, ‘Who is the Lord Jesus? Why did God send his son into the world?’
“Ask questions to see if the child understands how to receive God’s salvation. Explain God’s condition for salvation: You have to admit that you sinned, and you have to believe in the Lord Jesus if you want to be saved.”
“The joy of doing that [converting children in their public schools] is unbelievable,” she exclaims. “You’re hooked!”
Once the child has the basics, Akam continues, you need to convey the practical side of the message, which comes down to a four simple points:
“God wants you to go to church. You need to go to a Bible-believing church,” she draws out her words for emphasis. The term “Bible-believing” is a self-descriptive term widely used by conservative Christians to mean that they take a literalist interpretation of the Old and New Testaments.
“The second step is that you need to read the Bible. We give the kids free Bibles.
“The third step is to obey the world of God.
“The fourth step is witnessing and telling others about Jesus.”
Her voice goes up a notch with excitement on the last point. “Children can reach other kids with the gospel message so easily,” she exclaims.
Then she holds up the CEF’s Tel-a-Story cards, credit card-size and printed on thick paper stock decorated with a colorful picture of pumpkins or pastoral scenes. These cards invite children to call a toll-free number to speak to a CEF representative who will talk to them about salvation. “Tell the kids,” Akam instructs, “when you trick-or-treat, pass these cards out to your friends!”
Stacks of these cards are being distributed throughout the conference, destined for little children’s hands across the state. Later, when I call the 800 number on the card, an adult woman on the other end of the line tells me I have to choose whether to go to heaven or “be separated from God forever.” She tells me I’m only the second adult to call her; usually she “counsels” children. The youngest, she says, was six years old.
For the next part of our seminar, Akam requests that we pair up with a partner in order to practice “counseling for salvation.” I turn to the person sitting to my left, a woman in her sixties with puffy blond curls and a placid smile. She is a grandmother who lives in the Seattle area.
As we go through the motions of converting one another, I discern her reason for being here: her grandkids. She is afraid of losing them to liberal churches and damnation.
“My daughter goes to a liberal church,” she says despairingly. “Congregational,” she sniffs, with a combination of disdain and embarrassment.
“Their father told the kids that there is no hell! And my daughter says she wants to move away from our ‘fundamentalism.’ So I guess it’s up to me.” Her voice is almost ragged with exasperation.
When I ask her how their counseling is going, she indicates with her body language that she’s doing her best, but she’s not altogether sure. “My grandkids say, ‘Our daddy says there is no hell. But Grandma, you make it sound so real!’”
Upon breaking with Grandma, I meet Ray Paulson, a CEF worker since 1980. A short, stout man in a crimson T-shirt with a meticulously styled goatee, Paulson describes himself as an expert in the art of “ballooning.” He transforms long blow-up balloons into animals and other objects, and then uses them to spread the word about Jesus to children.
“With ballooning, I was able to get into a New Age church,” he says. “I was able to get in there and share the gospel three times!” The church in question, I learn, is a United Methodist Church.
“Afterward the pastor said to me, ‘That was a great program!’ She didn’t know what I was talking about!” he concludes derisively. He continues boasting about how effective he has been in sneaking into enemy territory with his balloons. “With ballooning, I got into a Catholic church, an Episcopal church,” he says with a roll of the eyes and a knowing wink.
Recently, he adds, he has been making real headway in the public schools. “You have to be sneaky about it,” he cautions. “You can’t say to a kid, ‘If you come to the group I’ll give you a balloon,’ because that’s considered a bribe and can get you in trouble. But you can stand outside the school doing balloons, or have kids tell other kids about it.
“I’ve been in trouble in just about every kind of every which way!” he gloats, puffing out his chest. “But you have to be very careful,” he adds with a dark, knowing look. “We have an enemy. And he is real. And he is effective.”
Jan Akam calls us back to order for the conclusion of our seminar, which consists mainly of rousing talk. “There are only a few thousand CEF workers, but what we have been able to achieve with such small numbers is truly amazing,” she says. “We are having an effect on school children across the nation.”
We end the session by closing our eyes in prayer. Akam leads from the front of the room: “God, it’s so exciting that we can teach in the public schools—and we pray that if we could cultivate enough teachers to teach in every public school in the nation—we could transform this country in one generation!”
As the energized group files out the door, I pause to chat with Jan about community relations. I ask her if she worries that her message and methods might upend harmonious relationships within families or communities.
Her response is fast, short, and unequivocal: “The Bible tells us we don’t have to worry about anything!”
Be sure to ‘like’ us on Facebook