Missionary fellowship put big emphasis on the littlest converts

WARRENTON, Mo. (RNS) At the Child Evangelism Fellowship headquarters — a sprawling, grassy 50-acre campus set here among 600 acres of woodland — rural Americana turns global. Flags from around the world bring color to the grounds of the Christian organization, which celebrated its 75th anniversary in May.

The ministry's purpose is "to evangelize boys and girls with the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ." It was founded in 1937 by Jesse Overholtzer, a farmer-turned-preacher, after he read a sermon by the British Baptist pastor Charles Spurgeon who said "a child of five, if properly instructed can as truly believe and be regenerated as an adult." Overholtzer was 60 when he started the ministry, and by 1952 it had a presence in 51 countries.

The organization has repurposed an old seminary and 115 members of its staff now work there daily. Reese Kauffman has been the president of the ministry for 23 years. The 69 year old lives on Sanibel Island in Florida and commutes to Warrenton a couple of time each month. The founder of a successful metals manufacturing business, Kauffman runs the ministry (he's a volunteer) like a business.

"Ask at what age a Christian formed a relationship with Jesus Christ, and 85 percent will say before their 15th birthday," he said. "But 95 percent of evangelical efforts are aimed at adults. (Children) is a market we only give 5 percent of our efforts to."

Like a lot of nonprofits, Child Evangelism Fellowship experienced a dropoff in donations in past years. Its revenue came roaring back in 2010 to $15.7 million, according to its tax filings. Contributions, which had dipped to $12.7 million in 2009, were up to $14.3 million in 2010.

The organization's focus is outside the U.S. In 2009, it spent $5.3 million on its international ministries, compared with $823,000 on its U.S. ministry. Within its international ministries in 2010, it spent the most in Africa/Middle East ($1.5 million) and Europe ($1.4 million.)

One number that Kauffman is particularly proud of is the 27 percent increase in 2011 of the ministry's Good News Clubs to 42,000.

Expansion of the Good News Clubs — after-school Bible instruction for elementary-age children — is the group's "primary focus," Kauffman said," and the "fastest-growing part of the ministry."

Child Evangelism Fellowship's most public moment was a 6-3 U.S. Supreme Court victory in 2001 that overturned an appellate decision excluding a Good News Club from a New York public school after school hours.

Critics of the clubs argued that young children may not be able to separate the purpose of their schoolroom between education during school hours, and church after school hours. Such confusion, critics said, could lead children to intermingle church and state.

But the court's majority disagreed, saying the threat that a child might misperceive the club as a government endorsement of religion was no greater than the danger that he might perceive a hostility toward religion if the clubs were excluded from after-school activities while secular clubs were included.

John Luck, who heads the organization's Good News Across America program, which trains churches to "adopt" a public school, said inner cities have become important new areas of growth for the ministry.

Despite the Supreme Court decision, there are pockets of resistance to Good News Clubs. In May, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments from the ministry's lawyers after a school employee in Minneapolis banned the Good News Club from the school for prayer and proselytizing in 2009.

That kind of reaction is rare, Kauffman said.

"Once we show a school district the documentation, it's usually not a problem and people who are either anti-Christian or fearful come to understand the law in 98 percent of the cases," he said. "Once in a great while we have to go in there and fight for our rights, because if we don't fight for them, we lose them."

While the configuration of the world's nations is constantly in flux, the ministry's leaders put the total number of countries 208, and they've given themselves until 2017 to secure a permanent presence in each of them. As of last Friday's celebration, its total stood at 180. That leaves 28 countries, Kauffman said, some of which are "politcally sensitive."

In front of the main building, the ninth flagpole stands front-and-center, opposite a sculpture of kids at play and the Child Evangelism Fellowship slogan: "Every Child. Every Nation. Every Day." The ninth flagpole flies the colors of a country not yet reached by the ministry. Child Evangelism Fellowship employees and its thousands of volunteers around the world pray for God to allow its missionaries into that country.

And what happens when all 208 countries have been accounted for, possibly five years from now?

"On that day, we will still hoist a flag," John Luck said. "But it will be the Christian flag."

(Tim Townsend writes for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in St. Louis.)