Protect Children from Jesus

Have you heard the Good News?  If you live in Portland, Oregon, your children might hear It in their public schools.  Or they might not.

Activists in Portland have protested against the school-based evangelical outreach of the Child Evangelism Fellowship.  According to protesters, the CEF is inflicting damaging psychological messages on unwary children through its aggressive Good News Clubs.  For their part, the evangelists claim to be the victim of anti-religious discrimination.  Do parents have the right to kick out Christians?  Do evangelists have the right to preach to children?

These are big and potentially scary questions.  Each side in this case is warning that the other side is using sneaky tactics to target children.  But that kind of rhetoric belies the fairly restricted nature of this protest.  In this case, at least, the activists on each side are actually limiting themselves to fairly modest goals.

Save Our Children from Jesus!

Save Our Children from Jesus!

The Child Evangelism Fellowship has been active for a long time.  This summer, it planned to expand its Good News Clubs into more schools nationwide.  These clubs invite children to come to meetings at which they learn prayers and conservative Protestant doctrine.  In a 2001 decision from a town in my backyard, the US Supreme Court ruled that the Good News Clubs must be allowed to use public-school facilities after school hours if other groups are allowed to do so.  A few clarifications: the Good News Clubs are not active as part of the school day; public schools are free to ban ALL after-school activities if they choose; and Good News Clubs are not mandatory for children.  Still, for the CEF, the Supreme Court’s decision came as a welcome shot in the arm.

Portland protesters were not impressed.  This summer, the Protect Portland Children group mobilized to warn Portland parents away from Good News Clubs.  Due to the SCOTUS decision, the PPC is not trying to ban the clubs, but only to encourage parents to keep their kids away.  Why?  According to Katherine Stewart, a parent and author of an anti-CEF book, kids exposed to the Good News Clubs come away with a terrible message.  As Stewart told The Oregonian recently,

I started to hear about how kids attending the clubs were targeting their peers for what I can only describe as faith-based bullying and bigotry. The kids attending the clubs would say they knew the religion of the Good News Club “must be true” because they learned it in school. As one little six-year-old girl said to her classmate, “They don’t teach things in school that aren’t true.”

One Seattle activist agreed.  She insisted she was not anti-religion, but rather only opposed to the sneaky way the CEF attracted kids to their clubs, and to the terrifying message spread by those clubs.  As she put it, “Good News Clubs teach dark, divisive and potentially traumatic doctrines that are unique to fundamentalist forms of Christianity.”

Not surprisingly, conservative evangelical Protestants are defending the Good News Clubs. Creationist leader Ken Ham argued that this anti-gospel activism represented just another tactic in the continuing culture wars. “Many secularists,” Ham warned,

are deliberately and aggressively targeting our children and Christian ministries that teach the truth of God’s Word to children—and for a reason! They are going after the hearts and minds of this and coming generations, and if they continue to do so successfully, they’ll win the culture.

Ham’s interest makes sense.  After all, as he points out, anti-creationism activists have insisted that teaching creationism amounts to “child abuse.”  This Portland parent protest makes similar claims.  The protesters warn that this sort of religious message can be “psychologically harmful to children.”

According to protesters, both the tactics of the Good News Club and its message are dangerous to young people.  Learning that one is sinful and destined to eternal damnation, some parents feel, is not the proper religious message for children.  And luring those children to after-school activities with promises of treats and prizes seems immoral.

For their part, CEF activists claim that their clubs teach only the central doctrines of Christianity.  Whatever protesters may assert, according to the CEF, the Good News really is good news.  Schools with active Good News Clubs report improved student behavior and school environment.  Students act more kindly toward one another.  Students act more politely and thoughtfully about their behavior.  Who would have a problem with that?

But let’s clarify the issue: Portland protesters are NOT trying to block Good News Clubs from Portland schools.  And Good News Clubs are not part of the public-school day.  In spite of heated rhetoric, this case will not decide whether or not conservative Christian doctrines are dangerous for children.  This case will not decide whether or not evangelists can preach in public schools.

Nevertheless, activists on both sides are bringing out the big guns: Both sides warn that the other side is targeting their children.  That is a scary thing.  But neither side in this case really hopes to stop the other side from doing so.  Rather, each side seems to be limiting itself to more immediate goals.  Protesters are encouraging Portland parents simply to keep their kids home.  And evangelists are simply running an afterschool club and hoping to encourage kids to attend.

In my opinion, this is exactly where these discussions belong.  Evangelists should be free to spread whatever non-violent messages they choose.  And parents should be free to encourage others to keep their kids away.  If parents think Christianity is psychologically damaging, they should certainly tell their friends and neighbors about their concerns.  And if conservative evangelicals think that their message is the only way to avoid eternal damnation, they should certainly be free to tell anyone they like about it.


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  1. When my kids were little, I hosted a week long Good News Club in my yard. There was no preaching about hellfire and damnation. The message was that Jesus loves all children and wants to be a part of their lives. Concepts like eternity and final destinations were above the children’s abilities to grasp. It was more of Jesus loves you and wants you to love him back. Hardly subversive. Maybe the CEF has changed in the past 25 years?

  2. [Editor’s Note: This comment was placed elsewhere on the blog. Since it’s relevant here, I’m re-posting it here. It was posted by the Child Evangelism Fellowship.]
    Statement Concerning Child Evangelism Fellowship Mission Trip to Portland, Oregon
    Child Evangelism Fellowship® is a historic ministry that believes God loves both children and adults, and He wants to give them a spiritual and moral foundation for life. Children are mentioned about 100 times in the Gospels, and Jesus said, “Let the little children come unto me.” For nearly 2000 years, Christians have been spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ to adults and children alike, and for nearly 75 years Child Evangelism Fellowship has been telling children around the world about the love of Jesus. We do not pressure or coerce children, and we respect the wishes of their parents or guardians. We believe we have a wonderful message from Scripture, and we are happy to share it with those wanting to hear. Since children establish moral values early in life, they have a right to hear the Gospel if they desire, and we have a biblical obligation and the constitutional right to share the message of Jesus. We have decades of experience in tactfully and appropriately sharing the Gospel, and we have 75 years of testimonies from people whose lives have been positively impacted by our message. Our goal, when our mission in Portland is over, is to leave this city a happier place with healthier children and stronger homes. We appreciate the opportunity to serve here.

  3. That’s an interesting response. In the 1970s I don’t recall CEF equating “the gospel” with “moral values,” and they didn’t meet in schools, but they were mildly coercive about how they went about getting kids into someone’s home or a park. Interpreting the message as “violent” and “damaging” is not an overreaction. The usual script would be to start with fear and guilt about sin (made out as a kind of heart disease if taken literally) and death (not too strong on the hell part as I recall, but it was there), and then to close the sale with an easy-out pray-after-me prayer. This would immediately take care of the sin/heart problem by requesting Jesus to take up residence there.

    After having this plied on me more than once in grade school, after having teenagers practice the script on me, and after seeing kids get “saved” more than once just to go along with it skepticism was the logical result. I suspect these tactics often have that effect, even if it is a delayed reaction. Kids respond to stuff like this in all kinds of ways. Emphasize the “live again after you die” part and you get kids praying to have Jesus resurrect their dead cat. Carried out by adults who aren’t very sensitive people or who really don’t like kids but feel morally obliged to “save” them these clubs can be places even conservative protestants might not want to have their kids going.

  4. andrew munslow

     /  December 20, 2015

    my little girl is 9yo, she was born and braught up in the jungle of easan in thailand,forest budhist. when i came to scotland the school insist on constant doctrine (every friday at 9.30am) “hallejullia! jesus is reborn” she comes home with gospal quotes on pices of paper and “jesus died for you” i dont think i have the right to push one religion and i dont have the abillity to teach them all,i am dyslexic so this is hard to put on paper,she has a basic human right to make her own choice without the underhanded christian tricks of “getting the most air time” i cant understand why everybody thinks this is ok. i do understand that i am dyslexic i might be getting somthing wrong but im not stupid! if you changed text to say nazzie instead of christian or if you changed “jesus” for “alah” in school wauld it be acceptable?

  5. andrew munslow

     /  December 20, 2015

    in 2001 i had a fatal motorbike accident,i say fatal, i overtook a sergeon and a police officer then smashed through a car in font of a parra medic,i survived.isnt it human nature to look for an answer where there is none (closuer is a myth) “god saved me!” am i doing the same thing wanting free choice for my child, im a bit lost but im a survivor not a victim.on top of all that on 26th dec. 2004 my trip to phuket got delayed in dubi for 15 hrs, i didnt make it in time for the sunami,then when i braught my daughter back from thailand on 7th march 2014 the plane we got off in kuala-lumpur disapeared,is this “gods work” or just somthing i cant explain, is it destiny,karmah,luck or is it about my daughters destiny?,if i had died in the bike accident my daughter wauld never have been born.For me every day is a gift, but from who or what? my family are all very long lived i know im going to live to my 80s, is this “gods work” another 50 yrs of screeming agony of arthritis with phantom nerve pain in my parylised right side,hey im not going to blame a fictional charactor,im just going to get on with bringing up my kid in a safe enviroment,this is turning into a bit of a rant but its nice to put things in order,i have frontal lobe short term memory loss,hey “we all have our crosses,,,,,,,”(doctrine i was bombarded with as a kid)

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