WARRENTON, Mo—This year marks the 75th anniversary of Child Evangelism Fellowship, the largest ministry to children in the world. Established during the Great Depression in Berkeley, Calif., by the tireless efforts of Jesse I. Overholtzer, a farmer and one-time Plymouth Brethren pastor, the organization now has a presence in 176 countries and reaches millions of children each year thanks to 2,700 Child Evangelism Fellowship workers.
The burden for children that took hold of Overholtzer, affectionately known as “Mr. O,” was no doubt influenced by his own childhood experiences in California. At the age of 12, he had many important questions about the nature of man, sin and guilt, and his relationship with God. His questions went unanswered because he was considered too young to understand theology, a commonly held view at the time. Years later, after a rebellious youth and his adult conversion to Christianity, he happened to read a quote by the great British preacher Charles Spurgeon, who said, “A child 5, if properly instructed, can as readily believe and be regenerated as anyone.” Captivated by this notion, he decided to test it. He found that by explaining the Gospel clearly in terms children could understand, many came to faith. Of those children, the positive changes in their behavior and character even led some of their parents to Christ.
Spurred on by these results, Overholtzer began telling others of his experiment and soon had a group of college students and mothers who were eager to share the Gospel with children. He developed an informal training school and lessons for them, which included classes on Bible, doctrine and the best methods for teaching children. In Oakland, Calif., at a religious supply depot, he found a little book of colors for telling the Gospel story. The Wordless Book is used to this day by Child Evangelism Fellowship workers all around the world. Concerned with the barriers denominationalism can pose and the inability of the Bay area churches to hold the number of neighborhood children, Overholtzer came up with the idea of interdenominational Bible classes for children taught by his new teachers that would meet in people’s homes.
For Overholtzer, Berkeley, Calif., was only the beginning. He wanted to tell children all over the world about the love of Christ. Traveling from one major city to another in the United States and Canada, in 1936, he met with local Christian leaders and convinced them to organize committees that would set up Bible classes for children based on his Berkeley program. Soon the classes, which became known as Good News Clubs, were meeting all over the U.S. and Canada. In 1937, the national organization was incorporated as Child Evangelism Fellowship.
Proper training for teachers was critical to Overholtzer, who worked hard to make his training manuals available. He wanted to take advantage of the multiplication effect of training teachers: By training additional teachers, many more children could be reached. He accomplished this at first through teacher training manuals that circulated around the growing Child Evangelism Fellowship community and through a monthly magazine called Child Evangelism, which included sections on teacher training and a visualized lesson to use with children. Then in 1945, his dream of a formal training school was realized. The Child Evangelism Institute was founded in Dallas for the purpose of training teachers to go all over the world to share the Gospel with children. By the time of Overholtzer’s death, Child Evangelism Fellowship had 150 overseas workers operating in 60 countries and hundreds working in the U.S. and Canada.
Today, under the direction of Reese Kauffman, Child Evangelism Fellowship has continued Overholtzer’s mission: to evangelize boys and girls, disciple and establish them in a local church. “Our goal,” Kauffman said in reference to the Child Evangelism Fellowship slogan, “is ‘Every Child, Every Nation, Every Day.’ In other words, we want to reach every child in every nation with the hope and prayer that they will commit to Christ and sustain their faith with the habit of reading the Word of God every day.” The organization is working to establish a presence in every nation by 2017. By its count it has only 32 nations and territories to go.
Last year alone, Child Evangelism Fellowship shared the Gospel with almost 11 million children around the world. In the U.S., the organization has a presence in more than 3,500 public schools where Good News Clubs meet after school, thanks to the 2001 Supreme Court case that ruled the clubs must be accorded the same facility access as any other nonschool-related group. According to Tom Levanos, executive director of Child Evangelism Fellowship’s operations, the organization is working to increase its outreach by 15 percent every year. “This would put us on track to reach 100 million children each year by 2027. And we will do it the same way we always have—by training, equipping and supporting teachers to evangelize children.”
For each of the last seven years, the organization has experienced strong growth, training 250,000 teachers annually around the world. Child Evangelism Fellowship is positioning itself to train even more by placing its teacher training courses on the internet.
Once trained, the teachers are equipped by Child Evangelism Fellowship with the literature they will need to teach children, such as Bible lessons, visual aids and devotionals. Finally, the organization tries to provide the financial support necessary for its workers. “The reality is we have an abundance of workers, but they need financial support to survive. In most countries around the world, just $300 to $500 each month will support one of our workers. Right now we can support some 400 workers, but we would like to increase that number to 1,000 in the next few years,” Levanos said. He pointed to the Middle East, where Child Evangelism Fellowship workers are in need of significant support, especially in countries where it is illegal to share the Gospel. Further driving up the expenses for the workers in this region is the location of the Arab teacher training institute in a neutral country in a different region of the world. The institute could not be located in the Middle East because of the political tensions among the Arab nations, and the resulting difficulties some citizens have in getting visas to neighboring countries. No such difficulties exist for these citizens in obtaining visas to the neutral country.
“As we reflect on our 75th anniversary,” Levanos concluded, “we are grateful for all of the workers, volunteers, donors and prayers that have contributed to the success of the CEF mission. It is humbling to see the sacrifices people are willing to make, even to the point of risking their lives, to share the Gospel with children.”