Saving The 7-Year-Old

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A few minutes after 3 o'clock on a spring afternoon, a color poster of a crucified Jesus hangs in front of the art classroom in a public school in Pennsylvania. For the next hour, three adults will guide 21 children between the ages of 4 and 12 through songs they know by heart (Good News, Jesus Died for Me!) and a Bible lesson ("Heaven's a perfect place. And Jesus wants you to live there!"). It sounds and feels like Sunday school, but it's Wednesday. This is the meeting of Pleasant Gap Elementary's Good News Club, a weekly event on school property, run by an outfit called the Child Evangelism Fellowship.

Until this year, the Fellowship's presence in the lives of hundreds of thousands of American children went largely unnoticed. "We're the world's best-kept secret," Fellowship old-timers like to say. Since 1937, the group's 3,000 paid and 45,000 volunteer missionaries have been diligently teaching, preaching and expanding with one simple goal: persuading small children to become born again. Now the organization has thrust itself in the spotlight by fighting all the way to the Supreme Court for the official right to do so in public schools. The court's decision, expected any day now, will help define just how far religious groups can go in using schools as a mission field.

Traditionally, Good News Clubs met at houses, parks and fairgrounds. But in recent years, the Missouri-based Fellowship has begun applying to have events in public elementary schools--usually right after classes. Hundreds of schools accepted the clubs without hesitation, while others--afraid of blurring the line between church and state--refused. When the Milford Central School District in upstate New York barred the local club four years ago, its leader, the Rev. Stephen Fournier, fought back. If the Boy Scouts could preach their moral message in the K-12 school's convenient location, he asked, why couldn't the club? Fournier lost in the lower courts but hopes to win this last appeal in the nation's highest court.

For the past 30 years, courts and the Federal Government have been opening public school doors wider to religious clubs. In 1984 Congress passed a law requiring high schools to let student-led religious groups meet after classes if other clubs are also allowed. The law, however, does not grant adult-led groups like the Good News Clubs the same access, and it does not apply to elementary schools.

The Fellowship, which supports 4,600 Good News Clubs spanning all 50 states, focuses on children because they are so approachable. Its literature exhorts members to seize "every opportunity to instill God's Word in tender hearts while they are young." Most born-again Christians accept Jesus Christ as their Saviour before age 18, according to surveys conducted by the Barna Research Group, an organization based in California that tracks religious attitudes. And children under 14 are most open to the idea, the group has found. Last year, according to the Fellowship's careful record keeping, 17,537 children professed their faith in Jesus at club meetings.

To sustain interest in the club, leaders use every imaginable child enticement: colorful Jesus dolls, cheery songs and mountains of sugar. The Pleasant Gap session starts with a round of cookies. At another club nearby, kids who answer scriptural questions get pelted with candy fired out of a spring-loaded catapult. Children get $1 in fake money for coming and $2 for bringing a friend. Every few months, they can redeem the "money" for--guess what?--more candy.

At every meeting, the club leader asks if anyone would like to accept Jesus as his Saviour. If a child raises his hand, the leader has a one-on-one conversation with him to see if he is ready to be "saved" then and there. That practice has been criticized by mainline churches, even as they applaud the Fellowship's other activities. Says Rosalie Potter, head of evangelism and church development at the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.): "It would be hard to expect a child of four or five to have a conversion experience with integrity." Fellowship leaders say that attitude underestimates the spiritual aptitude of kids. "I'm not saying a child is going to understand what Calvinism is," says Fournier. "But he can understand what it is to put his faith in Christ."

Other criticisms have focused on the searing imagery featured in club meetings: kids learn that nonbelievers will burn in everlasting fire and that Satan is real. "This is not just cookies, puppets and Bible stories," says Rob Boston, of Americans United for Separation of Church and State--which filed an amicus-curiae brief against the club. "This is an evangelical hard sell."

Detractors are also afraid that young kids might confuse a club event with science class, concluding that school authorities vouch for both. Ashley, a Pleasant Gap fifth-grader who has attended Good News Clubs for four years, does not appear to realize that the club's warnings about damnation are not made by her public school. She says the club is led by "my teachers and members of my church." And in her case, as with some other clubs, she is not entirely wrong--one of the club leaders is also a full-time teacher's aide.

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