Child evangelism isn’t charitable

Posted: Thu, 20th Oct 2022 by Megan Manson

Child evangelism isn’t charitable

Religious organisations with a focus on evangelising and converting children are exploitative and potentially harmful. They shouldn't be enabled by our charity or education systems, says Megan Manson.

"Sinners by nature and practice, children stand guilty and condemned before God."
"We need faithfully and tenderly to warn children of eternal separation and punishment."
"We will not coldly announce, 'If you go on in your sin, you will go to hell.' Yes, we will teach this solemn truth, but with tenderness and entreaty."

These sinister statements are from a pamphlet entitled "A manual on the evangelism of children". They tap into children's deepest fears: separation from loved ones and inescapable punishment.

Many would consider telling children they are sinners destined for hell callous and cruel, if not downright abusive. Yet this pamphlet is produced by a registered charity: Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF). Its official charitable objects are to advance "the evangelical Christian faith and in particular child evangelism".

CEF is explicit about why it is obsessed with preaching to children: "Children are open to anything! They are sensitive, vulnerable, impressionable…If we have the opportunity to leave a lasting impression on children, because they are more open, then we must do all we can to reach them with the Gospel. The formative years pass very quickly."

Or as it puts more succinctly: "Win a child and you win an adult". In other words, children are far easier to effectively convert to Christianity than adults. And in a society where religious affiliation is undergoing rapid decline, it's easy to see why religious groups are scrambling to access the easiest people they can convert.

The ethics of taking advantage of children's comparative lack of knowledge, experience and critical thinking skills to inculcate religious dogma are already questionable. But much of CEF's activity is especially exploitative.

For example, their recent 'Hope for Ukraine' scheme cynically uses Russia's invasion of Ukraine as an opportunity to send "gospel packs" to Ukrainian children. These contain pamphlets telling children to ask Jesus to forgive their sins because: "King Jesus is in Heaven now but one day He will come back to our world. He will punish forever all those who have chosen to live their own way. He will welcome all His forgiven friends".

What effects does evangelism have on children? We've only recently begun to understand that in some cases, religious inculcation can be harmful. The term "religious trauma syndrome", coined a decade ago, is now an increasingly common description for a set of symptoms, including anxiety, depression and relationship issues, experienced "as a result of prolonged exposure to a toxic religious environment". And children, whose minds are still developing, are uniquely vulnerable to this condition.

Despite the ethical implications, child evangelism is far from unusual. Most branches of Christianity make a particular effort to preach to children. It's one of the main reasons why the Church of England, the Catholic Church and other major religious institutions are dedicated to maintaining a vice-like grip on a third of state schools, disproportionate influence over religious education (RE), and stubborn resistance to ending our archaic collective worship laws.

CEF is clear that it uses the collective worship laws and RE as a means to get to children at their schools, where they are a captive audience, and further their evangelising mission. And it is far from alone in this initiative.

There are now numerous charities whose main purpose is to send preachers into schools and proselytise to children. School teachers, grateful that someone else can take on collective worship and RE duties, frequently buy into the idea that these groups are merely promoting 'religious literacy' and are unaware of their real priorities. As CEF says: "Our ministry is not to entertain the children, nor even to educate them, but to evangelise them".

Before the pandemic and subsequent social distancing measures, issues relating to evangelism in schools were the most common types of casework the NSS dealt with.

One of the charities the NSS receives most complaints about is Scripture Union (SU). Their sessions have included an 'abstinence-only' approach to sex education. Another school evangelism charity the NSS has dealt with is Cross Teach, which according to parents told children that if they did not believe in God "they would not go to a good place when they died".

And new child evangelism charities continue to join the register. Last year the Programme For Applied Christian Education (PACE) re-registered as a Charitable Incorporated Organisation. One of its missions is "helping everyone in schools explore the Christian faith" through lessons, assemblies and lunchtime clubs. Its teaching materials include statements like "Abortion = Bad, Adoption = Good", marriage is "ideally" one man and one woman, and hell is where "God perfectly punishes all the sin of those who never wanted his forgiveness" .

And many more have registered which do not deliver school sessions but do run Sunday Schools and other out-of-school activities for children, or hold overseas evangelical work with a specific focus on children.

All this begs the question – why are these organisations registered charities at all?

Charities are supposed to provide a public benefit in exchange for the generous tax breaks, Gift Aid and other financial perks such status gives, in addition to public trust. But it's very difficult to see how charities set up with a specific purpose to evangelise, and ultimately convert, children fulfil that benefit.

I'm sure many child evangelists sincerely believe they are providing a public benefit, because they truly think they are saving children from hell. Indeed, this used to be a mainstream view – back in a time when most people believed in hell.

But today, most Brits don't have religious beliefs, let alone a belief in hell. Conversely, evidence indicates that inculcating children with fundamentalist religion risks a multitude of psychological harms. This should be enough to dislodge the notion that advancing religion through child evangelism is a public benefit.

But charity law hasn't caught up with the present. "The advancement of religion" is still a charitable purpose in law because there is still an underlying assumption that advancing religion, whatever form that may take, is inherently beneficial to society.

Our charity sector should not be used as a vehicle for furthering religious interests at the expense of children's mental health and freedom to explore religion or belief on their own terms. And neither should our schools be used as mission fields. We need to truly modernise our laws governing both charities and education if we want to prioritise the education and welfare of children above religious concerns.

Write to your MP: reform charity law

Tell your MP it's time for 'the advancement of religion' to be removed as a charitable purpose. Enter your postcode below to find your MP and send a letter to them.

Tags: Charity, School evangelism