Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF) is an international, non-profit evangelistic organization founded in 1937 by Jesse Irvin Overholtzer (1877—1955). CEF focuses on meeting the spiritual needs of children and leading them to faith in Jesus Christ. The organization describes itself and its purpose this way: “Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF) is a Bible-centered organization composed of born-again believers whose purpose is to evangelize boys and girls with the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ and to establish (disciple) them in the Word of God and in the local church for Christian living” (from www.cefonline.com, accessed 7/25/2019). Child Evangelism Fellowship’s statement of faith is clear, solid, and biblically based.
CEF's flagship program is the after-school Good News Club for children, with most meeting in public schools and many others in community centers, parks, and homes. Over 100,000 Good News Clubs meet weekly around the world during the school year. CEF trains teens in the Christian Youth In Action program to evangelize children in the summer through 5-Day Clubs which meet in homes and parks. CEF encourages churches to partner in their programs as a way to interest children and their parents to attend church.
When Jesse Irvin Overholtzer was a child, his mother told him that he was too young to understand religion. It wasn’t until he attended college that Overholtzer came to faith in Jesus Christ. After becoming a pastor, Overholtzer was reading a sermon by Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834—1892) when he was struck by these words about a child’s capacity to comprehend the gospel: “A child of five, if properly instructed, can as truly believe and be regenerated as an adult.” A spark was ignited in Overholtzer. He began thinking about how he could preach the good news to children and supply them with a foundation for discipleship in a local church.
In 1916, Overholtzer led a child to Christ for the first time. Over the next decade and a half, he ministered to children through the Christian Training Association in California, a program for adult leadership training and Bible classes for children. Eventually, Overholtzer moved to Chicago to develop and oversee a Christian training school. It was here that he felt called by God to begin an evangelistic ministry to children.
At age 60, Overholtzer organized a national committee, and on May 20, 1937, Child Evangelism Fellowship was officially launched with a prayer that every child might have a chance to accept Christ. As Overholtzer took a bus tour to key cities in the U.S. and Canada, he oversaw committees being formed, directors appointed, and training schools inaugurated. Initially, Child Evangelism Fellowship concentrated on offering Bible classes for children. These classes later became known as Good News Clubs.
In 1945, the International Child Evangelism Fellowship Institute opened in Dallas, Texas. Since then, CEF has added many programs such as the Radio Kids Bible Club, Evangelizing Today’s Child magazine, summer programs, overseas missions programs for college students, radio training programs for adults, The Treehouse Club children’s television program, an internet ministry for children, a summer camping program, a military children’s ministry, and a three-month training program (Children’s Ministries Institute) for people who feel called to minister to children.
The core ministries of CEF are the Good News Clubs and the 5-Day Clubs. These group meetings take place all around the world in neighborhood settings such as schools, churches, community centers, homes, and backyards. The meetings are geared toward presenting the gospel in ways that children can understand and relate to, in a familiar environment and at an age-appropriate level. The Good News Clubs meet weekly throughout the school year, whereas the 5-Day Clubs take place in the summer.
On June 11, 2001, Child Evangelism Fellowship’s Good News Clubs won a significant victory when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Good News Club v. Milford Central School that religious clubs cannot be denied from meeting at public schools after hours if other private groups can meet during that time. In a 6-to-3 opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas, the Court held that excluding a club because of its religious stance is a violation of the First Amendment.
Equipping local workers and volunteers for ministry to children is vital to the success of Child Evangelism Fellowship. Training, which is offered worldwide through the CEF education department, is provided to more than 400,000 teachers every year.
Today, Child Evangelism Fellowship is the world’s largest evangelism ministry to children, claiming to reach more than 25 million children in person with the gospel message each year. The fellowship is active in every state in the United States and most countries in the world. It has approximately 3,500 missionaries overseas, 1,030 full-time employees in the United States and Canada, and some 400,000 volunteers around the world. CEF’s home offices are in Warrenton, Missouri, USA.