CEDAR PARK, Texas — There’s a box full of souls with Mary Nell Kemper’s name on it.
“Just look at that,” she said, lifting a stack of pink and blue World Bible School pages — water-stained, dog-eared and bound with rubber bands. “That represents hundreds of lessons going back to teachers. And every single one of those is someone studying God’s Word. It is just awesome.”
The box is from the World Bible School’s office in Zimbabwe, where African Christians collect lessons from students via business-reply mail and send them to the ministry’s Texas headquarters — a two-story office building near an industrial park in this Austin suburb.
When she’s not sorting lessons here, Kemper teaches World Bible School through a program at her congregation, the Westside Church of Christ in nearby Round Rock.
Among Churches of Christ, World Bible School, or WBS, is synonymous with evangelism.
More than 2 million souls study the Gospel through the program, particularly in the Global South — Latin America, the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia and Africa — where souls are hungry for low-cost Christian education.
The ministry estimates that nearly 30,000 of its students request baptism each year, based on records from churches that participate in the program.
After 38 years of soul-winning, World Bible School has set its sights on what may be its toughest mission field yet — the United States.
“Why? Because the church in America isn’t growing — not even keeping up with the growth of the population,” said John Reese, the ministry’s president. “We all must do more to share Jesus right here in the U.S.”
In the 21st century, Churches of Christ in Africa outnumber those in the U.S., thanks in part to World Bible School.
“If it were not for WBS, I could not have known the truth and the Church of Christ,” said Julius Mwambu, who began the correspondence program in 1986. Now the lessons are a vital part of his ministry in Mombasa, Kenya, he said.
As churches in Africa have flourished, U.S. congregations have declined. World Bible School’s leaders point to statistics from The Christian Chronicle that detail declining membership and attendance among Churches of Christ in the ministry’s home country.
Since 1980, the U.S. population has increased about 35 percent, but total church membership has suffered a slight decline. Studies by the Pew Forum and the Barna Group show religious groups across the country losing ground.
That doesn’t mean Americans have given up on faith, said Lance Tolar, a technology consultant for World Bible School. The U.S. consistently ranks in the top five countries for students of the ministry’s printed lessons. Since WBS first offered its courses through the Internet 16 years ago, more than half of its online student body has come from the U.S.
“We have churches that are not growing, but we have people from Baptist ministers, Catholic priests to unchurched enroll in our ministry to study the Bible,” Tolar said.
“There really are seekers in this country,” he added, “and somebody needs to be teaching these people.” CONNECTING LOCALLY
Jimmie Lovell, founder of WBS, described the ministry as “an opportunity for those of us in the church, who are supposed to be the light of the world and salt of the earth, to preach the Gospel. … We are showing how every one of us may go — without waiting for the unsaved to come to our buildings,” Lovell wrote in 1974.
Thirty-seven years later, the ministry launched a program designed to help U.S. churches do just that. “WBS Connect” is an effort to help Churches of Christ share Jesus locally. A church that participates receives a document with ideas for reaching its community — direct mail, advertising, door-knocking campaigns, posters and business cards. The ministry also sets up a WBS-branded website for the church that helps the congregation connect with interested students.
At first, “the student may not realize that their teacher is across town or across the street,” said Kevin Rhodes, vice president for development. Students and teachers may talk over coffee, and new converts have an immediate church home with friends, he added.
One congregation involved in a pilot program for Connect is the New Road Church of Christ in Waco, Texas. The church, with an attendance of about 225, uses WBS to reach the lost overseas but rarely as part of its local outreach, said member Buddy Shaw.
To prepare for the work, the church’s elders and more than 30 of its members worked through online WBS courses. The church also formed a local outreach committee, set up a special website and printed business cards and yard signs.
“Recently, our first non-member student enrolled,” Shaw said. “I do not know how she learned about us — card, yard sign, friend, neighbor or relative. We are hoping and praying that she is the first of many to enroll, and that God will bless our meager efforts to teach the good news locally.” ONE CONVERT’S STORY
In years past, Churches of Christ were known for their high level of biblical knowledge, said Kit Mullins, vice president of Internet ministry for WBS. In America, people still hunger for that knowledge, she added.
One example is Desiree Conover, a 49-year-old cake decorator at a Wal-Mart in Burlington, Iowa. Raised Catholic, she had given up on church but went online looking for Bible studies because, she said, “I didn’t feel fulfilled.”
She signed up for World Bible School on Feb. 23, 2009.
At 6:31 p.m. on April 4, 2009, she sent an e-mail requesting baptism. Now she’s a member of the Burlington Church of Christ.
“Without WBS and its teaching, I would have never understood the true meaning of ‘born-again Christian,’” Conover said. “I would not have known that Jesus died on the cross and that there was a new promise made between him and us. The courses explained it in exact detail for beginners — from start to end.”
Conover’s story demonstrates the opportunity believers have to harness WBS — the same tool they’ve used for years to teach the Gospel in Mombasa, Kenya — to reach souls across the street, Mullins said.
“There are people we deal with on a daily basis that may be interested in what we’re doing,” she said. “The new wave of church that’s out there is not satisfying them in the same way that knowing the word of God does. We have the opportunity, once again, to be the people of the Book.” FOR MORE INFORMATION,