WBS: ‘Ordinary Christians sharing their faith’
Sitting at a conference table in the ministry’s Texas headquarters, he talks about the thousands of church members who have dedicated their time to study the Bible one-on-one with students through the mail or the Internet.
From its beginning, World Bible School has been a movement of “ordinary Christians sharing their faith,” Reese says.
The ministry’s founder, Jimmie Lovell, was not a preacher. Lovell, a California businessman who made a living selling dynamite, was a benefactor of many evangelistic efforts and a believer in the power of correspondence courses to spread the Gospel.
During the 1940s, Lovell financed a series of Bible lessons developed for G.I.’s by Gordon Turner, minister of the Lawrence Avenue Church of Christ in Nashville, Tenn.
A few years after World War II, the Lawrence Avenue church got a letter from a Nigerian named C.A.O. Essien. The retired police officer was looking for a Bible course and was referred to the church by a school in Germany. He had visited several denominational churches in Nigeria but was frustrated that he couldn’t find a church that resembled the one he read about in the New Testament.
After completing the courses, Essien wrote the church again, asking for more lessons. Later he sent another letter, claiming that thousands of Nigerians were using the courses and getting baptized. Could the church send missionaries?
In 1950, Reese’s father, Boyd Reese, and Eldred Echols, missionaries in southern Africa, traveled to Nigeria to meet Essien.
“And they found out that, yeah, it was true. There were thousands and thousands of converts already,” John Reese said. “There were lots of Churches of Christ, all from that one correspondence course.”
GARAGES TO WAREHOUSES
The response in Africa sparked Lovell’s imagination. In 1962 he launched a missions newspaper, Action, and urged Christians to evangelize — at home and around the world.
Ten years later, Lovell, age 77, and his wife, Vivian, started a new correspondence teaching program at the Torrance Church of Christ in California. Missionaries provided them with the names and addresses of 100 students in Africa and 100 in the Caribbean. Within two years, enrollment grew to 400,000. The Lovells dubbed the effort World Bible School.
The ministry has operated from tiny offices in Tennessee and California, run largely by volunteers. In the mid-1970s church members Danny and Donna Compton used the garage of their home in Garland, Texas, to store large orders of WBS materials.
In 2000, the ministry moved from its offices at the Westover Hills Church of Christ in Austin, Texas, to its current facility in Cedar Park. The ministry also has service centers in 17 countries to help process its lessons from around the globe.
LIVING ROOM EVANGELISM
More than 600 churches in the U.S. sponsor WBS teaching programs. Some church members have taught in the program for decades, corresponding with thousands of students around the world.
“It’s the perfect ministry for me because it involves missions but doesn’t involve actually having to talk to people,” said Sharon Gardner, who coordinates the WBS ministry at the Westover Hills church. “I’m shy, and talking (about Christ) in person is harder for me. So I have time to think about my answers.
“I’m teaching the lost,” she added, “and I’m doing that from my living room.”
Carly Cannon, age 17, teaches all of her students through the Internet. When her father, Robin Cannon, who oversees church relations for the ministry, urged her to become a teacher, she said, “I thought it would take too much time or would be too boring. I, quite frankly, didn’t want to do it.”
Nonetheless, she signed up and, in the next two weeks, got a list of e-mail addresses of people who wanted to know more about the Gospel. From a couch in Hernando, Miss., she shared her faith with them.
“I have corresponded with people all over the world — France, Australia, Pakistan, Nigeria and even America,” she said. Helping them understand God’s Word “reminds me of why I became a Christian. It means that I can do something to help someone study and understand the Gospel.”
John Reese and his wife, Beth, experienced the success of World Bible School firsthand when they served as missionaries in Zimbabwe and, later, South Africa.
Occasionally, American Christians asked the Reeses to visits a WBS student who wanted to learn more about he Bible — or to be baptized.
“When we’d go visit that student, we were pretty impressed with how much they’d learned,” John Reese said. At the same time, “we were always frustrated with the larger numbers in the Johannesburg area that just were not getting much chance … to hear the Gospel.”
The Reeses recruited U.S. churches to serve as “teaching congregations” and placed ads for the correspondence ministry in South African newspapers. U.S. church members taught students and referred those interested in the Gospel to the Reeses. The couple entered 5,000 names and addresses into their computer and conducted follow-up studies. About 500 baptisms resulted.
“Other missionaries have done World Bible School follow-up from time to time,” Beth Reese said, “but we were the first missionaries to do it as a full-time job.”
Previously, the couple spent a lot of time trying to “beat the bushes,” John Reese said. “But what was happening here was the Americans had already sifted through, found out who was interested, and then we just took them the last few steps and into their Christian life.”
The Reeses moved from South Africa to Austin, Texas, in 1991 to work at WBS headquarters. In 2006, John Reese succeeded Tex Williams as president of WBS.
The Reeses have four children — all involved in missions.
One of them, Danny Reese and his wife, Katie, are part of a team that plans to move to Angola, a Portuguese-speaking nation in southern Africa. The team lives in Lisbon, Portugal and works with the Church of Christ there.
As they prepare for work in Angola, the younger Reeses are making plans to use World Bible School in their work.
In the past, U.S. missions to Portugal “created a mindset that the congregation here is a receiver of missions rather than a sender and participant in missions,” Danny Reese said.
That mentality is changing, thanks in part to the Angola team’s presence and the vision of the Lisbon church’s leader, Ricardo Neves.
The Lisbon church has committed to church-planting and missions. Members intend to use WBS lessons to teach students in Angola as the mission team recruits them. The church plans to order the Portuguese lessons from World Bible School’s office in Brazil.
“Our prayer is that the demand for WBS in Angola will far outstrip the ability of the Lisbon church to handle,” Danny Reese said, “and that many more teachers will step up to the plate in Portugal, Brazil and the U.S.A. Only God knows how this will grow.”