January 16, 2021

Thoughts On Jesus Camp

gcfI have purposely avoided watching Jesus Camp until this week. One of my Advanced classes is using it to write a response paper to The Screwtape Letters, so over three days we watched it, with some debriefing every day.

In this class of ten, several students could relate to various aspects of the film. One young man had been in similar churches and experiences for the first eight years of his life. One of my Ethiopian girls was from a Pentecostal church in her country. One of my American girls was homeschooled on and off for several years. Others had heard various sermons that reminded them of the rhetoric in Jesus Camp.

I have, of course, been around youth camps, youth rallies and youth events my entire life as a Christian and a minister. I grew up in a church that used high pressure evangelism tactics several times a year. I’ve been to youth events where the speakers or musicians were similar to the adults in Jesus Camp. All my life I’ve been surrounded by end-of-the-world scenarios and Satan-is-out-there-in-Harry-Potter type rhetoric.

Still, much of the Jesus Camp experience was strange to me. I have never been around any kind of high powered children’s events or camps. I’ve seen some tactics used in child evangelism that I was uncomfortable with, but this has been very rare. I once wrote a letter protesting our Baptist state paper’s reporting of the baptisms of five year olds in some churches, but I’ve never seen any baptisms of children that age.

I had so many reactions to the film that it would take five posts to record them all in detail. I’ll try to be brief and cover as many topics as possible in short form.

1. I don’t feel Jesus Camp was insulting or unfair. I felt there was a lot of sympathy for the sincerity of those working with the children and for the faith of the children themselves. I wouldn’t hesitate to show this film to a roomful of non-Christians, but I would ask for the opportunity to “locate” what the audience was seeing on the broader map of evangelicalism. This is part of who we are as evangelicals, and the camera doesn’t lie. (See next point.)

2. There were points that I felt the camera was making a large difference in the subjective impressions of what was being seen and heard. This absolutely included the Ted Haggard segment, but also some of the scenes involving Levi, who clearly loves the camera. One never really knows how much production and editing, and the camera itself, have changed the overall dynamics.

3. Becky’s radio interview contains an observation that “Democracy will destroy itself.” This seems to be the problem for people like Becky. They don’t want to live in a culture where those who differ from them are allowed to have an equal voice. Becky wants to control the culture and to have Christians in charge of government, even though she says nothing will be perfect till Christ returns. There was no sense that our fallenness is a problem for governing and shaping culture. Her response to the diversity that challenges our culture is to have Christians controlling the government and punishing unbelievers. This is a complete embracing of the ideas of America as “ours” and as “God’s. There were dozens of references to America as the primary stage of God’s activity. Where is the rest of the planet? (My Ethiopian students found this rather amazing.) One wonders if the logic of a civil war would meet with Becky’s approval.

4. Becky’s admiration for martyrs and Islamic radicals is truly unfortunate. Jesus is not an Islamic radical and those following him are not “God’s warriors.” The militarization of this entire segment of the culture war is frightening to everyone. It makes me sad to hear this kind of rhetoric echoed from many good men who ought to know better. Discipleship is Jesus shaped. We don’t find some misplaced, fallen example of zeal and baptize it as the work of the Holy Spirit.

5. The strategy of using highly emotional issues and highly emotional tactics creates some real concerns for me in the area of manipulation. As a public speaker and communicator, I understand how to push buttons and fan resentments and fears into motivation. If I were a person without integrity or someone ignorant of consequences, I would probably use these tactics for results. But I believe the work of the Holy Spirit is not done by my own efforts and energies. It is done by the Holy Spirit using spiritual means. What many of these adults have done is emotional abuse these kids, and say it is harmless. I believe it is potentially very damaging.

6. My students are exploring the difference in Lewis’s portrayal of the devil in The Screwtape Letters and the portrayal of the Devil in Jesus Camp. The difference is obvious. Lewis sees the devil at work on our wills, character and habits. The sins and temptations of the world and the flesh are of little interest to Screwtape. He is far more interested in pride and excused hatred and cruelty than in temptations to become an imaginary or real wizard. Jesus Camp’s version of Satan is entirely about the agenda of liberals, political issues, failure to participate in approved activities and being “worldly” in an external sense. Screwtape would find a whole world of possibilities for corruption in the world of Jesus Camp.

7. My own study of faith development leads me to believe that many of these young people will abandon this version of Christianity or Christianity entirely by the time they are young adults. The methods used here do not present enough opportunities for these young people to declare independent, become critical of their own tradition or reshape the faith into their own style. All of these are normal and expected stages in faith development. The Jesus Camp method of intense indoctrination, filling the mind with strongly prejudicial opinions and fears, and depending on emotional experiences will likely yield a harvest of discarding large portions of these experiences. This is the “dark side” of a lot of evangelical ministry to young people. With all the talk of a “solid” foundation, what they need is a movable, flexible foundation that allows them to interact with Christianity in a way that they can shape and own for themselves. Many of us know evangelical families who have learned this the hard way. It’s a rather obvious lesson. Why don’t we get it?

8. Jesus and the Gospel were almost entirely absent. Neither were particularly important. Most of what I saw and heard would work just fine in Islam or Judaism.

9. Church elders? Supervising pastor? Probably there somewhere, but it would have been nice to get some idea that Becky isn’t simply free to do whatever she believes will work.

10. Ted Haggard irony. Oh my. So sad, but as a leader it is so easy to hear and see the emptiness being covered up by the persona. I wish that most committed laypersons were savvy to the signs that someone has become flippant to the presence of God and is drinking at the wells of celebrity and narcissism. Haggard’s lines that “I know what you’re really doing and I’m going to tell” come from exactly that place in him where he’s playing with his fears and sins. There are probably thousands of ministers who are out on this same limb: empty, hurting addicted, a double life, but covering it all up with the big act in the pulpit.

I’m glad I finally watched Jesus Camp, but it was hard. I don’t want this to be part of who we are. I don’t want to see children worked into a frenzy, taught to lie and emote, told to let their egos go as they play preacher….but I started preaching at 15. In the past, I’ve allowed high school students to preach. I’ve been at more than one camp where things got way past where I wanted them to go, but the college student counselors were running the show. This is all part of me too, in a small way, and I’m grateful that the movie allowed me to see it.


  1. I haven’t seen the film, but enjoyed reading your observations. I am middle-aged, been Baptist all my life, home schooled my kids, but always thought independently. It’s taken some years to see some things, but I wouldn’t ALLOW my kids to “make a decision” until teenage years. So, I’m with you on the emotional/fear appeal to children.

    The only point you made, that I would like to see more clarity on are the following quotes: “reshape the faith into their own style” and “what they need is a movable, flexible foundation that allows them to interact with Christianity in a way that they can shape and own for themselves”. By definition, a foundation is not generally thought of as movable and flexible.

    I feel you are getting into “red flag” area when you suggest individual “styles or shapes” of Christianity. I’m not disagreeing with the difference in growth, understanding and even some application. But we DO need to understand our faith and God’s word as solid and unchanging. After all God declares about himself that he is always the same. I think we can have clear communication of our faith and God’s word without the flavor of indoctrination. And, yes, young people HAVE to embrace it for themselves, from their own will and desire to follow Christ. It can’t be scared into them and be genuine.

  2. Karla:

    Do you consider it a red flag issue if a student raised in Southern Baptist fundamentalist culture (No moderate use of alcohol, no R-rated movies, no secualr music, etc.) discovers that at a reformed church in an urban area, none of these things are taboo? And the Gospel is style the Gospel?

    I don’t like Southern Gospel quartets. I like secular music much more than Christian. The Baptists around here said Harry Potter was of the devil. My kids read all the books. Clothes. Music. Politics. Personal style and culture is flexible. Young people need to make those choices themselves. As a parent of two twenty something pursuing Presbyterianism and Anglicanism, but both committed to Christ, our family is proof that style can change and Christ remain.

    The movable foundation is a foundation that can adopt to different places and expressions, but it is still the Gospel foundation. I am not talking about flexible doctrines. I’m talking about taking the Apostle’s Creed/Nicene faith into different places, denominations, churches and cultures without having to abandon it.

    A lot of kids leave something they wouldn’t have to leave if their parents had differentiated between Christ and culture.



  3. Hypocrites in the church? Do tell! There is and always has been hypocrites, false teachers, and crazies, that are used by the enemy to discredit Jesus and His Church. That is why it is more important than ever to defend Scripture as The Authority. The “circus church” is all over the place, as is the “legalism” churches and the “political” churches (Reverend Wright and his Trinity church that Obama attended for 20 years comes to mind). I am not going to waste 1 1/2 hours of my time watching a film about “circus church”. The wheat and the tares will be sifted.

    What we need to do is spend our time studying the Word so that we can easily tell the true from the counterfeit.

    I do think it is a bit hypocritical for some to be worried that children learn about abortion at a young age, but have no problem with the public schools teaching sex education to the same age groups. As for me, I home educated my daughter so that she was exposed to only age appropriate material. I did not let her read Harry Potter either, nor did we go to the theaters to watch the movies. Last summer she gave a public speech at the Illinois State Fair on “The Myths of Global Warming”. We must be right wing zealots. lol. If I lived in Germany or Massachusetts the state would have attempted to remove her from my custody.

  4. I want to go on record to say the Harry Potter books were originally recommended by a friend who was a Baptist. I had no idea there was any controversy surrounding these books until Book IV came out, and The Onion did a parody article claiming Harry Potter was teaching kids to be witches and wizards. There were some very silly people who didn’t realize that article was parody.

    I’ve seen bits and pieces of Jesus Camp, but I can’t watch the whole thing. It really disturbs me, and brings up a lot of crap I prefer to remain supressed.

  5. How will our children be expected to discern that something like Jesus Camp is bad if they aren’t aware of enough different perspectives? If all they know is what their parents judge they need to know?

    I let my daughter have the run of the library. Sometimes I cringe at the lyrics to the rap music playing in that ever-present iPod but I trust her to discern right from wrong based on what she’s learned and experienced — and her foundation in Christ.

    Unfortunately, everyone from slavers to Presidents claims scripture as their authority. And also unfortunately, it doesn’t really cover things like global warming, cloning or Facebook.

  6. Joseph wrote: I let my daughter have the run of the library. Sometimes I cringe at the lyrics to the rap music playing in that ever-present iPod but I trust her to discern right from wrong based on what she’s learned and experienced — and her foundation in Christ.

    When I was in the third grade at Phillipsburg Christian Academy, I was nearly expelled because I did a book report on “A Tree Grows In Brooklyn”. I don’t know why, even to this day, that it was such a big deal. I remember being called into the principal’s office, being told how disgraceful I was, how I had disgraced my folks, and how I must not love Jesus (whom I had just accepted as my savior the year before at VBS).

    My folks stood behind me, and it got very ugly between the principal (who was also my teacher – lucky me) and my folks for awhile. There was talk of transferring me, but for reasons that are long lost now, that didn’t happen. But my folks continued to encourage me to read all sorts of different types of literature, as from an early age I was an avid and voracious reader. I read “Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee” later that same year, but suspected that would not be a good book to report on in school either.

    My husband and I have raised our own children with values, morality, and in the Christian faith. One is an adult now, and the other two will be soon. From a young age, within the dictates of common sense, we have allowed them to make their own choices with regard to literature and music. Of course they could not bring home anything pornographic, but beyond that, we set very few limits. They have read all of the Harry Potter books and seen the movies and none of them have turned into warlocks (just as I didn’t turn into a witch when I read “Bedknobs and Broomsticks as a young child).

    As I mentioned, we raised our children to be people of faith and morality, so I don’t really get the whole extreme censorship thing. Our eldest, fully dedicated to the Christ-shaped gospel, is very effective in his youth ministry. He has been exposed to many different types of thought, so he can easily discuss topics that range from A to Z with young people. He has not aligned himself with the anti-intellectual movement that so many right-wing zealots have, which does nothing to further the cause of Christ and just makes them targets of ridicule by society (perhaps well-deserved ridicule – see “Why They Hate Us” by IM).

    Stating that proven scientific facts are false doesn’t make you a better Christian except to those on the margin that believe the same thing.

  7. The 3 points in the film that disturbed me the most were:

    1. The kid talking about asking God into his heart at age 5 and, as a child no less, thinking he needed/wanted MORE from life. Yikes.

    2. The screaming of “Righteous Judges! Righteous Judges!” by children. Talk about burdening kids with heavy issues. They aren’t ready for the weight of certain kinds of realities. Let them be kids for God’s sake.

    3. The rant about how Harry Potter would deserve to die if he lived under God’s law.

    I thank God for my evangelical, PK upbringing. I love the Scriptures, I love and value ongoing conversion, I love the reality of a personal devotional life of love for God in Christ.

    That being said, I’m thankful I’m no longer identified with that stream. I can take the good I received from it with me and gladly leave the rest of it behind.

    Jesus Camp was just another confirmation of the direction of my spiritual journey.

  8. Thanks for that, Katha. I’m going to watch this thing again tonight!

  9. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Ted Haggard irony. Oh my. So sad, but as a leader it is so easy to hear and see the emptiness being covered up by the persona.

    This might come under late-stage invoking of Godwin’s Law, but “emptiness being covered up by the persona” was also the 1942 OSS psych-profile conclusion about Adolf Hitler’s personality. (I have a copy of the OSS report, declassified after the war.) Stripped of its Freudian terminology, the report also hinted how a persona can end up taking over, which reminds me of “The Tragedian” in Lewis’s The Great Divorce.

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