The other night, my family and I watched a video called "Jesus Camp." The videographers basically follow around three youths and their families who attend a pentacostal evangelical church and who go to the week of camp the church leadership provides each year at of all places, "Devil's Lake," ND. I am sure that some people who watch the video wonder if the people who were followed are geniune in their presentation, or if they have been prompted on what to say. I personally am fairly certain that there was very little if any prompting that occurred in the video. I have personally witnessed and experienced the types of groups and situations depicted in the video.
As a person who encounters about 10 weeks of Christian summer camps each year for the past decade, I have seen many mininstry methods and I have seen the responses of many children. I also attended a camp once as a child and I especially remember going forward for the end of the week alter call and the conselor led discussion in our cabin shortly there-after. The camp I went to as a 5th grader wasn't pentacostal like the one presented in the video, but I can certainly relate to the desire of the children of that age to connect with God.
The continual question that most people probably have while watching the video is whether the children are being manipulated by church leadership to respond to the 'call of Christ.' Personally, I ask myself that same question often, even in less radical settings. Perhaps one reason I ask myself that is because when I was at camp in 5th grade, I went forward because I felt like that was what I was expected to do. I didn't realize that I went forward for that reason at first. It took some time for that fact to dawn on me.
We were told that if we go forward we were to wait until the pastor or a counselor came to pray with us. So, I did so, and I waited, and I waited, and I waited... there were a lot of kids who went forward. Probably every kid at camp. Did every one of them feel called by God to go forward? As I said, I waited a long time kneeling on the floor and the room was becoming nearly empty. I suddenly began to wonder why I need a pastor to pray with me about this when I already pray in private and knew that God heard me. The whole idea of an alter-call was foreign to me even though I had previously seen people respond to alter-calls at other church events. I wondered why I had even walked forward when I had never felt the need to in the past. I suddenly felt like an idiot kneeling there waiting for some sort of assistance that I didn't need. So, I got up, walked away and returned to my cabin where my cabinmates were waiting for the last of us.
Once we were ready for bed, the counsellor had a discussion time so we could all talk about our experiences that night. She had us each take a turn to share. When my turn came, I gave the same general story as everyone else, even the part where I supposedly cried because my sins were now forgiven. I wonder what the response would have been had I told the truth of what I had learned that night? Knowing that I had lied, I went to sleep that night wondering why I not only went forward for something that was unneccessary, but why I also later lied about what happened.
I had simply done what was expected of me.
Children want to be accepted, they want to fit in, they want approval from the adults around them, and they are also very curious about spirituality. Most parents use their childrens desire for approval to express what behaviors are acceptable and what behaviors are not acceptable. Most adults would frown at and scold a child for writing on the walls or jumping around on a couch, and praise them for picking up their toys and for being polite. This is training for life skills. But, is there a point at which we, as parents or guardians, use our parenting tools to force children to act in a way that ceases to reflect the truths they know in their hearts?
At one point a 12 y.o. boy is preparing to give a sermon and he tells his interviewer, "Its not going to be me up their preaching." I know that he was implying that God would be preaching through him, but I wondered too how much of what he would say would be the catch-phrases that he hears over and over again from the ministers. At various time in the video you can hear the kids repeating as their own words the jargon and phraseology of the church. Personally, I am far more interested in what they really think, than in regurgitated jargon.
To be honest, as an adult, I still struggle with expressing thoughts that are outside of the expectation of the people around me. That is part of the reason I started this journal. Its a way to express things that too often I leave unsaid. In fact, if I walked into a church like the one shown in the Jesus Camp video and taught from the Bible, they'd probably start trying to cast the devil out of me with unintelligible babbling. (By the way, I've been in services like that one, and they are certainly memorable experiences). But, even in the not so charismatic groups, I would be viewed as a heretic. As the one mother in the video put it: "There are two kinds of people in the world, those who love Jesus, and those who don't." I wouldn't say that I don't love Jesus, but I certainly have a different understanding of him than most people. According to many christian authors, I am the enemy. Whats the point in talking with people who will imediately ostricize me?
Another interesting quote from the movie is from Becky Fischer, the youth minister: "If you want something from God, you have to cook a little." This quote is followed by the room full of kids and counsellors becoming as intense and emotional as they possibly can as if the more they do these things, the more of God they'll get. Once the congregation is in the desired emotional state, they are told what monsters they are in their hearts, to which they all burst into tears. Finally they are told to tell Jesus their evils and to come forward to have their hands washed with bottled water to make them clean again.
The basics are there: you've done something wrong, repent, and God will forgive. But there is another message too. A little girl gets the message loud and clear when she tells of "The churches God likes to go to." She says they're "Not dead churches, but ones where people are jumping up and down, and if they ask God just right, he'll go there." Yeah, just like Santa, right? By the way, some may think the message is only getting skewed in Pentacostal churches like this one, but perhaps they should think again. What are churches teaching our children? What is the right message?
There are a lot of pressures on our children today to be super-children. And, the children want to fullfill those expectations. I remember my childhood experiences at camp and in other settings, but my experiences were not nearly as intense as the multi-media, pressure intensive assault that is being heaped on the kids of today (and not just in churches). Becky the youth minister says that she wants Christian kids to be as radical as the Arab children over in Palestine. In a deleted scene, the director of a pro-life clinic says: "This generation wants something worth dying for... this generation... they will do anything you tell them to, and its who gets ahold of them."
How frightening is that? These are children, not little mini-me's. They have hearts and minds of their own. We need to foster their desire for truth and their compassion, not shape them into automatons. But too often today, inside the church and outside the church, that is what is being done to this generation. What will happen when they become adults and wake up? Or worse, what will happen if they become adults and don't wake up?
If you watch the video, also watch the director commentary when you're done. I didn't finish listening to the commentary yet, but from what I've seen so far, its their reactions to what they were seeing and experiencing and looks quite interesting. Jesus Camp is bound to stir up controversy from people of various belief systems. It would be quite useful for a group discussion.
Labels: children, generation, Jesus Camp, ministry