Perhaps not in the COVID-19 era, but normally during summertime, children attend camps to have fun, meet other kids, and enjoy new experiences. Recently, I watched a jaw-dropping documentary about a “Jesus Camp” (Kids on Fire Camp) in North Dakota. In a word–wow. Wow in a bad way.
I’d like to ignore the other problematic parts of this film, such as when a homeschool parent trains their child in political talking points, because this post isn’t a movie review. Rather, this post includes a sobering summary of the camp’s teachings/methods and my critique of their doctrine. So, let’s dive into this madness, right after I share my past experiences with Christian youth get-aways (for the sake of contrast).
I attended two Christian retreats at age 17ish. One of them was more serious and reflective, so while we didn’t partake in typical camp activities like rock-climbing or swimming, we listened to messages throughout the day, discussed them in groups, and went through several edifying spiritual experiences (like each of us being surprised with thick envelopes full of encouraging letters from our loved ones). The other retreat was more like a typical camp; we spent days having fun and nights in an auditorium rocking out to a praise band then listening to a sermon. Though the setting and purpose of the get-aways varied, I enjoyed my time at both. Just bear in mind that I was about 5-10 years older than the kids in the documentary when I went to these retreats.
How the Jesus Camp is run
Pastor Becky Fischer, the camp’s ringleader, has frankly disturbing methods of evangelizing children. In one scene, she screams–literally screams–at a roomful of kids that sin will take over and destroy their lives. She then proceeds to tell them that, if they’re a different person at church than with their friends, they’re “a fake and a phony” and need to repent. A woman moans hauntingly in the microphone as the camera pans around the room, showing the children breaking down into sobs and praying in tongues. It is chilling.
Here are a few more choice moments: Fischer is shown composing a Powerpoint and adding a slide that reads “The wages of sin is Hell.” in red font on a black background; while speaking to the camera in a light-hearted tone, she searches for and finds a font that resembles dripping blood. She hollers at the children that Harry Potter would’ve been put to death in the Old Testament. At one service, the children pray for a cardboard cut-out of then-President George W. Bush. Someone gives a presentation on the evil of abortion and passes around tiny fetus figurines, then they whip the kids into another frenzy of tears and fervent prayers.
Perhaps there was some typical camp fun occurring here that was excluded from the documentary. But what I saw was enough to show me–this place is (was) twisted and, dare I say, evil. I’m no fan of “hellfire & brimstone” preaching as an adult, but putting that kind of fear into children, who will likely grow up tormented by constant guilt and maybe needing therapy, is immoral and borderline abusive. Some of what was said and done is fine out of context; for instance, I actually admire how Pentecostals move their bodies and really get into the service. Sadly, the acceptable things are tainted by the overall picture of what’s happening.
How I would run a Jesus Camp (my critique of their doctrine)
Fischer’s sermon on sin destroying lives was presented in the documentary as the first sermon of the camp. In my experience at youth retreats and an adult one I attended last year, the first message sets the tone for the whole experience. There are so many wonderful themes one can choose from scripture–loving your neighbor no matter who they are, love is action, generosity, forgiveness/mercy, peace, Godly justice (making sure everyone is cared for), not feeling fear and stress because God loves you and is with you, courage/boldness to do the right thing, etc. I would use the opportunity to teach children to be better people through one of those Biblical concepts rather than “put the fear of God in them.”
Does repentance have its place in Christianity? Of course! As I’ve read scripture, God has really pruned me in my worldviews, my former close-mindedness and obsession with politics, how I treat people who test my patience, etc. But there is a loving way to approach that topic, such as by sharing a personal testimony, as I just did in a very condensed way. Discussing repentance doesn’t need to result in a roomful of sobbing children. Not to mention…how many sins could a 9-year-old even commit?! Even adult fans of “hellfire & brimstone” preaching should acknowledge that it’s too traumatizing for young children.
Aside from exploiting the emotions of impressionable kids, I have a major qualm that might not occur to non-Christians watching the documentary. Here it is: there was no mention of ministry whatsoever. Jesus was born, PERFORMED MINISTRY, and was killed–that’s it. I don’t fathom how “Bible-believing Christians” can ignore such an essential part of our calling. Then again, there is a sector of Christians who chiefly value personal salvation and sweep social justice under the rug. As a person who has been chipping away at reading the whole Bible for 2.5 years, I can assure you, God cares for the marginalized. When God gave the Hebrews the Law of Moses (see Lev. 19 in particular)…in the Psalms and Proverbs…when God prophesies the Babylonian Exile through Jeremiah, Isaiah, and others…when Jesus traveled, preached, and healed…when Paul wrote his letters to the churches…God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit stand with the weak, the helpless, the powerless, the poor, the needy. Those who follow Him are called to do the same. Hence, I believe any Christian doctrine, church, retreat, whatever with no emphasis on ministry is missing the big picture.
This was hard to watch and also enlightening. My fiancee and I watched it together, and he was amused by my constantly demanding he pause it so I could preach the true Gospel…the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who stands for hope, love, and reconciliation. Again, repentance has its place, but not like this. For any non-Christians reading this, I hope you’ve realized by now that this documentary, though fantastic for what it is (kudos to the filmmakers), does not represent most Christians or even the Bible.
Thanks for reading! Have you seen this film? What’s your two cents on what I’ve written here? Do you have any Christian film recommendations that are actually God-honoring and uplifting? Let me know in the comments.
P.S. Here’s an article on what happened to some of the people in the documentary. I screamed aloud in shock multiple times. I don’t know what’s worse–homophobic pastor Ted Haggard having his gay love affair exposed or Fischer having the ABSOLUTE AUDACITY to compare herself to Jews in the Holocaust.