Lessons From “Jesus Camp”

“…by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting…” (Romans 16:18b)

I have known about the controversial documentary “Jesus Camp” for a while, and I just had a chance to see it. To me, it’s a fascinating documentary. While many prominent Christians have been angered by the documentary, my opinion is that the documentary should serve as an educational material to teach us lessons.

So, what is “Jesus Camp”? The main part of the documentary follows Becky Fischer, director of Kids In Ministry, who held a charismatic revival camp called “Kids On Fire” focused on impacting kids for Christ. The documentary mainly focus on three kids: Levi, the 12-year-old kid preacher; Rachael, the 9-year old kid evangelist; and Tori, the 10-year-old emotional prayer warrior.

That all sounds well and good, but here’s what’s controversial. The tactics of Becky Fischer and her ministry is basically straddling the fence between extreme indoctrination and brainwashing of kids. While Becky Fischer believes kids are great for the kingdom of God because their prayers can be powerful, and that’s correct to believe, she says she wants to train kids just as intense as the Islam countries train Muslim kids by putting weapons in their hands. In the camp, her tactics were highly focused on bombarding kids’ emotions, shaming them to think they’re sinners, and basically encouraging them to pray for the country to be rid of abortion, to have “righteous judges,” etc. There was even a cardboard cutout of George Bush during the camp and they asked the kids to say good things to the Bush cardboard figure and laid hand on the Bush cardboard figure and prayed for him. Interweaving the main proceedings of “Jesus Camp” are radio program snippets from controversial radio host Mike Papantonio who argues that the Religious Right is ruining this country.

There are many great one-liners in the film. In one scene, 9-year-old Rachael was in a bowling alley, and before she rolled the ball toward the bowling pins, she prayed over the ball, saying “Ball, I command you in the name of Jesus, make a good hit.” Another scene showed Levi being homeschooled and his parents told him that global warming is a lie. Yet another scene, Tori said that she did not care much about non-Christians. No wonder many Christians were angered by this documentary.

However, I believe that anger toward this documentary is the wrong reaction. To me, there are many lessons to learn about this movie. These are the lessons I learned:

1. Non-Christians think that (almost) all Christians believe the same stuff. The number one complaint about this documentary is that all this extremist stuff is not representative of what evangelical Christians are about, and the documentary made a grossly unfair stereotype of evangelical and/or pentecostal Christians to be like the people they portrayed. To me, this documentary does paint a stereotype. Even the filmmakers, in the audio commentary on the DVD, thinks somehow that Becky Fischer’s brand of Christianity, expcet for speaking in tongues, is pretty much the same as what all other evangelicals believe, and of course nothing is further from the truth. However, this documentary doesn’t propgate the idea that all Christians believe alike; they’re merely validating that non-Christians have this misguided idea. I’ve learned that, in front of my non-Christians friends, I need to accept that how they see I believe and behave is what they think the rest of the Christians will believe and behave.

2. Our Christian zeal could lead us to dangerously think of ourselves bigger than God. In one scene, Becky said that she has the ability to go to any playground and talk to the kids there and just in a short moment she could lead them all to salvation. I was appalled by her arrogance. No one is saved unless it is a work of God. I don’t have the power to save other people. I can only claim to carry the debt of love to let others know about Christ, but I cannot claim that I have the magic touch to cause others to be saved. And I definitely shouldn’t have the arrogance of praying over a bowling ball to hit a strike, nor thinking that I could pray over the pews of a church (like the the way Backy prayed in one scene) that people sitting on them would somehow be blessed because of my prayers over the pews.

3. It’s wrong to make moral issues into an us-vs-them attitude. I oppose abortions, and I also think the moral climate in America is in decline. But I don’t see this as a fight like the Christians depicted in “Jesus Camp.” Nor do I think making abortion illegal is a good goal. Would I rather be putting my resources in changing hearts to turn them toward the reality of Christ’s love toward us as precious human beings, or putting my resources in changing laws to force people to stop abortions even though they can’t see why abortion is wrong? Moral issues need to be understood by hearts turned toward Christ, not force-fed on a “them”.

4. War language is dangerous. I’ve long had a problem with Christians using “war language” indiscriminately: culture war, fighting the devil’s schemes, etc. Yes, I know it’s true that war language is used throughout the Bible. But my understanding is that we’re asked to fight when Satan is trying to prevent people from hearing and receiving the gospel to saving faith in Christ. In fact, I believe Satan would be pleased if our fight is a “fight against culture” or “taking back our nation for God” because it distracts people from thinking about God and toward other things entirely. In the film, someone said that she’s learning to “fight” with her “vote”. The worst thing about religious right is misdirecting people away from God’s plan and toward forcing the majority of public opinion to conform to what we think is right. People in Jesus’ day wanted to make Jesus king to cure all of their society’s woes. The same thing is happening today because people misunderstand the kingdom of God to be an earthly reign when it really should be having people’s hearts submitted under God. No wonder they’re starting to call us “Christian terrorists.”

5. Passion can disguise deception. Kids are easily impressionable, and they’re most easily influenced by passionate adults. I want to be known to my son as a passionate dad. But I need to be passionate to the right things. The “Kids On Fire” camp was overflowing with emotions and passion, but does it preach God? No, it doesn’t. The Bible was used only as a jumping off point to whatever dogmatic stuff the camp administrators want to convey to kids. Unfortunately, Becky’s focus was just finding the right object lesson methods to illustrate her points to the kids, when she really needs to be continuing questioning whether what she’s talking about is really what God is actually talking about in His Word. Don’t place method in front of message.

6. Parenting isn’t about short-term results. Levi said he was saved at 5 years old. All the kids shown in the film seem to be even better Christians than many adults as they bravely approached strangers to give them gospel tracts, participated in prayer walks in Washington D.C., etc. We are wowed by these kids and think they’re such “good Christians.” But remember that they’re in a closed environment surrounded by other Christians. During a vulnerable moment in “Jesus Camp”, a kid about 9 years old in the camp said, “I just wanted to talk about belief in God, and I’ve had a hard time doing it… just to believe in God is hard because you don’t see Him
, you don’t really know Him much. Sometimes I don’t even believe what the Bible says.” Even a kid in such an indoctrinated environment can have doubts. Imagine how they’ll be when they grow up and be on their own. My focus in parenting my son is not that he’ll be a “good Christian kid” reciting Bible verses left and right, but he’ll understand wholeheartedly that we’re all vulnerable human beings living under the amazing grace of God and under the secure love that only a sacrificial God can give, and when he goes out to the most hostile environments will be when we truly know whether there are results from our parenting efforts and prayers.

I encourage all of you to see “Jesus Camp” and think hard about it and talk about it!

Recommended links:
Christianity Today’s review of “Jesus Camp”
An angered pentecostal’s reaction to “Jesus Camp”

One thought on “Lessons From “Jesus Camp”

  1. haven’t watched it yet, but i wanna touch on points #2 and #3… :)

    #2 it’s very very very very common and dangerous in the world today. a few success here and there can easily give us this sense of pride that we can do anything, even if it’s for God. It gradually gives us this false sense that because He has always been with me in my works, whatever I say/I do has to be right.

    #3 Yes. God didn’t call us to judge all these specific acts or to create more walls, but to show His love to those around us and be His salt and light.

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