When Jesus Camp released to theaters, I happened to be in Colorado Springs, of all places—the evangelical mecca. The scuttlebutt among the non-evangelicals I was hanging out with at the time was their surprise that it was actually being shown in the Springs, which was then home to Ted Haggard*, and their horror at how the kids in the movie were being indoctrinated in the faith. I pretty much shrugged it off at the time; I hadn't seen the movie, but I figured it was just so much charismatic campiness, and anyone who wasn't evangelical, charismatic, or Pentecostal wouldn't get it anyway.
But then I saw it. An hour ago. On my very own television. And it both sickened and disturbed me no end.
First, a disclaimer. (Why do I so often have to start with these bloody disclaimers? Why is it that people love to tear apart whatever you write?) I believe with everything in me that children of any age can be deeply touched by God. I believe they can have a faith experience that would put many adults to shame. And I believe that many parents and youth leaders truly believe they are doing what God wants them to do with regard to teaching and training children in the faith.
But I was sickened by the way the children in the movie talked—they sounded as if they were simply repeating, in much-too-adult terms, what their parents and pastors said. Their vocabulary and speech patterns didn't sound authentic, even for precocious home-schooled kids (I know how adult they can sound; I had two of my own). The emotional and patriotic manipulation turned my stomach.
I was disturbed, though, for an even more unsettling reason: I used to be one of those parents and youth leaders. Okay, so maybe I wasn't quite that bad, but I came awfully close. The parents in the movie talk about how their kids are different; their kids are sold out to Jesus; they would grow up to be world changers, a generation that will change the world for Jesus. Well, we said the same thing about the kids in our churches 10, 15, 20 years ago. They were on fire for God—and today, their photos are plastered all over MySpace, showing them in various stages of undress accompanied by bitter blog posts about the nightmare their childhood was.
As I watched Jesus Camp, I thought of the many young adults I know who were once destined for greatness, who showed promise for future ministry, who were prophesied over and "sealed" for a mighty work for God. And I can't help but think that if we had talked less and lived more authentically, those kids wouldn't feel so betrayed.
To parents and youth pastors of Jesus Campers: "Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words." Which, by the way, St. Francis never said. And to which I would add, be sure you know what the gospel is—and what it isn't—and be sure the words you do use are really necessary.
* The Jesus Camp website features this response to Haggard's criticism of the documentary. It makes no mention of his subsequent fall from grace. Kudos to the producers for taking the high road when the low road must have looked so tempting.