Sunday night, here in Australia, the ABC TV program Sunday Best screened the disturbing US-made documentary Jesus Camp. Made in 2006, many American readers will have seen it already but I think this was the first time it has screened in Australia. I found I was a little nervous as I sat down to watch it. My friend Vyckie Garrison had mentioned the doco should come with a trigger warning for ex-fundamentalists. She was right. So much of it was horrifyingly familiar, depicting scenes I had witnessed in churches in Australia many times when I was a Pentecostal myself.
For those who haven’t seen it, Jesus Camp follows a group of young children as they prepare for and then attend a camp conducted by North Dakota pastor Becky Fischer, founder and director of Kids in Ministry International (KIMI). The featured children seemed to be from conservative evangelical, homeschooling families, and their parents, many of whom attended camp with them, were apparently unphased by Fischer’s bullying and mad-eyed rants, or by the bat-shit crazy things she got the kids to do (having them speak a blessing to a life-sized cardboard cut out of George Bush springs to mind).
A video of ‘highlights’ (using the term in its broadest sense here ) is embedded below.
Evidently, Becky Fischer was bombarded with emails and letters from angry viewers after the documentary first screened in the US. The North Dakota campsite where Jesus Camp was filmed banned Fisher and her team from returning after vandals made their feelings about Fischer and her methods known. But KIMI’s disturbing ‘ministry’ to children continues nonetheless.
Fischer’s particular schtick is getting kids involved in ‘the supernatural’. By this she means that she is gifted to teach children how to connect directly to God, to speak to him and to hear him speak, to experience supernatural power flowing from God to the child and so on to transform a sinful world. Fischer’s camps run for 3 – 4 days and cover a huge range of supernatural techniques. At the (relatively) harmless end of that spectrum, this involves getting the kids ‘filled with the [Holy] Spirit‘, and encouraging them to speak in tongues. At its nuttier extremities though, kids are instructed how to engage in direct prayer warfare against Satan, have visions, prophesy, heal the sick, and perform ‘signs, wonders and miracles’. Apart from attending camps like the one in the documentary, kids learn how to do this through instruction from their own church leaders who have studied Fischer’s DVD courses broadly entitled, School of Supernatural Children’s Ministry (which is at least better than its former, rather chilling name, Leading the Lambs to the Lion Training Institute).
Fischer’s charismatic ilk reminds me very much of my own experiences at Clark Taylor’s Christian Outreach Centre (COC) in Brisbane in the 80s – the church where I landed when I was first drawn into Christianity at the age of 19. I taught Sunday School at that church and while the children’s workers didn’t engage in the kinds of activities I saw in Jesus Camp, I can well imagine that Fischer’s practices would have been held in very high regard had COC leadership known about them. The then-3500-strong COC congregation was subjected to the ministry of many visiting American evangelists at least as flaky as Fischer and, like Fischer, COC leadership believed that to reach a lost world you should earnestly seek to convert its children – as early as possible. Buses were sent out from COC to underprivileged suburbs each Sunday morning and Christian workers wearing appealing animal character costumes and offering handfuls of lollipops (and the promise of more) would lure children on to buses and ferry them to church. It gives me shivers to think of it now.
In my twenties I left COC in favour of the Assemblies of God (AoG) denomination of Hillsong fame. My then-husband studied to be a minister at the AoG ministerial training college in Katoomba. The AoG was more conservative than COC and other similar charismatic denominations in those days. But the winds of change were blowing and bringing with them the madness of faith healers Kenneth Copeland, Kenneth E. Hagin, and that of utter charlatans such as Benny Hinn and Rodney Howard Brown. By the time I was in my late-twenties, the Toronto Blessing had hit and in-church craziness shot to a terrifying new level. If you think I might be exaggerating, take a peek at this video which shows behaviours typical of Toronto-influenced church services at the time. I witnesses spectacles such as those depicted – people shaking, rolling on the floor, laughing uncontrollably, and (I kid you not) ‘barking in the Spirit’ – more than once in Australian AoG churches. It was believed to be a revival, an outpouring of God’s Spirit on his people. Yes, even the barking.
I left this rather frightening kind of Christianity behind and settled into a much duller but less overtly weird form of conservative fundamentalism. I didn’t jump ship because I disagreed with the notion that believers could connect directly with God and experience some kind of supernatural power. I left because, in my view at the time, these Pentecostal leaders were foolish to be accepting that just because these bizarre extremes occurred (a) in church and (b) to people who claimed to be Christians, they must therefore be signs from God – regardless of what the Bible might have to say on the subject. It was this new and incredibly popular wave of belief in what was seen and experienced rather than what was written in the Book that frightened me. It seemed to me as though the church was standing on the edge of some dark abyss and leaping forward with no possible way of imaging what lay beyond. I found solace with believers who valued the commandments in the relatively nice, safe Book with it’s comfortingly ancient and only tangentially relevant stories of prophets and faith healers.
I’ve written elsewhere that the Christian fundamentalists’ commitment to the teachings in the Bible, despite reliable evidence to the contrary or indeed common sense, no longer holds any appeal for me. But frankly, I’d probably take a busload of my old Quiverfull fundy friends in preference to a small handful of Becky Fischers. Her type manage to combine the crushing weight of religious fear, condemnation and guilt, and add to it the terrifying notion that if you notice the appearance of a sudden, vivid thought or an image springs seemingly unbidden to your mind, you should consider it a direct communication from the Almighty and act on it without hesitation. Indeed, to hesitate would be to sinfully disobey the prompting of the Holy Spirit. The implications of this kind of belief would probably genuinely terrify many a free-thinking person.
And of course, Fischer isn’t preaching this to adults. The penitents broken and sobbing with remorse at her altar, having realised they have served God with less than a whole tiny heart are children between the ages of 6 and 12. And Fischer’s reach isn’t limited to American children either. Kids in Ministry International has an Australian branch based right here in my own city, Brisbane. At that site, you can even find a special section devoted to selling DVDs for teaching Fischer’s doctrine and methods to babies and preschoolers.
It is probably almost impossible for those who have never been inside fundamentalist Christianity to understand why parents would allow their children to be subject to such blatant emotional manipulation and brainwashing. Let me try and explain: To the fundamentalist parent, Heaven and Hell are real, literal places and God gets to decide to which of those you will go depending on how you have lived your life on earth. Like all parents, Christian fundamentalists love their children; the very worst thing they can imagine happening to them is that they grow up in a home where Jesus is known – and yet finish spending eternity in fiery torment. Desperate to ensure their children follow the path to Paradise, many grasp frantically at any system which purports to assist or, better yet, guarantee success in raising God-loving offspring. Fischer’s program claims to turn ordinary children into spiritual and evangelistic powerhouses with direct access to the throne room of Heaven. This is an irresistible offer for these kinds of parents.
Fischer’s message is also highly appealing to children raised in these kinds of homes. Of course, they want to please God, and of course they notice how thrilled their parents are when they are apparently ‘touched by the Spirit’ in these meetings as they commit their lives to Christian service with tears of joy. In Jesus Camp, Fischer used a multitude of tricks to draw the children in: colourful props, delicious treats, engaging stories as well as bullying and lambasting, guilt, condemnation, and threats of hellfire. The desire for a solid sense of belonging with God and other believers, combined with the thrill of being different from (and better than) ‘the world’ has a seductive power, and committing to those ideals offers an emotional payout that it would be rare to find offered in any other context.
I am not able to find any Australian churches who have purchased Becky Fischer’s School of Supernatural Children’s Ministry DVDs – at least, none that will admit it on their websites. But I can tell you than this interest in teaching a mystical, supernaturally-oriented Christianity seems to be on the rise. Churches like Westlife not far from me in Springfield, Qld have attracted media attention* for running School of the Supernatural courses where they claim can teach people to cure cancer. Numerous other Australian churches run similar programs built on the teachings of US-based Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry. And while these churches might be at the whacky end of the billabong, their pool is getting wider and wider all the time. The churches that are growing their congregations are the arm-waving, Pentecostal, flee-from-hellfire-and-prophesy-on-the-way sort. Of particular concern is that these are the churches from which the Australian government-funded National School Chaplaincy Program draws many of its workers.
My point is, Australians who watched Jesus Camp on Sunday shouldn’t imagine that the craziness depicted is a purely Americian phenomenon. The same dangerous, psyche-cracking nonsense is being preached at Australians – including, I believe, children – as I write. We can only wait and see what the fruit will be. My bet, sadly, is that we’ll see a spike in adolescent and young adult psychiatric illness as a result.
* The article cited states that Westlife and its School of the Supernatural are linked to the well known AoG church Hillsong, however Hillsong denies any such association.