"Jesus Camp" and Lessons from the 13th Century

A friend from church alerted me of this movie being released today. It’s entitled, Jesus Camp. It is a documentary that won awards and created quite a buzz at the Tribeca Film Festival last Spring in New York City. Though I have not seen the movie, I have watched several trailers and read interviews with the producers and the woman who is the primary subject of the film, “Pastor” Becky Fischer.

She strikes me as a very sincere woman who is seriously misguided in her understanding of the Gospel and Christianity. Through her Kids in Ministry organization she is encouraging children to come to faith in Christ–as she understands it–and to become fully involved in every aspect of Christian ministry, including preaching, teaching and prophesying. Thus she highlights “Peewee Prophets” on her website.

Obviously, I disagree with Fischer’s Pentecostalism, but that is not what I find so disconcerting about her efforts to train the rising generation of children. Rather, what I find alarming is the muddled understanding of the Gospel, the church and the kingdom of God that comes through in the reports and information from her website. Forget the claims of raising a baby from the dead at the “2006 Extreme Prophetic Conference for Kids.” What I find to be of greater concern is the spiritual harm being done to children in the name of Christian teaching.

They are being taught that experience trumps truth and that the proper goal of their generation is to take America back for Christ. Charges that Fischer’s camps for children are little different than the terrorist training centers sponsored by militant Muslims are unfair and reveal the ignorance or left-wing ideological agenda of those making such claims.

However, I do find some frightening parallels between the attitudes of children featured in the Jesus Camp promos and those who were instrumental in the 13th century children’s crusades. Stephen, the French pre-teen shepherd and Nicholas, the boy from the Rhineland village of Cologne, each led thousands of children in quests to convert the infidels and recapture the holy city of Jerusalem from the Muslims. Spurred on by ignorant adults, untold thousands lost their lives to treacherous travel and traitorous merchants. Full of zeal and bereft of knowledge, they gave themselves to a fool’s errand and it cost them dearly.

Becky Fischer is certainly right in her concern. Christians must take seriously our responsibility to train our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Merely exposing them for an hour or two a week to religious instruction will not adequately prepare them for a life of true discipleship. We must teach them, love them, show them and blaze a trail in front of them that enables us to say, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). Parents and pastors must learn to labor as a woman in birth pangs until Christ is formed in the children under our care (Galatians 4:19). This means that we will guard against encouraging superficial decisions to give mental assent to certain facts and call such decisions conversion.

All of this will require a mentality significantly different from that which too often prevails in evangelical children’s ministries where fun is featured more than faith. Catechetical instruction as well as doctrinal and ethical training should be reclaimed as useful tools in the effort to ground our children in the Word of God. We must not hesitate teaching them the whole counsel of God and speaking plainly to them about the cost of discipleship.

Richard Wurmbrand, who suffered for the faith in Romania during the last half of the 20th century, describes his farewell to children in the church before he left his troubled homeland.

I remember my last Sunday School class before I left Romania. I took a group of ten to fifteen boys and girls on a Sunday morning, not to a church, but to the zoo. Before the cage of lions I told them, “Your forefathers in faith were thrown before such wild beasts for their faith. Know that you also will have to suffer. You will not be thrown before lions, but you will have to suffer at the hands of men who would be much worse than lions. Decide here and now if you wish to pledge allegiance to Christ.” They had tears in their eyes when they said, “Yes.”

This is a far cry from whipping children into an emotional frenzy and then asking them, “How many of you want to be those who will give up their lives for Jesus?” Maybe we should hold more Sunday School classes in front of caged lions.

Psalm 78:1-8 provides a challenge that we need to take to heart as we think about helping the next generation launch into our troubled world:

1 Listen, O my people, to my instruction; Incline your ears to the words of my mouth. 2 I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings of old, 3 Which we have heard and known, And our fathers have told us. 4 We will not conceal them from their children, But tell to the generation to come the praises of the LORD, And His strength and His wondrous works that He has done. 5 For He established a testimony in Jacob, And appointed a law in Israel, Which He commanded our fathers, That they should teach them to their children, 6 That the generation to come might know, even the children yet to be born, That they may arise and tell them to their children, 7 That they should put their confidence in God, And not forget the works of God, But keep His commandments, 8 And not be like their fathers, A stubborn and rebellious generation, A generation that did not prepare its heart, And whose spirit was not faithful to God.