Is Preaching to Children Abuse?

The other day I saw the documentary Jesus Camp, a film which followed several children going to an evangelical camp in North Dakota run by a minister named Becky Fischer. Here’s the trailer for it:

The film caused a bit of a controversy when it was released.
It covered several different viewpoints, including some of the children who attended, the minister who ran the camp, and some footage of a Christian radio host criticizing the camp. What people seemed to focus on was the manner in which Ms. Fischer preached to kids, along with the specific rhetoric she used. A lot of people even went so far to call it abusive.

With some of that in mind, I sat down to watch the movie on Netflix. As it turns out, I saw a lot of familiar things from my childhood in that movie. Kids got into a frenzy of guilt and praise, dedicated themselves at very young ages to Jesus, and went through a marathon of Christian-only talks and workshops. Outside of speaking in tongues (I was Lutheran, so I didn’t believe in that particular nonsense), the movie could have been footage of Sunday school or church across the country.

It’s widespread. But is it abuse?
Many Christians can and did say Ms. Fischer’s particular brand of ministry was abusive. Dressing kids up in camouflage paint and proclaiming Christian fatwa doesn’t leave much room for having a mild reaction. But to me that wasn’t the most egregious part of what was going on.

Rather, I saw too many examples of things that should have been alarming. One child was given wrong information about climatology. A 10-year-old girl voiced concerns that she wanted to dance, but not dance “for reasons of the flesh.” A different girl walked up to a complete stranger and did an awkward guilt conversation in a bowling alley. Yet another child confessed in tears that sometimes he really didn’t know what to believe about the Christian deity. What prompts these kids to do these things?

The answer to that question isn’t exactly comfortable to many people within the faith, but it needs to be dealt with in the open. These kids do these things because they’re made to feel guilt, to use it as a weapon against people, and that it’s okay to manipulate so long as it’s for their deity. Children are being told about sexuality before they even know what it means, often in ways that scar them for life. Parents are able to hide facts from their children for no other reason than they can.

In other words, the abuse isn’t just the specific rhetoric of one minister who has it in her head that kids need to be radicalized for their faith. That radicalization happens in many different ways, but it never gets acknowledged. It’s always someone else’s radical acts that need to get criticized; it’s always someone else’s problem. Or, it’s not abuse when one person does it, but only when someone else does it.

That’s a very subjective view, coming from a community which prides itself on universal truth.
The film struck a nerve with me because I saw too many familiar things. I got to watch adults make conscious decisions to manipulate people who couldn’t know better. Is that really something necessary to promote belief in an actual higher power?

If that’s the case, it means that nothing is sacred when it comes to promoting a religion. Anything is possible, and it’s entirely okay to seek out vulnerable targets who can’t fend for themselves. And yes, it’s even okay to use the smallest of human shields.

Is that abuse? I don’t know how anyone can say anything but, “Yes.”

8 thoughts on “Is Preaching to Children Abuse?

  1. Personally, I simply am unable to watch this type of movie/film. It’s not so much whether it’s “abuse” or not. Rather, it’s the pure manipulation of innocent children by adults that should see what they’re doing but don’t because they are so indoctrinated themselves. It’s truly a vicious circle.

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    • I still had to recommend it to people who didn’t necessarily grow up in evangelical households or environments. I read some people trying to refute what was going on in the film, and I felt like someone needed to say that the film wasn’t detailing things too far off the fringe.

      You’re right that it’s a vicious circle, and the problem I keep finding is that it’s way more common than many would like to admit.

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  2. Eww… I watched this a while back. While I never had it that bad growing up, I was told things by my parents such as “I will go to hell if you do not attend church”.

    If religion is so important to parents, and as in the US, we have “religious” freedoms, why not educate your child in all religions, non-religions and philosophies. Let them decide what they want to do on their own without corrosion.

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    • That’s a very good point, David. If the saving of a soul is of utmost importance, each individual needs to be equipped to make the best decisions for themselves. Unfortunately, many churches actively attempt to discount other faiths in an effort to ensure people only need one particular brand of salvation.


    • Hey Ratam, sorry for the long reply, but my thinking is kind of meandering on this.

      I was referring to the girl, Rachel I think, who approached some random woman sitting alone in a bowling alley and said that god put it on her heart to talk to her and tell her everything’s going to be okay. The woman just sat there, looking from the girl to the camera like she didn’t know what the hell was going on. She ended up telling the girl thank you in a very “bless your heart” tone of voice. Rachel hung around for a little bit longer trying to further a conversation (most likely headed towards a conversion attempt).

      Looking at it, I realized that Rachel picked that woman sitting alone in a public place for a reason. Her initial greeting seized upon a potential insecurity in the woman. That kind of thing capitalizes on guilt or other negative feelings, and gets the ball rolling on the “Jesus can help you with that” sales pitch later on.

      I don’t think Rachel fully recognizes what was going on, but I do think she’s learning that behavior from her parents and other role models. Of course, it’s possible she wasn’t in the throes of a conversion attempt, but later exchanges in the film show Rachel as someone who is willing to try to convert strangers.

      Regardless, that whole process is what I term a guilt conversation, because it’s an exchange focusing on negative emotions – usually guilt from my experience growing up – that is typically brought up as part of a conversion attempt.

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