Jesus camp


Our young adult class met every week after the service, usually over some hastily ordered food. It was a great class, which formed into a wonderful group of people, friends who looked after each other–a tribe, if you will.

One of the things that came out the most in our discussions was the conversion experience. I think everyone in the class had one that went something like this:

The child grew up in a Christian home, and attended a Lutheran church. As a teenager, her best friend was the Baptist Preacher’s kid. One summer the two friends went to camp together, where every night there was a strong plea that the youth ask Jesus into their hearts. And so, on one of the last nights, our friend did it. She went up to the altar, prayed with a camp counselor, and asked Jesus into her heart.

Having grown up a Baptist, this didn’t sound like such a traumatic experience to me. I asked Jesus into my heart, like, a thousand times. I repeated that prayer at every summer camp, just in case.

But the girl (a hard-wired deep thinker) felt terrible about it. She thought she had turned her back on her faith, that she had, in her “conversion experience,” proclaimed to everyone that the church she grew up in was not an actually a Christian church. It seemed like, in that moment, she publicly disrespected her mother’s deeply held faith. She felt manipulated and used.

And all those feelings were palpable, ten years later, as she told the story.

She went home and after many tears, she confessed to her mother, who handled it beautifully. Her mom–a wise and wonderful woman–said, “You know what honey? It’s fine. An extra religious experience isn’t going to hurt anybody.”

But judging from the reactions around the room, and the stories that poured out that Sunday afternoon, they did hurt. Everyone had a Jesus Camp story, where they felt vulnerable, young, and exploited. Each person felt like he or she had been a notch on some preacher’s belt at one time or another.

In that room, there were accounts of best friends parting ways over the validity of women pastors. There were painful memories of uncomfortable family reunions and relationships due to relentless conversion attempts. There were stories of embarrassed teenagers, going along with the crowd, and not realizing what they were actually doing until the middle of the prayer.

I tried to explain the other side a bit. I told them that the preacher had a deeply held belief that the youth before him were going to hell. He would say or use anything in his power to keep that from happening. That explanation really didn’t help things much.

So, I just sat there, shaking my head, thinking, No wonder so much of our generation has rejected the church. The narratives were all heartbreaking and hilarious, but there was no denying it, we all had wounds.


4 thoughts on “Jesus camp

  1. Hmmm … interesting discussion. I had a time like that too — at a Catholic “Teens Encounter Christ” where sleep deprivation was an intentional part of the indoctrination. (And not for pillow fights — the nuns woke us up to pray). I developed pneumonia that weekend. Coincidence?

  2. Whoa! Really? Did you get to go home when you got pneumonia?

    My worst camp/indoctrination experiences were when I went on Teen Missions International. I don’t even know how to begin to explain TMI (hard labor, heat exhaustian, and contruction boots are the first images that come to mind). I think that’ll be a post all on its own….

  3. Very interesting. I attended many of these camps, and yes I remember the alter calls and everything else that you are talking about. But I never really had any emotional hang-ups like you describe, or have to deal with as a pastor. My brother and I honestly just looked at it like one big joke. We were Christian kids mind you, no doubt about that, but we would just roll our eyes at some of the camp counselors – we could see right through them. We would go home, tell mom about some of the things that went on there and we would all just have a big laugh about it.

    I guess we were lucky in that our camp was probably 75% fun, 25% Christian indoctrination. And the fun stuff WAS fun – but I broke a lot of the rules. I would go on long, long canoe trips up river with my fishing pole, or organize these massive football games with the other kids. So it was not all like TMI, or forced indoctrination for me.

  4. I was quite a devotee as a teen. In fact, I was never forced to go to TMI. I loved it. Even with the boots and manual labor. I got to travel the world before I was 16, before my parents had ever been in a different country.

    It’s just now…when I look back at the harsh rules and disciplinary techniques…I cringe.

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