Jesus Camp is a documentary released in 2006, directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. It features Pentecostal children’s pastor Becky Fischer and her Charismatic children’s camp “Kids on Fire School of Ministry” that was operated in North Dakota. Jesus Camp follows Pastor Fischer and a few of the kids before, during, and after the camp. Commentary is provided by liberal Christian radio host Mike Papantonio, who gives a counter view to that of the dominionist campers and their families.
Jesus Camp begins with a brief prologue wherein Papantonio expresses concern about what fundamentalists are teaching their children. Then the movie shows scenes from a “Changing the World Through Prayer Conference” being held in a church in Missouri. At the conference, Becky Fischer preaches about how kids need to be committed to serving God and how sin has shifted the nation away from God. She then leads children and adults in a session of praying in tongues and being slain in the Spirit. Pastor Fischer explains to the filmmakers that she wishes to instill in kids a commitment to impact society for Jesus on par with how Muslim madrasahs stir up passion in their students.
Jesus Camp then introduces a few of the kids. They are homeschooled and very well spoken. The homeschooling scenes focus on creationism and the repercussions of taking God out of public school. A nine-year-old girl prays over her bowling shot and then gives a woman a tract. Another girl, a ten-year-old dancer, says she tries to make sure she dances for God and not her flesh.
While the children pack for the “Kids on Fire” camp (the “Jesus Camp” of the documentary’s title) and travel to North Dakota, Pastor Fischer and her team pray over the camp’s facilities and equipment. Once camp begins, Fischer’s sermons to the campers are entertaining enough to keep the kids’ attention, but they concentrate on sin—that of the kids and of the nation. One boy gives a sermon about how they are the generation that must take back America for Jesus. Another speaker gives a message on abortion and how the kids’ influence is needed to make it illegal again. At one point, a camp counselor brings out a cardboard cutout of then-President George W. Bush, and the kids are instructed to pray for him and his responsibility to replace the recently resigned Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. (Critics mistakenly claim the kids are worshiping Bush.) Many sermons at the camp culminate in sessions of uncontrollable weeping and praying in tongues.
The Jesus Camp film then cuts to Papantonio, who warns that fundamentalists will take over the government. A voiceover then announces that Judge Samuel Alito, who many believe to be pro-life, is confirmed to replace Justice O’Connor.
After finishing “Jesus Camp,” the boy who preached is filmed visiting New Life Church in Colorado Springs, where he watches then-pastor Ted Haggard condemning homosexuality and encouraging his congregation to impact the nation. (The documentary was released about seven months before Haggard was accused of drug use and sexual relations with a male prostitute.) Several of the kids from camp go to Washington, D.C., where, with adults, they sing and pray over the U.S. Supreme Court and quietly protest abortion. This portion of the film ends with an interview with the children, who talk of being trained for a spiritual battle, of living without fear, and of the glory of martyrdom.
While reviewing film from the camp, Pastor Fischer expresses her pride in the passion the kids convey. She grants an interview to Papantonio—he pushes separation of church and state, while she defends teaching kids biblical truth and its application in the world. The Jesus Camp film ends with Pastor Fischer explaining her motivation—to bring the world to a saving relationship with Jesus. In the final scene, Fischer pulls her car into a carwash (a distorted depiction of baptism?) as a speaker on the radio encourages his listeners to fight liberalism. Then the curtain covering the carwash exit, containing two stop signs, pulls away to the side.
The Jesus Camp film is fairly balanced, as a documentary should be. The adults and children come across as authentic and sincere, and Pastor Fischer is pleased with her on-screen portrayal while aware of the unflattering angle emphasized in the editing. Reaction to Jesus Camp has been mixed. As filmmaker Heidi Ewing said, “It was like people were watching two different movies.” Many viewers accuse Pastor Fischer of brainwashing and indoctrination; the campground where “Kids on Fire” was held was so vandalized by protestors that the owners refuse to host her camp again. Others who watched the movie said it strengthened or renewed their commitment to follow Christ. Due to the controversy, Kids on Fire has been rebranded as “Kids in Ministry International.”
Despite what some critics have claimed, the subjects of Jesus Camp do not represent mainstream evangelicalism. Becky Fisher and the ministry she leads are part of the Charismatic movement and intentionally extend the Charismatic experience to children. The kids are taught to pray in tongues, be slain in the Spirit, cast out demons, and mourn for the sins of the nation. They are also trained to believe it is their responsibility to grow into an army of God that will reclaim America and make it a Christian nation again.
Several criticisms directed at Becky Fischer and her training programs are valid. First, as the Jesus Camp movie makes clear, she teaches erroneous Charismatic doctrine to children. Speaking in tongues, exorcising demons, and healing are overemphasized. Emotional, ecstatic experiences are valued to an unhealthy extent. Also, the Bible does not teach that the way to transform society is for Christians to seize control of secular political entities. Fischer’s most troubling message, however, is that children must “take back America for God” because adults are “too fat and lazy” to fast and pray (her words, although she may have intended them as hyperbole and self-deprecation). Yes, abortion and rejecting God are national sins, but those burdens should not be placed on the shoulders of nine-year-olds to the point that they weep uncontrollably every night. There is no instance in the Bible where children were made to feel responsible for mourning and redeeming the sins of adults—not even when God told a young Samuel about Eli’s sons’ sin in 1 Samuel 3. We are to teach children about God, about their place in God’s plan, and how to live a life for Christ in a fallen world.
Jesus Camp is an eye-opening film that documents the beliefs of a segment of Pentecostalism and how those beliefs impact society. If nothing else, the film underscores the dangers of Charismatic excess and the importance of sound biblical theology (2 Timothy 1:13).