Reacting to the Horrifying Documentary “Jesus Camp” as a Christian

Perhaps not in the COVID-19 era, but normally during summertime, children attend camps to have fun, meet other kids, and enjoy new experiences. Recently, I watched a jaw-dropping documentary about a “Jesus Camp” (Kids on Fire Camp) in North Dakota. In a word–wow. Wow in a bad way.

I’d like to ignore the other problematic parts of this film, such as when a homeschool parent trains their child in political talking points, because this post isn’t a movie review. Rather, this post includes a sobering summary of the camp’s teachings/methods and my critique of their doctrine. So, let’s dive into this madness, right after I share my past experiences with Christian youth get-aways (for the sake of contrast).

I attended two Christian retreats at age 17ish. One of them was more serious and reflective, so while we didn’t partake in typical camp activities like rock-climbing or swimming, we listened to messages throughout the day, discussed them in groups, and went through several edifying spiritual experiences (like each of us being surprised with thick envelopes full of encouraging letters from our loved ones). The other retreat was more like a typical camp; we spent days having fun and nights in an auditorium rocking out to a praise band then listening to a sermon. Though the setting and purpose of the get-aways varied, I enjoyed my time at both. Just bear in mind that I was about 5-10 years older than the kids in the documentary when I went to these retreats.

How the Jesus Camp is run

Pastor Becky Fischer, the camp’s ringleader, has frankly disturbing methods of evangelizing children. In one scene, she screams–literally screams–at a roomful of kids that sin will take over and destroy their lives. She then proceeds to tell them that, if they’re a different person at church than with their friends, they’re “a fake and a phony” and need to repent. A woman moans hauntingly in the microphone as the camera pans around the room, showing the children breaking down into sobs and praying in tongues. It is chilling.

Here are a few more choice moments: Fischer is shown composing a Powerpoint and adding a slide that reads “The wages of sin is Hell.” in red font on a black background; while speaking to the camera in a light-hearted tone, she searches for and finds a font that resembles dripping blood. She hollers at the children that Harry Potter would’ve been put to death in the Old Testament. At one service, the children pray for a cardboard cut-out of then-President George W. Bush. Someone gives a presentation on the evil of abortion and passes around tiny fetus figurines, then they whip the kids into another frenzy of tears and fervent prayers.

Perhaps there was some typical camp fun occurring here that was excluded from the documentary. But what I saw was enough to show me–this place is (was) twisted and, dare I say, evil. I’m no fan of “hellfire & brimstone” preaching as an adult, but putting that kind of fear into children, who will likely grow up tormented by constant guilt and maybe needing therapy, is immoral and borderline abusive. Some of what was said and done is fine out of context; for instance, I actually admire how Pentecostals move their bodies and really get into the service. Sadly, the acceptable things are tainted by the overall picture of what’s happening.

How I would run a Jesus Camp (my critique of their doctrine)

Fischer’s sermon on sin destroying lives was presented in the documentary as the first sermon of the camp. In my experience at youth retreats and an adult one I attended last year, the first message sets the tone for the whole experience. There are so many wonderful themes one can choose from scripture–loving your neighbor no matter who they are, love is action, generosity, forgiveness/mercy, peace, Godly justice (making sure everyone is cared for), not feeling fear and stress because God loves you and is with you, courage/boldness to do the right thing, etc. I would use the opportunity to teach children to be better people through one of those Biblical concepts rather than “put the fear of God in them.”

Does repentance have its place in Christianity? Of course! As I’ve read scripture, God has really pruned me in my worldviews, my former close-mindedness and obsession with politics, how I treat people who test my patience, etc. But there is a loving way to approach that topic, such as by sharing a personal testimony, as I just did in a very condensed way. Discussing repentance doesn’t need to result in a roomful of sobbing children. Not to mention…how many sins could a 9-year-old even commit?! Even adult fans of “hellfire & brimstone” preaching should acknowledge that it’s too traumatizing for young children.

Aside from exploiting the emotions of impressionable kids, I have a major qualm that might not occur to non-Christians watching the documentary. Here it is: there was no mention of ministry whatsoever. Jesus was born, PERFORMED MINISTRY, and was killed–that’s it. I don’t fathom how “Bible-believing Christians” can ignore such an essential part of our calling. Then again, there is a sector of Christians who chiefly value personal salvation and sweep social justice under the rug. As a person who has been chipping away at reading the whole Bible for 2.5 years, I can assure you, God cares for the marginalized. When God gave the Hebrews the Law of Moses (see Lev. 19 in particular)…in the Psalms and Proverbs…when God prophesies the Babylonian Exile through Jeremiah, Isaiah, and others…when Jesus traveled, preached, and healed…when Paul wrote his letters to the churches…God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit stand with the weak, the helpless, the powerless, the poor, the needy. Those who follow Him are called to do the same. Hence, I believe any Christian doctrine, church, retreat, whatever with no emphasis on ministry is missing the big picture.

This was hard to watch and also enlightening. My fiancee and I watched it together, and he was amused by my constantly demanding he pause it so I could preach the true Gospel…the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who stands for hope, love, and reconciliation. Again, repentance has its place, but not like this. For any non-Christians reading this, I hope you’ve realized by now that this documentary, though fantastic for what it is (kudos to the filmmakers), does not represent most Christians or even the Bible.

Thanks for reading! Have you seen this film? What’s your two cents on what I’ve written here? Do you have any Christian film recommendations that are actually God-honoring and uplifting? Let me know in the comments.

P.S. Here’s an article on what happened to some of the people in the documentary. I screamed aloud in shock multiple times. I don’t know what’s worse–homophobic pastor Ted Haggard having his gay love affair exposed or Fischer having the ABSOLUTE AUDACITY to compare herself to Jews in the Holocaust.


15 responses to “Reacting to the Horrifying Documentary “Jesus Camp” as a Christian”

  1. I haven’t seen it, but as a HUMAN I find this very disturbing. It’s no wonder that children exposed to a high level of violent language –regardless of content — grow up to be intolerant of anyone who thinks or practices differently. Unfortunately, it’s probably also what they hear at home.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Totally agree with you, Alisa!


  2. I haven’t seen the documentary, but my grandfather was a pastor and my siblings and I spent every summer at church camp – the fun kind. It’s been decades, but I still remember some of the friends I made and the counselors there. The only tears I remember shedding was when I step on a dead snake! UGH! The “dead” part didn’t matter… the snake part did. 😀 😀 😀

    We looked forward to going every summer and loved the praise and worship and devotion sessions as much as archery and swimming. My heart goes out to the young ones sent to the “hellfire & brimstone” camps. The Christian journey isn’t one of fear and those children could grow up to be intolerant, inflexible adults, or leave the church all together. (Levi sounded a bit eerie TO ME; and Andrew? Psychotropic drugs? Um…okay.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for sharing, Nessie. 🙂 Stepping on a dead snake DOES sound scary! I’m glad you got to enjoy fun Christian summer camps growing up. I agree with what you say towards the end about this experience pushing them to to be close-minded adults or to turn away from religion altogether. So sad because neither of those paths leads to the God of steadfast love and peace!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. As a former children’s minister, this is definitely disturbing, but not too surprising. I’ve come across children’s curriculums that took this approach, and immediately placed them in their proper place…the trash. I am sad for the children who experienced this and never got to meet the true God and never heard the real gospel message.

    Unfortunately, I know some who, though perhaps not this extreme in their presentation, take this approach to anyone they are evangelizing, even if it is children. I believe it is essential for those who are teaching children about the Lord to have a stance of compassion, care, and gentle discipline (not to be confused with punishment!).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, I would’ve been so morbidly interested to read those curriculums! I agree–it is tragic that this is the only introduction some people will get to the Gospel…and it’s all wrong. You’re right that many people take this approach to evangelism in a general sense. As with kids–not the right way to introduce a God of love and peace!


  4. Wow, I also didn’t watch the show, but now I want to. It looks like a film about child abuse in the guise of religion. I have gone to a few Christian retreats, but they were all when I was at least fifteen and they were family retreats with my family. I’m shocked that parents would send their young children to this place. Even if they did know how bad it was, they should have done their research. Christian camps should be a positive experience, but this one is definitely the opposite.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree they should be a positive experience! Thanks for your input. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. It’s shocking but it’s also sad that this is what makes it in movies, showing Christian camps in the worst possible light. It becomes the fodder for anti-Christians to erect their straw man against Christianity, when in reality, any sane Christian would call this abusive at a cult-level.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So true, Mel. When I realized this film first appeared in movie theaters, it disheartened me. This is the only depiction of Christianity some people will ever see. People like you and me who believe in the biblical God of steadfast love, mercy, and peace have to keep chipping away at these misconceptions.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Wow! Read the article…honestly it’s embarrassing to me that we have people representing so called “Christianity” this way…such an awful misrepresentation, we risk losing people in faith because of this plus those who don’t know Jesus already would certainly not want a part in seeking Him after this I wouldn’t think. Such a shame.
    Thanks for sharing Lily.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So true that this is embarrassing and not at all Christlike! We just have to keep spreading God’s love in the world to combat all forms of hate. ♥

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Wow! That documentary sounds horrifying! I find that many people approach the Bible in a very one-dimensional way. It’s either all about sin or all about forgiveness. I personally think it is important to be taught about sin and its consequences but also about God’s great mercy. I totally agree with you that the “hellfire and brimstone” method may not be the most suitable for children (or anyone for that matter). This was an insightful post.


  8. I remember watching this documentary several years ago (I think that’s what it would be?) and it was crazy. At the time I was a new believer and I didn’t know this wasn’t quite normal. Eep. I’m glad I do now.

    Also, the first retreat you mention you attended sounds like the one I attended at Mountaintop Emmaus. We got letters from loved ones too at the end. I saw you’re from North Carolina though and so am I, so I wondered if maybe it was one of their retreats.


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