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Do youth ministers indoctrinate kids?

October 11, 2006

This week seems to be a good time to discuss the issue of indoctrinating kids into religious faith. On Friday, October 6th, the movie Jesus Camp opened in Austin and about a dozen or so ACA members went to one of the opening night showings. The movie plays at the Arbor through October 12th. The movie looked behind the scenes at a Pentecostal camp for kids, called the "Kids on Fire Summer Camp." They gave a lot of attention to youth Pastor Becky Fischer, who runs the camp. She leaves no doubt in the mind of the viewer that she is out to indoctrinate those kids for belief in Christianity and use them as little missionaries for God. The informal after-movie discussion by ACA members included some dialogue as to what exactly constituted child abuse in this context. It was very clear that the children in the Jesus Camp movie were emotionally manipulated and had their critical thinking skills sabotaged. It was unclear to what extent the less extreme youth ministries also use these tactics.

Ironically, also last week, Austin hosted a conference of youth ministers at the Austin Convention Center from October 5th through the 9th. The conference, called 2006 National Youth Workers Convention, had an attendance of about 3000. I'll bet many of the convention attendees actually saw the Jesus Camp movie in Austin. It would be interesting to gauge their reactions to the movie and learn which of Becky Fischer's techniques they use.

If I had the ear of 3000 youth ministers, I'd ask them about how they teach the story of Noah's Ark. The story of the flood is a black-and-white moral lesson: genocide is blatantly wrong. The Bible story is a means teach basic morality. So I'd ask the youth ministers whether they took advantage of the golden opportunity to teach the young minds in their care about basic moral principles. I imagine, however, that most youth ministers work hard to excuse the actions of Yahweh in the Bible as somehow just and good. After all, God grants tickets to heaven. You wouldn't want to piss him off. So, the flood story beomes about cute little furry animals taking a boat ride. I think it's terribly sad that so many Christian parents think their children are getting a moral education from youth ministers.

Apparently, whatever tactics are used by youth ministers don't work very well. On October 6th New York Times piece titled "Evangelicals Fear the Loss of Their Teenagers," reported that evangelical teens are abandoning the faith in droves. They have dubbed this phenomenon "the 4% panic attack," which allegedly is the percentage of evangelical kids who will grow up to be true "Bible Believers." Predictably, evangelical leaders blame sex, drugs, rock & roll, and popular culture. It couldn't possibly be the case that when kids acquire critical thinking skills, they realize that there is nothing there of substance, or could it? A majority of ACA members were once Christians--many were even quite serious about it. If we figured it out, perhaps others can, too. Nobody seems to ask whether being a "bible believer" is a good thing though, like most religious definitions, there seems to be a lot of debate about what it means.

Predictably, the Austin American Statesman dodged the deeper issues and published a pro-Christian puff piece on the dedication of youth ministers. Eileen Flynn's "Leading kids to CHRIST" was published October 7th. (It's not at all clear why Christ is in all capital letters, but it sure catches the eye.) While the dedication of the ministers might be admirable, nobody would question the dedication of Pastor Becky Fisher from the Jesus Camp movie. The issue of dedication lacks substance. Flynn's article focused on the clothing styles of the ministers and adroitly dodged the issue of indoctrination and what moral lessons are being taught to youth. There was no mention of the Jesus Camp movie, despite the obvious connection. The article did have several paragraphs attempting to debunk the 4% statistic, though Statesman readers were largely left in the dark as to what the controversy was about. The Statesman never published anything else about the New York Times piece. Eileen Flynn, the youth ministers, and even members of the Atheist Community of Austin are in the know about religion precisely because we don't depend on the Statesman for substantive religion news. Everyone else, it seems, gets pabulum.

Don Baker

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