A conversation adjacent to Jesus Camp
After writing about the 2006 documentary Jesus Camp as well as the 2021 docu-series Q: Into the Storm, a friend of mine who was a member of the New Life mega church reached out to me. CWT participated at New Life’s youth conference shortly after the scandal that led to pastor Ted Haggard stepping down. She very kindly shared some of her memories and thoughts with me here!
On how and why she got involved with the church
The guy who took over [from Ted Haggard] was the associate pastor Ross Parsley. I started going to that church for their big [summer] youth conference, and he was still the pastor then. So they were like fresh out of the scandal, how did I never hear about it ‘til I was older?
There was a theme one year that was Light Up The World. The whole concept was that you are to be the ‘light on the hill’, you are responsible for being the ‘light in the darkness’, even if everyone is against you, it’s your responsibility to be ‘the light’ to save these people. I remember wholeheartedly believing that. ... It was my responsibility to save my parents, I felt that way in church and real life. To get my parents to church, all my friends to church. Otherwise they’ll burn in hell for eternity and it would be my fault.
I grew up in Seventh-Day Adventist church, then my parents left but I continued by myself, as a 6th grader. For 2 years I didn't go to church at all. Then a friend brought me into this youth group, saying “it’s really cool there, it’s not like your other church”. I was like absolutely not, I’m an emo kid. I’m very all in or all out, and if I go I’ll have to give up My Chemical Romance and I don’t think I can do that. But I was very stubborn too.
I feel like it’s so easy to wrap up kids [into evangelical groups] who don’t have good home lives, or stable people in their lives. I think that's something that kept me in it for so long. I couldn’t bear to leave them, to not have that support or that safety net.
And they saw potential in me, or so they said they did.
On watching Jesus Camp as an adult
What makes me sad is that it’s not their (the kids’) own words… As an adult, I understand that all these things I would say, and say I believed, I was just parroting what the adults around me were saying. Like I was parroting things that I knew would get me positive responses from the stable people in my life.
If you're still in it, you still think that you're raising up godly children and doing the lord's work. I was a leader in vocational bible school every summer. And I was proud of these kids… Looking back, it’s kids feeling safe with this adult. On one hand, that's great as long as you stay on that path and never give elders any reason to question you or cast you out. But these kids aren't all gonna grow up to do that.
On the link between evangelical beliefs and conspiracies like Qanon
I really do believe that Christianity, in some sense, primes people for conspiracy theories, because you’re already believing in something you can’t see. You’re primed to have full faith in something you’ll never be able to prove, and so it’s not difficult to put your faith in something else. So Q, you cannot see, you don’t know who it is, but at least with Q you’re getting messages.
On something about New Life and other evangelical mega churches that maybe people won’t get from Jesus Camp
Just how manipulative every step of the services are. I listened to these people [at a ministry conference] teach a seminar on how to manipulate the music to make it more emotional, how to manipulate the lights at a certain time, they'd turn up or down the air conditioner during certain parts. I think that was the first click for me of “oh I am being manipulated, maybe I'm not actually feeling the holy spirit every Sunday”. Because they have this down to a formula, a science. They’ve practiced what they’re going to say and how to say it. ... None of it is as free flowing or holy-spirit filled as people think.
I've been to churches that aren't like this. There's a level of manipulation at big churches that I don’t see elsewhere. But when you get to a certain level of mega church, you understand the power you have over people. Whatever you say at the pulpit on Sunday, people are going to take that to heart.
BC — May 15 2021