Monday, November 20, 2006

The Prophet Motive

Thanks to a tip from Peter Burnet, I read this article in the Telegraph profiling the Kids in Ministry organization that trains young evangelical children in the arts of healing, prophecy and speaking in tongues:

At 9pm – a time when most of the children might have been expected to be in bed – the atmosphere in the Christ Triumphant Church was approaching fever-pitch. On stage, a teenage Christian rock band called Signs and Wonders was playing something sweet and exultantly hypnotic.

Some of the children were dancing, their bodies writhing and twisting, their arms flailing in the air, perspiration on their foreheads. Some had fallen to the ground, 'slain in the spirit', as the phrase has it, and were now crouching and kneeling in prayer, while the grown-ups moved among them laying on hands, some speaking in tongues.
The event was hosted by an evangelical organisation called Kids in Ministry, founded by Pastor Fischer. Kids in Ministry describes its aims as to promote a vision of 'how God sees children as His partners in ministry worldwide'; with the purpose of equipping children 'to do the work of ministry and release them in their giftings and callings'.

What this means, in simple terms, is training child-ren, some as young as five, to use the 'gifts' of healing, prophecy and speaking in tongues more commonly associated with Old Testament prophets and Jesus Christ Himself.

It is estimated that there are up to 70 million evangelical Christians in America, of whom about a third would describe themselves as Charismatics – which is to say, emphasising a belief in 'charismata', or the supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit, including healing, speaking in tongues (or glossolalia, as it is more properly known) and a belief in prophecy, the ability to communicate directly with and to 'channel' the word of God.

A heavy-set woman with a helmet of teased and tinted blond hair, and a cheerfully purposeful demeanour, Fischer, 55, grew up in a Pentacostalist family in North Dakota. Both her father and grandfather were ministers and as a child, she told me, she was always 'hungry for the things of God'.

Her early life was spent in business. She managed a motel and a country music radio station, where she would do her best to 'weed out the really ungodly songs, even if they were top 40. Things like Tight Fittin' Jeans by Conway Twitty – we wouldn't play that.'

For 13 years she managed her own sign company, called – inevitably – Signs and Wonders. At the same time she began working in children's ministry, first in a local church, and then in an organisation called MorningStar. It was there, Fischer told me, that she 'really got educated in the prophetic', and in the mission of nurturing 'prophetic gifts' among children. She travelled to Tanzania and South Africa as a missionary, and in 2001 returned to North Dakota and founded Kids in Ministry.

Now Peter was sure that I'd find plenty of grist for a full frontal secluarist rant, but to tell you the truth I can't muster a lot of spleen to vent on this group. To me the charismatic sects have never seemed all that threatening. They tend not to be as theologically rigid as some of the other evangelical sects, they seem more emotionally and experientially oriented. After reading the full article, which I think offers a very fair and somewhat sympathetic picture for a secular British newspaper, I'm almost tempted to think of them as pagans. The movements, the hypnotic dancing, shaking and rolling, the prophesying and speaking in tongues is downright shamanistic. And I'm not the only one to think so:

The Rev Chris Hand is an authority on the Charismatic movement. The pastor of a Baptist church in Derbyshire and editor of the Christian magazine Today's Contender, Hand is a former Charismatic who left the movement some 12 years ago, unable to find any Biblical justification for its prophetic claims.

'My feeling is these things are not from God,' he told me. 'It's more the grey area of psychic activity that the Bible calls mediumship and forbids.'

The emotional hysteria generated in Charismatic gatherings was also, Hand told me, 'alien to the Christian faith'; and, he thought, 'particularly questionable and at times dangerous' where children were involved. 'These kinds of experiences have immense potential to deceive both the children themselves and the adults who encourage them. For most of these children, they'll look back in 10 years' time and wonder what on earth it was all about.'

Hand is the father of two children, aged five and eight, whom he is trying to raise in the Christian faith, he told me, 'and I would not let them come within a million miles of Kids in Ministry'.

Spoken like a true sectarian. The Rev. Hand is afraid that young children are being deceived by a false faith. Well, he'd have to say that about every other religion or sect that is not his own. From the standpoint of someone who thinks that all religions are deceptions, I'd have to say that I'd prefer children learn from one that gives them energy and exuberance rather than dour premonitions of doom, gloom and guilt. You get the sense that the kids in the prophecy camp are having a lot of fun. This doesn't look like the kind of religious activity that is going to warp their minds for life. Fill them with mush, maybe, but fun mush.

But I can't say that our mainstream culture is offering children much more than mush. I don't think that im'ing their friends 24-7, or becoming engrossed in the virtual worlds of video games or online chat rooms is a better use of their time.

The other thing that struck me is how much this looks like some improvizational method-acting workshop. It doubly reinforces my contention that religion is a form of show business. These children are learning how to exercise their imaginations, to dramatize the small details of their lives. I wouldn't be surprised if some of these children find their way into show business later in life, if they can't make it in the prophesy game.


Blogger Bret said...

Duck wrote: "I'd have to say that I'd prefer children learn from one that gives them energy and exuberance..."

When I first skimmed this post, I thought they were describing a rave, then was horrified that they were feeding young childen ecstasy, then reread it and was relieved they were just getting high on God or whatever. Whew! Who needs drugs when God's around?

November 20, 2006 9:33 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

...I'm almost tempted to think of them as pagans.

I take it you find that somehow reassuring?

November 21, 2006 3:02 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Not rape and pillage pagans, or human sacrifice pagans. They just seem to be a throwback to a time when people saw the world as enchanted with spirits. I can see where your orthodox Christians find this troubling, but I dont care much for orthodoxy. This is better than drilling biblical passages into their heads, and scaring them into believing that a minor slip-up in the way they think about God will land them in Hades.

I watched a video on the web recently of a minister preaching to an evangelical youth group. He was full of dramatic, manipulative earnestness, saying that if he were telling them that if his words were untrue that he would burn in Hell forever, and that many of the people in attendance were already destined for Hell. He was drilling into them the "sola fides" doctrine. Apparently he was too intense even for evangelicals, because he was never invited back to preach there again, a fact that he took pride in pointing out on his website. Thats the kind of religion that scares me. Thats the kind that warps minds.

November 21, 2006 6:40 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

You're young. Try your video store for a movie called 'Marjoe' and get back to me about how harmless this fun is.

Marjoe Gortner, 5-year-old preacher man.

He wrote a book, too.

November 21, 2006 10:47 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

I remember Marjoe Gortner. He was a boy-wonder revival preacher turned really bad b-list Hollywood actor (note the show biz tie-in I mentioned earlier). I don't know his life story, but he was obviously pushed into the preaching gig by ambitious parents. I doubt most of the parents of these kids are going to be pushing them into the kiddie preaching circuit, but I may be wrong.

I'm still not going to get overly alarmed unless I see more of what goes on in these camps. The Telegraph reporter didn't seem to uncover anything overtly abusive.

Like I said, their brains are being filled with religious mush. But human brains are structured for religious mush, so what are you gonna do? Maybe when they're in college they'll be embarrased by what their parents made them do and they'll be ready for our operatives to lure them over to the bright side.

November 21, 2006 11:00 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Maybe the camp is as innocent as you think. Or maybe it's more like growing up a gypsy or joining Fagin's crew.

I once asked a missionary friend how many of these traveling exhorters he thought were frauds.

His answer: 'All of them.'

November 21, 2006 1:36 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

It would make a good Broadway musical. Call it the "Prophets of Penance".

November 21, 2006 2:47 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

As with guns, I think this is an issue where Americans have a perspective and instinct quite different from that in the rest of the Anglosphere. Freedom of religion is an important cornerstone of the American experiment, but I get the impression that, for obvious historical reasons, it reaches its full philosophical and political glory when you are talking about the freedom to dissent from religious orthodoxy. It seems to co-exist with a rather extreme fear of state churches or religious privilege. Thus, brows darken and doors are locked to guard against the stormtroopers of the looming theocracy if the Catholic Church or Southern Baptist Conference has the temerity to suggest kids should be told evolution is a theory, but if some fruit loop insists his faith commands him to stand naked on his roof holding a candle in each hand while singing Abide with Me to the passing neighbours, the ACLU will rush to pay his legal bills and Skipper will post long defences demanding that I explain (using first-order evidence only) exactly how HIS faith in any WAY undermines MINE.

Well, I’m the last one to criticize the American religious ethos, but just as certain countries paid a price by giving over to a reactionary, ultramontane Catholicism, so there is a price to pay for this congregationalism run amok. The price is being very slow to understand the difference between a faith and a cult and also according colour of right to behaviour that wouldn’t and shouldn’t be tolerated outside of a religious context. Mysticism has a long and honourable tradition, but it can be extremely dangerous for the untrained, unsupervised and emotionally fragile. It is no game for kids, especially kids without parents (Camp! What is this, a substitute for Tae-Kwon-do?). This is child abuse and I can only hope those psychologically fragile kids among them get out without succumbing to enraged destructive behaviour or a deep debilitating depression.

But c’mon, Duck, fess up. Isn’t your equanimity here motivated by the fact that, if you are against all religion generally, it’s great fun to pretend there is no difference between wacko behaviour on the fringe and the boring, time-tested mainstream?

November 21, 2006 2:58 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


The price is being very slow to understand the difference between a faith and a cult ...

I may as well come right out and admit it: I am very slow.

What, pray tell, is the difference between faith and cult?

...behaviour that wouldn’t and shouldn’t be tolerated outside of a religious context.

Color me slow again. What behavior is OK within a religious, but not a cult, or presumably areligous, context? Perhaps men wearing preposterous hats?

November 22, 2006 11:13 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

I've never had a mystical experience in my life, so you'll have to educate me on where the dangers lie. I will agree with you that religious freedom can't excuse all behaviors practiced in it's name, especially where children are concerned. But if you are going to make accusations of child abuse, shouldn't you be expected to provide objective evdence to the harm inflicted, and not just some religiously inspired didain for "cult-like" behavior?

Pentecostal mysticism is not some new phenomenon. Shouldn't there be some historical evidence of mentally and emotionally damaged victims, some case studies? Where is the evidence?

November 24, 2006 10:11 AM  
Blogger David said...

Peter: I think that Skipper and I have had this conversation before; that one of the ironies of the First Amendment is that it embeds a very particular religious tenet about communitarianism.

November 24, 2006 12:24 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...


But if you are going to make accusations of child abuse, shouldn't you be expected to provide objective evdence to the harm inflicted, and not just some religiously inspired didain for "cult-like" behavior?

Hmm, well, let's see, how about this:

'I want to see young people who are as committed to the cause of Jesus Christ as young people are to the cause of Islam,' she says. 'I want to see them radically laying down their lives for the gospel.'

But I guess you have to be religiously-inspired to understand why that is harmful.

November 27, 2006 11:35 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


I'm still slow on this whole religion - cult thing ...


Speaking of slow, you will have to refresh me on the First Amendment discussion; I'm drawing a blank.

November 27, 2006 2:46 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...


I'm still slow on this whole religion - cult thing ...

I know. But dig in, buddy. You could start with Webster's.

November 27, 2006 5:06 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


I did.

The only distinction is market share.

November 27, 2006 11:12 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...


Oh good. No one knows better than you how Truth and quality emerge from the market.

November 28, 2006 2:46 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


Don't look to me. That was the only distinction between the provided definitions of religion and cult: market share.

Which, by the definitions' lights, cult-like behavior is religious if enough people do it.

Is that all there is to it?

November 28, 2006 7:43 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

I's say that every mainstream religion starts out as a cult. Cults are started by people who aren't satisfied in the traditional church of their community, and are willing to accept the social ostracism and isolation that goes with taking a different path. The sense of excitement, of believing that they are onto the real thing, is compensation for the ostracism, or even outright danger of that path.

Early Christianity was certainly a cult. The Puritans were a cult until they moved to New England. The early Mormons were a cult.

A religion is merely an established, socially acceptable cult.

November 28, 2006 9:37 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...


No, I don't think it is that neat. Cults are not just expressions of religious fervor, although that is a requirement. They also imply surrendering completely to the whims and authority of another human who replaces the Divine and becomes the effective object of worship, breaking the bonds and authority of family and withdrawing from mundane life in circumstances of a psychological control that negates any element of choice or free will. There have been lots of cults within Christianity, but I don't think you can just tar the early Christians or Puritans (I know little about early Mormonism) with it holus-bolus. But I'm sure you will try. :-)

November 28, 2006 11:33 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

They also imply surrendering completely to the whims and authority of another human who replaces the Divine and becomes the effective object of worship

Another human like.. Jesus?

You're putting culthood into a very narrow category. Certainly the Puritans were looked on as a cult to the Anglicans of the era in England. The Mormons were looked at as a cult to 19th century Christians.

And by your definition I find it hard to classify these charismatics as cultists. Where is the substitution of a human as the effective object of worship? Where is the negation of choice & free will?

November 29, 2006 2:13 PM  

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