I attended camp every summer as a kid. Most of the time, this camp would be indistinguishable from other summer camps. My friends and I would play basketball, pass notes back and forth with girls, listen to music, etc. The rest of the time, however, the camp was quite different. You see, this was a charismatic Bible camp,like the one in the movie Jesus Camp. It was held in rural Missouri, and they would bus in kids from Assemblies of God churches all across the State.
The camp served basically the same purpose as old-time tent revivals. When you’re in a charismatic community, it’s difficult to maintain the same level of intensity. You have to be feeling something to really motivate you to hold your hands up high, sing loudly, or dance around. And that’s just the “normal” stuff. Occasionally, someone might decide to run up and down the aisles or shout in tongues or fall on the ground and convulse. These aren’t the sort of things one can do outside of a certain environment.
Now, if God’s presence were really palpable and causing these people to do this, then the occasional recharge by a revival week would not be necessary. Imagine if a real thing like electricity constantly ran through your body. You would show the effects regardless of your surroundings. Since such urges were not due to the presence of God, we needed these special weeks to whip us back into a frenzy. Of course, a different story was sold to us. We were told (and I’m sure the pastor believed this) that our reduced enthusiasm at normal times was not because the imagined effects were wearing off from the revivals. No, it was because we were being bad Christians. We were becoming complacent and not honoring God properly.
Now, take this environment where everyone is pressured that the right kind of Christian is a charismatic one and add children to the mix. This was a strange and confusing time for me, and I suspect the other kids felt the same. We were never quite sure what to make of the ridiculous displays going on around us, but we knew that this was how good Christians were supposed to behave. Yet, seeing adults acting this way wasn’t an effective motivator. We would stand there awkwardly and perhaps shyly put our hands in the air. Sometimes a particularly bold kid, like the pastor’s son, might go further. But everyone approached it a bit timidly. It wasn’t true peer pressure. Enter Summer Camp.
In camp, the composition of congregations was completely transformed. Instead of being surrounded by nearly all adults, we were around all kids. These were the same kids that were just on the basketball courts that seemed cool. This was a chance for the church leaders to break through (sneak through, actually) the natural defenses created by hesitance in circumstances that might embarrass you.
There were two church services each day. The first service in the morning was perfunctory. Announcements would be made, we would be told to act in a godly way as we did our activities, a prayer would be said, and we’d go off to breakfast. The evening service was where the fireworks happened.
One year of camp really sticks out in my mind because it was the year when the focus of the evening services was to get everyone to speak in tongues (glossolalia). When I look back I recognize all the reasons why this was ridiculous, but at the time I was frightened. I had never done this before (among charismatic kids, this could be like shaving where it was something to brag about if you did it early). I also knew it was supposed to just happen to you when the power of the Holy Spirit would surge through your body and take control of your voice. You had to ask God for this gift and, unsurprisingly, he may not respond. It was not something that could be faked, or so I thought.
Church services in this community are pretty standard. They sing songs, send around collection plates (God needs your allowance, kids), then preach a sermon, and end with an altar call. The altar is a place at the front of the church where you go for some kind of special prayer need. They might call people up to be prayed for if they need special healing (except for amputees) or if you were “giving your life to the lord.” But for this particular week of camp, every altar call was devoted to praying for those people who had not yet spoken in tongues. So, night after night I would have to go to the front with several dozen other kids and have all the kids I knew from church who had already done it pray with me. When I say they prayed with me, I mean they all had their hands on me and were basically shouting. And of course they were probably anxious to show off their own skills, so they were shouting in tongues. In one ear I might hear “hamunuh-hamunuh-hamunuh.” In my other ear, I would hear “sha-na-na-sha-na-na.” I’m not kidding; it was a wild scene.
This went on for several nights. And each night went on for hours. Spending over two hours in prayer like this was not unusual. I didn’t know what to do. I felt on display, left out, awkward, and I wasn’t feeling any Holy Spirit surging through me as we prayed. I wanted to be done. So, I eventually started speaking in nonsense. This made the people around me cheer over their victory and God’s great blessing. Then they would start chanting their own nonsense even louder, creating a reciprocal effect. Unfortunately, my wish for this to end did not come true because then we had to spend several hours all showing off our tongues speaking skills as we shouted our prayers to God in the special language of Heaven (that’s what we thought our gibberish was).
I knew I was faking it, and I was trying as hard as I possibly could to push that out of my mind. I would never have admitted it to anyone else and I didn’t want to admit it even to myself. Now I wonder how many other kids were doing the exact same thing. We were put into a frenzied environment that pressured us to compete over who could be the most “on fire for God.” And for that one week, we would be even more out of control than the adults at the tent revivals. Then, we would return home and things would basically be back to normal. It’s funny how the effects of being in God’s presence can just wear off like that by a change of scenery.