Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Lord's Boot Camp

I spent the summers of 1991 & 1992 (summers after my jr. & sr. years of high school respectively) on short term mission projects with an organization called Teen Missions International, based out of Merritt Island, FL. In 91' I was on a work project in Tanzania, and in '92 a part work/part evangelism project in Barcelona, Spain. Both summers I spent two weeks at "Boot Camp" in Florida before the trips began.

CBS just aired a documentary about Teen Missions called "The Lord's Boot Camp". Having seen the filmmakers previous documentary "Jesus Camp", I had a pretty good idea what to expect, and was mostly right - a well done, no narrator, no interviewer, (just a few informational title screens), somewhat balanced presentation of an organization doing what it does. I don't believe the filmmakers to be overly sympathetic to Christianity, at least not the evangelism end of it, as both of their major works have delved into particularly evangelistic youth ministries. At the same time though, they don't go out of their way to be particularly damning. Teen Missions looked like a bastion of sanity compared to the ministry profiled in Jesus Camp, and Bob Bland (Founder of TMI) even came off as somewhat thoughtful and not particularly over-the-top. I didn't expect that watching this might increase my respect for him.

I've long said "Teen Missions changed my life - I would never recommend it to anyone". I believe, my first summer at least, was an incredibly positive experience. I'm thankful for what I got to see and do in Africa, I'm thankful for the relationships I still have with my teammates, and I'm even thankful for the Boot Camp experience - it really is intense; I'm not sure the film got across just how primitive and intense it is. The combination of all these things changed my life for the better. God certainly worked through Teen Missions in my life as I'm sure he does every summer in other teenagers' lives (I believe Bob Bland when he says that they're more interested in the impact the experience has on the kids than in the impact the kids have on the people they're ministering to). Teen Missions is though incredibly Fundamentalist - as a born, raised, and still practicing Presbyterian, I don't have any experience that matches it (not even Moody). I don't know what strain of Fundamentalism it is. That's why I don't recommend it - my theology, particularly my concepts of mission and evangelism, are nowhere near in line with Teen Missions anymore (if they ever truly were...I think they were). Yes, God can and does work through organizations like Teen Missions, but I think we can do better.

As for the film - any documentary that doesn't hit you over the head with the filmmakers' perspective (like say a Michael Moore movie) presents its case through editing and story. What is the story they're telling? What are they emphasizing? What did they leave out? The message in this documentary is clearly in the contrasts - the Indiana evangelism mission versus the Zambia Aids Orphan Mission. The girl in Zambia who doesn't go because of any deep faith, but still serves and loves the people there, versus the girl who is there because of her faith. The girl who comes back from Indiana and changes the way she dresses and acts versus the girl who comes back from Zambia and slips back into her old life of drug and alcohol abuse.

The strongest contrast is certainly between the two trips - the Zambia team, regardless of what religous impetus they might have, is clearly serving the people and meeting real physical needs. The Indiana group (proseltyzing at a County Fair, using a survey as their jumping off point with passers by) is pretty clearly wasting their time (though at the end they claim 300 souls saved). Even if you believe in the importance of that type of evangelism, which group is really doing God's work?

The contrast between the two girls on the Zambia team begs the question "Does it have to be God's work - do we need all the religious hoo-ha to get kids to do good deeds"? (I say it's God's work whether you acknowledge God or not).

I think in the end, the outlook isn't great for any of the girls. The Indiana pre-teen will probably be the happiest, if she maintains her black and white religious outlook and evangelistic fervor. It truly broke my heart when the Zambia girl went back to her drug and alcohol abuse - as jaded as I am, I wanted the happy ending on that one - I wanted the trip to have changed her in that way. The third girl (blonde Vegas girl) had the least in the way of story arc, and I'm not real sure what the filmmakers were trying to convey, but I think in the end we're supposed to be a little afraid for her and her boyfriend and their get married-right out of high school plans.

Overall, I'm glad for the film. If nothing else, it took my back to my own trip to Africa in a way little else could, and I think it's a nice progression for the filmmakers - away from the stomach wrenching type of ministry that was profiled in Jesus Camp, to a more balanced and thought provoking approach.