Youth Evangelism Gone Wrong: A Confession of Spiritual Abuse

Youth Evangelism Gone Wrong: A Confession of Spiritual Abuse January 8, 2024

At an Evangelical summer camp, we used harsh tactics to get the kids saved, by any means necessary. Here’s my confession of spiritual abuse.

 Frightened teen girl with hand over her face saying, "Help."

Photo by RDNE Stock projectIn my last article, “Spiritual Abuse: Eternal Salvation by Any Means Necessary,” I discuss manipulative tactics Evangelical churches use to convert people. Most, including myself at the time, don’t see these techniques as abusive. Yet, church leaders can do a lot of damage with their strategies that are unthinking at best and traumatizing at worst.

A couple of decades ago, as a pastor in an Evangelical church, I spent one week a year as a summer camp pastor. Looking back on those days, I regret the evangelistic tactics we employed. January is spiritual abuse awareness month. So, it’s a good time for me to confess my sins and discuss abusive tactics in youth evangelism. Here’s my recollection of one particular camp curriculum:

A State of Innocence

The first day of summer camp was bright and sunny. We gathered the kids together around a life-sized standing cross. We read the story of creation, emphasizing the beauty and the perfection of all that God made. Then we sent them out into nature to collect flowers to weave into crowns for their heads. These flowery halos, we explained, represented the perfection and glory that was God’s intention for humanity. This was the primal state of Edenic innocence.


The Result of the Fall

Next, we read the story of Adam and Eve, the snake, and the fall. Because of the sin of our ancestors, we told them, their innocence was lost. Sin now defines them. As a result, we confiscated their flowery halos. We made them hang them on the cross, which now represented the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Throughout the rest of the week, every time they passed by that spot, those fading crowns reminded them of their wilted innocence and fouled perfection.


Stained with Sin

The next day, we prepared a pot of red tie-dye stain. We led the kids in a Bible study on the Ten Commandments, emphasizing that anyone who had broken the law in their heart was just as guilty as if they had sinned in the flesh. Slowly we read through the list of “thou shalt nots.” Once for each time a child deemed themselves guilty of a violation, whether in the flesh or even in their mind, we made them dip their hands. Some dipped three or four times. The older ones may have dipped their hands six or seven times. By the time we were done, not one of our youths possessed hands unstained with sin.


No Condemnation

Throughout the week, everything we did was to instill in them the idea that they were evil, corrupt, and sinful. They were a walking stain upon the earth. A human blight. Living refuse, bound for eternal fire. One of the more spiritually mature kids took me aside and reminded me that she had already received Jesus as her savior, so none of this condemnation applied to her. I said that while this may be true, such a demonstration was necessary for saving other people’s souls. She hung her head, shaking it as she walked away.


Thursday Night

At a weeklong summer camp that started on Sunday, everyone knew about Thursday nights, predictable for their emotionality. Children suffered from homesickness, having been away from their parents for days. Raging hormones fueled teens who found true love at camp. Students who had failed to make friends, or kids who had been bullied, had endured days of difficulty and loneliness. Every year, camp leaders knew what to expect out of a Thursday night. So, we decided to capitalize on this sensitivity for the sake of evangelism. We announced that, because of their sin, we had canceled the chapel services. Instead, we transformed the chapel for a different purpose.

Judgment Day

In the middle of the large multipurpose room, we built a huge platform. Centered on the platform, we sat a large chair like a throne. We needed someone to play the role of God. As our camp director was female, of course, I was the one to play God. Donning a long robe, I seated myself on the dais, facing away from the door.

Our camp director played the part of an angel who would usher each teenager, one by one, into the presence of God. Her job was to make them feel as nervous as possible before meeting God. “You’ve lived your life, and now you’re dead,” she told them. “This is the final judgment. What makes you think you deserve eternal life? Look at your hands! They’re stained with sin!” She had them shaking in their shoes. “Maybe, if you throw yourself on the ground and beg for mercy, he will let you into heaven,” she said.


“I Never Knew You”

One at a time, trembling youths came through the door. We had done our work all week long, making them feel dirty, rotten, and worthless because of their sin. Even though I was just some guy in a chair at summer camp, this was Thursday night, and their emotions ran high. Just like the way you get scared at a haunted house, even though you know it isn’t real, these kids had suspended all disbelief. For them, this was Judgment Day. I was God on the throne, and an angel had ushered them into my presence.

 It was the same for everyone who came before me—or rather, behind me since I had turned my face away. An angel pleaded on their behalf. Desperate children told me they’d been good, begging to be allowed through Heaven’s gates. Not once did I look with favor on their pleas. I rejected even the ones who said they were members of the church, active in youth groups, or that they volunteered to help the poor. Each time, like the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, I extended a finger toward the exit. Depart from me,” I said, never letting them see my face. “I never knew you. Many of them cried as the angel ushered them away, with strict orders to go straight to bed in silence.

A Friday Morning Bath

First thing after breakfast on Friday morning, we marched them all down to the lake. I walked into the water and told them the story of Naaman, the leprous Aramean general who went to Elisha for healing. I told them how the prophet ordered the soldier to dip himself in the Jordan River seven times. The Aramean obeyed and was healed.

Then, I recounted how Jesus cleansed people with leprosy and also forgave sins. “Sin is like spiritual leprosy,” I said. “If you’re done with your spiritual disease, come and take a dip with me.” Feeling funky from a week of being called dirty sinners, every youth ran fully clothed into the water and dipped seven times like Naaman. Then and there, I led them in the Sinner’s Prayer. The way I saw it, it was sort of a self-baptism, simultaneous with salvation. Their pastors could finish up with a church baptism as soon as possible.


No Excuses

I have no excuses for the manipulative tactics I employed as a pastor in an Evangelical church, and that week at summer camp. Those kids trusted me as a caretaker of their souls. I thought that their eternal salvation should be won by any means necessary.

I hope you’ll read the first in this two-part series, “Spiritual Abuse: Eternal Salvation by Any Means Necessary.” In this article, I discuss other strategies of spiritual manipulation we used to “get people saved.” I wasn’t alone in employing such abusive strategies. I was part of a larger mindset among Evangelical Christians that saw hell as a horrifying reality. So horrifying that the ends justified the means when it came to evangelism. I no longer believe this to be true.  I wish I could undo the damage I did.


My Hope

My hope in writing this article is that, by calling attention to spiritually abusive practices, I might help church leaders reconsider their doctrines and strategies. Religiously manipulative pastors and congregations wreak unfathomable havoc on the souls of those who trust in their thoughtless (or even cruel) leadership. It can take years to deconstruct and undo the damage. I invite you to read the article, Meet the healers who are helping people recover from spiritual abuse,” by Anna Beahm. If you’d done spiritual damage to vulnerable people in your care, I hope you’ll reconsider and repent. Then begin the work of healing yourself and those you have harmed.

If you’ve suffered spiritual abuse—first, I want to apologize. Many who inflict such harm don’t know what they are doing. But that is no excuse. It is simply a call for leaders, that once they know better, they must do better. Second, I want to encourage you to seek the help of friends, family, trustworthy church leaders who practice trauma-informed care, and mental health professionals. Your suffering is real. Your reluctance to trust again is justified. But I hope you’ll find someone to help you process what you’ve been through. Healing is possible. You may have been victimized, but you can live as a survivor of spiritual abuse.


For related reading, check out my other articles:

About Gregory T. Smith
I live in the beautiful Fraser Valley of British Columbia and work in northern Washington State as a behavioral health specialist with people experiencing homelessness and those who are overly involved in the criminal justice system. Before that, I spent over a quarter-century as lead pastor of several Virginia churches. My newspaper column, “Spirit and Truth” ran in Virginia newspapers for fifteen years. I am one of fourteen contributing authors of the Patheos/Quoir Publishing book “Sitting in the Shade of another Tree: What We Learn by Listening to Other Faiths.” I hold a degree in Religious Studies from Virginia Commonwealth University, and also studied at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. My wife Christina and I have seven children between us, and we are still collecting grandchildren. You can read more about the author here.
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