Kindergarten of Christ

The American evangelical organisation Kids in Ministry trains children as young as five in the gifts of healing, prophecy and speaking in tongues. Mick Brown attended its Extreme Prophetic Conference in Missouri.

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.

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Ruth, who is eight years old, was sobbing quietly. Earlier that day she had been one of those to come forward during the ‘prophetic dance’ session, when Pastor Becky Fischer asked if anybody had heard the word of God and had something to impart.

Ruth had stood up and addressed the gathering of perhaps 150 children and half as many adults, seated in neat, attentive rows: ‘Is there a boy in here named Alex, and a girl in here named Abi?’ Two children had risen in different parts of the room.

Ruth had addressed each of them in a clear, unwavering voice. ‘I saw, like, Abigail was going to bring people back to Jesus in China. And you, Alex, I saw that you were going to be a missionary in India.’

Afterwards, I had asked Ruth what made her say these things. ‘When I was dancing,’ she said, ‘I just heard “Abigail and Alex, Abigail and Alex” come into my mind. And then a voice told me they were going to be missionaries.’ She had never met Abigail and Alex before.

And where did she think the voice came from? Ruth looked at me, as if to say, isn’t it obvious? ‘God,’ she said.

The numberplates on the cars and camper-vans parked outside the Christ Triumphant Church in Lee’s Summit, Missouri, suggested that some families had travelled hundreds of miles to attend what was billed as ‘The Extreme Prophetic Conference for Kids’.

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.

Central to the evangelical movement is a literal belief in the prophecies of the Book of Revelation pertaining to the apocalypse, or ‘End Time’, and the Second Coming of Christ. This, it is believed, will be heralded by chaos and warfare, but also by a proliferation of signs and wonders and the emergence of a new generation of prophets and apostles, heralding a great Christian revival.

Children, Fischer told me, are ‘part of God’s End Time army’, as capable as adults of operating in the ‘gifts of the Spirit’, including preaching the Gospel, laying hands on the sick, raising the dead and speaking in tongues.

She cited the biblical book Acts, 2:17: ‘In my last days I will pour out my spirit and your sons and daughters shall prophesy. Your young men shall see visions, your old men shall see dreams.’

Fischer allowed that not many people took this to apply to children as young as five. But children, she said, are ‘naturally in touch with the supernatural. You have to remember this is a relatively new phenomenon.

“When people start hearing that children are prophesying and preaching they get goosebumps. But this is happening across the face of the earth. I’ve got a friend in Tanzania who runs a school where children are healing the sick and casting out devils.’

There was not, it has to be said, much evidence of healing the sick or casting out devils to be seen at Christ Triumphant, but what was on display was remarkable enough. Over the course of three days, the conference offered a series of structured courses in ‘prophetic art’ (‘reveals the truth of God’), ‘prophetic dance’ (‘You’re dancing with the Lord€¦’) and ‘prophetic music’ — all designed to channel messages from God.

The climax of each session would be the moment when Fischer would ask children to come forward to prophesy. There was always a sense of anticipation when this occurred. On the first night, a dozen or so children stepped forward.

‘You in the green shirt€¦’ A boy of about 10 with a crew-cut pointed to a middle-aged woman in the audience. ‘God told me that at some time you’ve been broken, and you’ve never really got over it. But God says He’s going to build you back up, and don’t think about your past, think about your future.’ The woman called back, ‘Right on!’

Then a boy named Levi spoke. ‘God told me there’s someone here and your hands are really on fire. God has something for you. Your hands are really hot, sweating almost.’

A young girl raised her hand. ‘Hey, Chelsea!’ Levi said. ‘God just told me there’s heat in your hands, and if you just keep studying the word and chasing after God, every day there’s going to be heat in your hands, and every time you touch somebody they will be healed.’ There was a round of whoops, yeahs and applause.

‘You are not a normal generation,’ Fischer told the congregation. ‘When they say history-maker, that is you. And our enemy, who is also God’s enemy, is going to do anything he can to destroy the plan that God has for your life; he is going to try to destroy you. And if you don’t make the decision to serve God, it’ll be too late.’

Becky Fischer’s mission has not passed without controversy. Shortly before my visit to the Extreme Prophetic Conference, a documentary about her work called Jesus Camp had received its first screening at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.

The film follows the course of a ‘Kids on Fire’ summer camp organised by Kids in Ministry. It shows children praying in front of a cardboard cut-out of George Bush, and at one point Fischer seems to equate the preparation she is giving her young charges with the training of Islamist terrorists.

‘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.’

These pronouncements had led to allegations that Fischer was brainwashing children and ‘raising up an army of Christian terrorists’. When I raised this with Fischer, she insisted she had been misinterpreted. The children were not praying to Bush, she told me, but praying for him — as they would for whoever happened to be President. The talk of ‘raising an army for Christ’ and of children ‘laying down their lives’ was merely metaphor, of the sort commonly found in scripture.

To her congregation at least, she remained defiant. ‘We’ve got the liberals quite stirred up,’ she announced one morning, to loud cheers. ‘Some people think I’m a nut and dangerous. Well, they ain’t seen nothing yet.’

But it was evident, too, that the criticisms had left their mark. There were no cardboard cut-outs of Bush to be seen at the conference, and in the course of one address Fischer went out of her way to emphasise that the main weapon in the Christian ‘armoury’ was love.

‘Islam wants to take over the world, and so does Christianity. But we take it by love, by compassion, We take it by tenderness.’

What Jesus Camp, and the reaction to it, does show is just how divided America is on the question of religion. But while liberal America perceives the Christian right and its burgeoning political influence as a threat to individual freedoms, reason and common sense, what I sensed among the gathering at the Christ Triumphant was rather a defensiveness — almost a sense of beleaguerment.

Like Christians in Ancient Rome, they saw themselves as the victims if not exactly of persecution then certainly of a ‘conspiracy’ by the media, Hollywood and the forces of secular liberalism to attack and undermine their faith.

‘I’ve been accused of brainwashing these children,’ Fischer said, ‘but they’re brainwashing our kids 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can’t turn on TV without seeing witchcraft, perversion, homosexuality, jumping in and out of bed with anybody and everybody. It might be common behaviour, but it’s not normal.’ You want to screw up a kid’s life, Fischer said, send them to university. ‘They’ll turn his head so inside out and upside down he won’t even know which end he’s supposed to wipe.’

The next morning, there was an appearance by a guest speaker named Stacey Campbell, well-known in Charismatic circles for her work with children.

A small, energetic woman in her forties, she began by asking for the Lord’s intervention over the matter of the pornographer Larry Flynt opening a Hustler boutique in Nashville — ‘Because if he can take Nashville, he can take America€¦’

I wondered how many of the eight-year-olds in the congregation had heard of Larry Flynt or knew what pornography was.

‘There is a living Devil, and he is after your generation,’ Campbell went on, recounting a story about seven-year-olds being sold into prostitution in Thailand. ‘The Devil knows about your generation. He wants to steal from you and kill you. But God knows about you, too.’

Then she called a boy named Jordan to the stage and told him that she had been praying for him and had had a vision that he would become ‘a leader for his generation. I could see you standing in front of crowds of people and leading many, many to righteousness.’ The audience whooped their approval, as Jordan blushed and returned to his seat.

At the end of her talk there was a prayer session. Campbell knelt beside a young girl who was praying with her eyes tightly closed, and whispered in her ear. ‘I see that God is going to start talking to you in dreams.’

She moved to another child. ‘Nolan,’ she asked him, ‘do you ever hear God talk to you?’ A mixture of confusion and alarm flickered in Nolan’s eyes until, at length, he shook his head. ‘No.’

That afternoon, the children divided into groups for lessons in ‘prophetic’ painting, music and dance. The dance class was conducted in the main hall by Carol Koch, one of the pastors of Christ Triumphant, and afterwards people began to gather there for Fischer’s talk on interpreting prophetic symbols and colours.

They were greeted by the sight of a small child lying on the floor, twitching and groaning. It was Ruth, the eight-year-old whom I had noticed prophesying the day before.

‘Don’t worry about her,’ Fischer said. ‘They had a really sweet moment in the dance class today and she was touched by God.’

She carefully stepped around the prostrate body and attempted to press on with her talk, then gestured to Koch. ‘She’s kind of distracting.’ Ruth’s father came out of the audience, picked up his child and carried her off to a side room.

Fischer was talking about interpreting prophetic visions of animals. Bat: witchcraft — bad. Beaver: industrious, diligent — good. The children were told to ‘let God speak to you’, and then invited to give prophecy. Ruth had apparently recovered and now came forward and pointed to another girl in the audience: ‘I saw a deer, lying down. I think it means you’re nice and loyal.’

A boy of about nine stepped off the stage and walked directly to a girl in the audience and pointed at her: ‘God has told me that if you keep on praying every day, you will blow people’s brains out.’ There was a moment’s hesitation — could he mean? No, surely not — and then a thunderous round of applause.

The more I watched the children giving prophecy, the more I wondered about what it could mean. Some of the messages seemed unerring in their specificity; some so vague they could have meant anything, to anybody; and some, simply the first things that came into the children’s heads. For Fischer and Koch it was ‘the word of God’.

Others might have called it simply intuition, or perhaps, if you had a mind for such things, the cultivation of nascent clairvoyant gifts.

Others still, of course, would have dismissed the pronouncements as figments of the imagination, the fruits of expectation placed on the children by what psychologists would call the ‘set and setting’ — the music, the prayers, the emotional catharsis, the dangling carrot of approval and applause when a message or pronouncement seemed to hit home.

Koch was alive to the possibility that some of the children at least might have been simply making it up. ‘You’ll get a few, when they share something, they’re saying it to get attention,’ she told me, ‘because they do get a lot of attention when they say something; people are€¦ wow!

But one thing I like about kids is that, for the most part, their response is genuine. I always tell them, you don’t have to say anything, and don’t say ever anything that’s not true. I tell my own daughter, I’m more proud of you for not giving prophecy when you don’t feel anything, than when you give one because you feel like you have to.’

These were early days, Fischer said. Eighty per cent of children’s prophecy was comprised of what I had been watching unfold over the last two days: messages of comfort, inspiration and uplift. ‘But if these children continue this as they grow into their twenties and thirties, they will begin to prophesy at very high levels.

At that point they will prophesy national events, international events, things for their church, speaking to political issues. I know of people who are known among prophetic circles for their accuracy in prophecy for world events who have private audiences with the President.’

For some reason, I did not find this reassuring.

On her website, Fischer publishes what she claims is prophecy from children, speaking spontaneously during prayer at a church in Tulsa, Oklahama, in 1998, supposedly foretelling the events of September 11, 2001, a full three years before they occurred.

One example reads: ‘Islamic group, the chief guy in the Islamic group of terrorist, not pacifists but destroyers, CIA reveal, Islamic group, blinders remove, CIA, you see, reveal, borders, border patrols, Canada, raids, search, all USA borders, patrol, search, get ready, see, reveal, American 757/767, get off, back to the gate, you’re grounded€¦ Sadaam, underground in Babylon, blueprints, drawings, plans, plagues, viruses, God disgusted by terrorists, but His Hands are tied, it’s up to us to pray, wake up from your slumber, you’ll be held accountable€¦’

Even more unsettling to the outsider was the mood of high emotion in which the prayer sessions invariably ended — the weeping and sobbing, the young bodies littering the floor, ‘slain in the spirit’, the mood of abandon and catharsis.

When I asked one young girl why she had been crying she replied that it was ‘because I was happy to be in the presence of God’. And what did it feel like, I asked, to be in the presence of God? ‘It feels awesome,’ she said. ‘God,’ a boy standing next to her said, ‘is so powerful it’s hard not to cry.’

Kids in Ministry has outreach programmes in Africa and India, but not yet in Britain. However, the idea of instructing children ‘in the prophetic’ has a growing currency among the Charismatic community in this country.

Heather Thompson is the director of Powerpack Ministries, which produces teaching resources and advises Charismatic churches on ministering to children, and runs child-ren’s groups at large evangelical events such as Spring Harvest and Faith Camp.

‘We are seeing children filled with the Holy Spirit, praying for one another, and giving word of knowledge,’ Thompson told me. ‘We wouldn’t feel we’d done a good job unless we were seeing these things happening.’

Graham Richardson, an associate pastor at the Hemel Hempstead Community Church in Hertfordshire, told me that children among his congregation were encouraged to talk about any prophetic experiences they might feel during prayers.

‘To me, it’s what I call low-key prophecy. It’s encouragement, edification. But we believe that children have just as much access to hear from the Lord as we do.’

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’.

I had recognised Levi from the Jesus Camp film and was not surprised to see him at Lee’s Summit. Tall, skinny and bright-eyed, he wore his hair cropped with a long ponytail at the back. Every T-shirt he wore was branded with the name of Jesus. Of all the children, Levi had a particular air of maturity and authority.

Whenever Fischer called for those who had the word of God upon them, Levi would be among the first to step forward — a preacher in the making, with a commanding style of address that made people sit up and pay attention. Earlier that day, Levi had taken to the stage with the message that God had told him there were people here who were, ‘like, really depressed, and God said be released today! When you go home, it’ll be different! You’ll be getting phone calls from family members telling you they’re sorry, and your life is going to be changed! Your financial problems are going to be released€¦ Stand up if that’s you!’

A number of people rose from their seats, their hands in the air.

‘Pray over them, Levi!’ Fischer called.

Levi’s voice rose in an excited incantation. ‘I release this on them, God, that the oppression that Satan has put on them to keep them from your calling, just take it off of them now. And when you get home there’ll be some phone calls on your answering-machines.’

Levi is 13, and had come to the conference with his younger brother, Luke, and his mother, Tracey. They were members of a Charismatic church in St Robert, Missouri, which taught the prophetic.

Attending the conference, Tracey said, was a way to encourage Luke and Levi in the practice. ‘And it’s like an encouragement to them to see other children doing this and realise it’s not some weird fringe thing that our church does, that it’s a normal part of the culture.’

Levi, she told me, was ‘just an open vessel that God can work through. The spirit of the Lord has found a home in him, I think.’

I asked Levi, how did he hear the voice of God? God, he said, ‘doesn’t really speak to me in a voice. I hear Him as a thought.’

And how did he know it was God? ‘Whenever a thought comes there are three things that come at you. There’s your own mind; then it might be Satan trying to speak to you — because he doesn’t want you to speak these things from God. But you just know when it’s God. You just get this great feeling — like, yes! That’s it!’

When he was 10, Levi said, God had told him he was going to be a missionary in India. ‘But you can’t just go to India and say you want to be a missionary. So I’m going to go there to be a doctor, and then through that I’m going to tell the people about the Lord.’ He planned to attend college there. ‘That way I can be there as quickly as possible.’

Like many of the children at the conference, Levi and his brother were home-schooled. In 2001 a US Census Bureau report stated that more than two million children were home-schooled, the number rising at a rate of between 15 and 20 per cent a year. It is estimated that 75 per cent of them are from evangelical families.

Tracey told me the principal reason she and her husband home-schooled their children was to be able to spend more time with them. It also gave them control over the curriculum.

‘We don’t shy away from any issues. We talk about abortion, homosexual issues, creation versus evolution, the environment. We try and come at it from every angle; some people believe that, but we believe this, and this is why we believe it.’

The belief that God created the world in six days was not simply an article of faith, Tracey said. There were ‘a lot of facts that supported the creationist view. In fact Levi did a pretty good study on that, and it really takes more faith to believe in evolution.’

The more time I spent with Becky Fischer, the more I liked her. I disagreed with almost everything she said, but I was in no doubt about her sincerity and her commitment to the spiritual welfare of the children.

She had never married — she had never found a man ‘that had a heart after God, like I wanted. Also I had a very strong personality, and I don’t think men are attracted to that.’ And so she had been denied the blessing of family. ‘God wants to keep us from marrying the wrong person,’ she said. ‘And if I can raise a generation that will just marry the right one, I’ll have done my job.’ I thought I understood her better after that.

On my last day at the church, she suggested that some of the children might prophesy over the photographer, Evan, and me. She thought it might be more appropriate to do this privately, rather than in front of the congregation — a small mercy for which I, at least, was grateful.

We adjourned to a side room with five children whom Fischer deemed the most gifted in prophecy. Levi was among them.

After a short prayer, the children closed their eyes, while Evan and I waited. Then Levi spoke. ‘This is for Mick. I saw a big star and it was blue, and it was right here where your heart would be. The blue means you’re sensitive to things around you. I think the star means you’re shining a light on to things — you can sense it, and you’re shining it out. And that’s probably why you’re a reporter.’

It would be unbecoming of me to find this uncannily accurate.

Then Rachel spoke. She was about 11, the very picture of sweet innocence. ‘This is for you.’ She looked me in the eye. ‘I saw you as a shark.’

A shark? ‘Like, someone who knows what they want and goes for it.’ Fischer attempted to pour balm: ‘So positive, certain in his aims.’

Levi had messages for Evan — more specific things about crossroads and choices of direction that Evan said were ‘spot-on’. Then Rachel said she had another vision for both of us. She saw us as mice being approached by a snake, that was Satan, and having to make a choice about which way to run. I was still thinking about being a shark. But sharks are God’s creatures too, aren’t they?

That night was the last of the conference, and the children were once again invited on stage. Chelsea, aged about 12, and wearing a T-shirt saying perfect angel, stood up.

‘I had a vision about everybody here, and I saw them dressed as angels in white robes going up to heaven and having a party.’ And what do you think that means, Fischer asked. ‘I think it means that everybody here is going to heaven to have a party.’ There was tumultuous applause.

The band started to play — something sweet and uplifting — and all the children rose from their seats, came forward and started to dance. Almost imperceptibly, the mood had changed, as if some un-spoken permission had been given for abandon. Around me, people began to moan and pray and speak in tongues. Adults moved among the children, laying on hands.

Then the music changed, to something anthemic, tribal. ‘We dance! We shout! We lift up our voices and His kingdom comes down€¦’

Someone produced drums, congas, tambourines. Fischer’s voice rose above the tumult. ‘Stomp on the Devil’s head! Stomp on the Devil’s head! Tread on scorpions!’

The children began to stamp their feet, flinging themselves up and down, screaming to the heavens in a frenzied intoxication of the senses, until there was just the drums, the screaming and sobbing, and Fischer’s voice, shouting like a woman possessed. ‘Sound the alarm! Sound the alarm!’

• Visit The Telegraph site for an MP3 interview with Mick Brown, as well as a narrated slide show.

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