Documentary focuses on Pentecostal youth rally in Chilliwack
Thousands of young Charismatic Christians will descend on Chilliwack this weekend to encounter God, get spiritually motivated and, just maybe, have a life-changing experience.
The annual Pentecostal youth rally Historymaker is back at Prospera Centre for the second year in a row.
There will be smiles and there will be tears.
There will be worship song and there will be psychological counselling.
There will be believers and there will be skeptics.
Many will witness seemingly supernatural phenomena: speaking in tongues, divine prophecies received from God, and spontaneous healing.
But according to former Charismatic Christian Sam Fenn, there will also be theatrical stage presentations, highly-paid guests following precise timelines, and counselling sessions where homophobia and sexist views are espoused.
Fenn attended Historymaker 2013 here in Chilliwack where he recorded audio for a documentary he produced as part of a radio program called The Terry Project on CiTR at the University of British Columbia.
The visit was a return for the 27-year-old who, since his attendance at Historymaker in 2003 as a 17-year-old, has become an atheist.
Despite his lack of belief in the general tenets of Pentecostalism or Christianity at all, he said he was never totally able to rationalize away some of the things he saw 10 years prior to making the documentary.
His memories of Historymaker periodically and quietly tested his atheism.
“My family are still Charismatic Christians,” Fenn told the Times. “I think they got their hopes up a little bit with me doing this story was showing an interest in the faith.”
He returned to Historymaker with a lack of faith, but with the avowed objectivity of a documentarian.
“I wanted to try to remain as open as possible,” he said.
Fenn said he was by far the oldest person there, at least among those wandering on the floor at Prospera.
Up on stage there is always an array of high-profile Pentecostal preachers, touring speakers and musical acts. This year’s headliners include: Martin Smith, former singer for Christian worship band Delirious?; Banning Liebscher of Jesus Culture, a California youth movement; Andy Moore of Glad Tidings Church in Victoria; and former Harlem Globetrotter Lefty Williams.
Last year, the headliner was Eric Samuel Timm, an American Christian speaker/artist for hire who is so popular, he is booked years in advance.
Timm is a powerful speaker engaged in precise theatre on stage. That theatre, his presentation, involved changing lives, leaving teenagers in tears after talking about very serious subjects.
“With Eric Samuel Timm, he really left people out there weeping and having just confessed to strangers, untrained strangers, that they had been suicidal,” Fenn said.
What Fenn witnessed was, among other things, 19-year-olds basically trying to help 14-year-olds deal with suicidal tendencies.
But it was Timm’s back-stage standoffishness, and his hurry to get out of the building after his performance that bothered Fenn.
The notion of theatre may seem obvious to a non-churchgoer, but Fenn said one of the strongest responses to his documentary was the large clock backstage that helped to keep everything running smoothly and on time.
Growing up in the Vineyard, going to church on a Sunday, Fenn said you couldn’t tell people you’d be free at 2 or 3 or 4 or even 5 p.m. The gatherings were intentionally left open-ended in case there was some spontaneous moving of the spirit or some supernatural event.
“A couple of Christians said they wouldn’t send youth groups to Historymaker just because of that clock,” Fenn said. “It’s a well-run show and it’s manipulative in a way that a Coldplay concert is manipulative.”
But for an avowed atheist, all churches, led by a pastor of some kind, must have a sense of theatre to them. What’s wrong with that?
For Fenn, the difference is that in, for example, Catholicism, there is no question about who has the power and who is in charge. With charismatic Christians, the whole process is a lot more “horizontal.”
Those mentoring others and teaching the supposed truths of the Bible come across as friends, peers.
Unlike in Catholicism where the Pope, the Cardinals, the Archbishops have a closer access to God, in Pentecostalism everyone has equal access. And this makes manipulation that much more simpler, especially with young people.
To illustrate this, Fenn said he knows some men that use the faith as a pick-up line.
“My brother shared with me that he’s trying to date women in the church right now. He told me that some of the girls he’s thinking of asking out have been told by multiple men they have told [the girls] that the audible voice of God is telling them they are meant to be with one another.”
Then there is the overt homophobia and sexism, something Fenn says was actually “way worse 10 years ago.”
Ten years ago there was a petition circulated to ban gay marriage and resist marriage equality.
“Back then nobody was beating around the bush,” he said, adding that it was said that “homosexuality is an abomination and a sin.”
In 2013, the homophobia was evident if less obvious. Young teens were taught that homosexuality results from not feeling beautiful.
As for the sexism, young women were encouraged not to be too forward, to always wait for a boy to ask them out on a date.
Then there is the theatricality with music building up slowly behind impassioned preachers, smoke machines billowing with rock show lighting the scene, all, remember, under the presumption that this is about making a personal connection to Jesus.
So is it all a show?
“Yeah, it’s a magic trick that everybody has a reason to believe in, including the magicians,” Fenn said. “I don’t think the preachers are, for the most part, charlatans. I don’t think they are snake oil salesman. I think they believe in this. They have found a way to rationalize away the fact that they need very, very scripted prompts and emotionally manipulative music to make the magic happen.”
Despite his experiences, and despite the lack of answers in the documentary from organizers about his concerns, Fenn doesn’t think the Pentecostal leaders and Historymaker organizers don’t want to be questioned.
He thinks many of them are genuinely too busy, and while he certainly got the cold shoulder from Timm, Fenn thinks that’s because the man has had negative press before and “sniffed out” that Fenn was “secular press.”
The Times sent a number of emails over the months to Langley-based Next Generation Ministries, which runs Historymaker, but they were not responded to.
Pastor Jay McAlister of First Avenue Christian Assembly whose church is connected to the ministry behind Historymaker, told the Times he hadn’t listened to the documentary. But when asked about the clock and the theatrical nature of the program, he said it is a challenge to do things professionally while keeping an organic feel to the event.
“It would also be interesting to know if any of those young people in tears were upset by the speaker leaving after,” he said via email. “While Sam may have found that troubling I wonder if others in attendance did. I don’t know how it played out as I wasn’t there but I didn’t hear any negatives from those I know were in attendance.”
Vern Tompke of Chilliwack Vineyard Church in Chilliwack listened to the documentary and said he found it a “fascinating and well done radio piece,” and a great “on ramp” to talk about the subject.
Tompke did suggest that what goes on at Historymaker may seem like a trip to a foreign land for an outsider, but that doesn’t mean it’s so unusual.
“[It’s] certainly different than going to a club or music festival or benefit concert which also have their own cultures, which is so ‘normal’ nobody seems to question,” he said.
• Historymaker runs May 16 to 18 at Prospera Centre. To find out more about the program, visit www.historymaker.ca.
• To hear Fenn’s documentary visit www.terry.ubc.ca.