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Why Would a Church Youth Group Pretend to Kidnap Teens?

A Pennsylvania church and its youth pastor were charged last week with false imprisonment and assault for pretending to kidnap youth group members in order to teach them about religious persecution. You know you’re an evangelical when your first reaction to that news isn’t shock but, “Man, I can’t believe fools are still doing that.”

Let me explain. When I was growing up in southeastern Michigan, I was an enthusiastic Jesus nerd, attending all manner of Baptist youth fellowship conferences, winter retreats, summer church camps, and a year-long leadership program for young Baptists. And at nearly every one of these, someone would inevitably share a rumor of a youth group they’d heard about. (Only rarely did a teen claim to have witnessed it themselves.) According to the story, this youth group’s leaders had staged a mock terrorist raid of a meeting, wearing masks and storming in with weapons while they demanded to know who in the group was a Christian. The implied threat was that if someone stood up and declared she was a Christian, she could be killed.

Hard as it may be to believe, whenever this story was told, no one ever responded, “Good God—I’m glad my church isn’t that insane!” Instead, the point was to make us reflect on what we would do in a similar situation. Would we be cowards and deny our faith? Were we already hesitant to admit we were Christians in everyday life? Or were we strong in the spirit, proud of our faith, no matter what the risks?

Yes, it’s crazy. As the district attorney who brought the charges in the Pennsylvania case told the AP, the church leaders may have had good intentions, but “they in essence terrorized several children.” The Assembly of God church has apparently held these raids in the past and the senior pastor told Religion News Service in March that he planned to continue the practice, with perhaps a few tweaks to be less terrifying. This year’s fake kidnapping involved covering kids’ heads with pillow cases, binding their hands, driving them around in a church van, leading them into a home, and briefly questioning each teen individually in an “interrogation room” with a chair under a single light-bulb.

This unorthodox teaching method and knowledge of it in many evangelical communities explains why so many evangelical Christians were willing to believe the story that one of the victims in the Columbine attack had been killed after one of the shooters asked her if she believed in God. Subsequent reporting found that the exchange probably didn’t happen. But it is the theme of a memoir written by the girl’s mother, She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall.

More broadly, these practices both reflect and reinforce a belief that Christians—and particularly evangelical Christians—are a persecuted and beleaguered minority in the U.S. That’s an attitude we’ve seen recently in debates over religious liberty, various culture war skirmishes, and even in campaign commercials. One of Rick Perry’s television ads in Iowa last December featured the Texas governor setting his jaw and telling the camera, “I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a Christian.” Most Christians aren’t—except maybe when they read about incidents like this.

Follow me on Twitter at @SullivanAmy.