West Virginia Camp Meeting 2019 --- The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly


My family and I attended the West Virginia Camp Meeting this year from June 14 to 22, missing only a couple days in the middle.

Like the year before, our teenage children enjoyed many of the various youth activities and the opportunity to express themselves with voice and instruments. 

The atmosphere at camp was warm and friendly. Sometimes plant-based options were lacking, but the cafeteria served delicious food. We appreciate all the efforts to keep the camp so beautiful. Tim, the grounds keeper, wears many hats there; he’s invaluable to Valley Vista Camp. I had a good discussion with Tim one afternoon as he was repairing the wooden steps leading to the cafeteria. He and I have several things in common—one, that we both adopted children. 

Music

Matt and Josie Minikus provided contemporary music, reverent and exceptional. The other musicians were a mixed bag; some were appropriate, but other selections, particularly the canned music, were entirely out of place with rock-like rhythms at high volumes. One of the songs utilized a bongo-type drum, but it was out of sight of the audience.

Years ago Christian Berdahl spoke at the West Virginia Camp Meeting, and I believe they need to bring him back again for a refresher on music. 

As a sad commentary on the worldliness among us, we noticed an increased incidence of youth getting in trouble at camp this year. Some of the problematic situations involved disrespect for authority and fornication.

The Speakers

Most of the speakers, with few exceptions, emphasized a personal relationship with God, but neglected to define the steps to Christ and the boundaries of a Godly life.

One of the speakers, Elizabeth Talbot, serves as speaker and director of the Jesus 101 Biblical Institute, a media ministry of the North American Division. As the backdrop for her meetings, a large wooden cross stood, draped with a red cloth. In addition, she wore a three-inch bejeweled cross pin, sparkling radiantly with the colors of the rainbow—visible to onlookers from several hundred feet away.

At different points of her message, Sister Talbot placed various items, including a cloth baby doll and a plastic apple, on the cross. Interestingly, she opened up the apple and pulled out what appeared to be a purple crystal!

Her meetings, while usually calm, seemed emotional, relational, and ecumenical. “Jesus wins” remained Elizabeth’s main point, reiterated and emphasized in numerous ways.

We know that Jesus wins! We believe that. We understand that! This glorious end has never been in question. However, my inward question was never answered, “Whose side are we on, and what does that look like?”

Jim Ayers, as always was a very inspiring speaker and in my personal opinion the best at campmeeting. It is always good to hear brother Jim speak.

Marquis Johns

One keynote presenter, Pastor Marquis Johns, oversees the North Philadelphia Adventist Church and serves on the NAD’s Young Adult Advisory Committee. For his NAD-endorsed training at Fuller Theological Seminary in 2018, see Newshound’s 2018 article on Fulcrum7.

Speaking a dozen times in the youth chapel, main auditorium and at the workers meeting, Pastor Marquis Johns first message focused on “prioritizing the youth.” Who can argue with mentoring our youth? Our young people are the future of God’s church. 

Pastor Johns explained to us how he gave “the keys” to the youth in his church during a week of prayer. He allowed them to do whatever they wanted. Then he showed a short video with the sound turned down. While watching, the thought came to my mind, “I think I know why the sound is off.” The trap drum set was running full tilt. Off to the side, a young man with head phones bobbed his head up and down. Young people actively moved with the music. It reminded me of a rock concert. I thought, “This is your idea of mentoring? Really?”

For two of the last evening meetings by Pastor Johns, the youth chapel was closed down, and seats in the front rows of the main auditorium were reserved for the youth. With his animated style, the preacher squatted part way down and smacked his hands together, speaking loudly each time, “BEEE KIND!” (pause) “BEEE KIND!” (pause) “BEEE KIND!” Later in the message he commented, “Well, I’ve got the kind of personality that you don’t want to get on my bad side!” I thought, “Hmm, whatever happened to being kind?”

During one of the youth meetings, Pastor Johns shared his views with a tone of utter disgust, “I usually don’t allow parents in the youth meetings because the kids will not open up, BUT YOU CAN’T TELL SOME PARENTS ANYTHING!!!”

This would be music to the ears of any young person struggling with parental authority. After all, this youth pastor says that parents are unreasonable! A couple of parents rose up to leave but Brother Johns said, “No, that’s OK!”

Pastor Johns spoke about one of his evangelistic series. All the seats were filled, so as the visitors came through the doors, they had to stand in the back. Speaking disdainfully, he exclaimed to the seated people, “Well, you all been lost for 40 years anyway; they don’t need YOUR seats!” The audience groaned loudly, all in perfect harmony. I thought, “That’s your idea of kindness? You are going to categorize a whole group of people as lost for 40 years because they did not offer up their seats?” I don’t know. Maybe there was no old lady in the audience that had bad hips. Maybe there was no elderly man with dementia in the audience that did not know visitors were standing behind them. I could not help but wonder if the visitors knew that the people up front were Seventh-day Adventists. I would think they did not. After Pastor Johns finished speaking, one man told me, “If I were a visitor, I would have turned around and walked out immediately.”

Although some things Pastor Johns said were decent and appropriate, his “be kind” message was negated by many of his other comments.

Pastor Johns disclosed publicly at one meeting that he sees a psychiatrist, and he and his wife are regular movie goers.

He holds a Super Bowl Sabbath at church where certain Super Bowl items are brought to church. The next day they go to the Super Bowl. How can any consecrated Seventh-day Adventist waste time and money on a worldly, gladiator-type of sport? What inspired counsel do we have on this? Isn’t mixing the Super Bowl in with the Sabbath mixing the profane with the holy?

During one youth meeting, a teenager quietly entered and headed toward her seat down the middle aisle. Pastor Johns stopped talking and immediately took large steps toward her, without a word or explanatory facial expression. The young lady stopped in surprise, but at the same time, Pastor Johns stopped as well. The audience was puzzled, even confused. A few giggled and whispered; otherwise there was silence.

She began walking toward her seat again, but Pastor Johns simultaneously drew near her, practically blocking her advance. Of course, she stopped, disconcerted. Not a word was spoken as the two stood still, face to face. Finally, Pastor Johns backed up and allowed her to make the last few steps to her seat. As he turned and walked back to the front, nary a word indicated any reason for this behavior. Clearly his actions created an element of oddity, confusion, humor and attention. If a speaker truly has a captivating message for our young people, need he resort to these bizarre antics? 

Lastly, Pastor Johns revealed that he had received opposition at the Conference, but under his initiative, some people were fired. He stated that the Conference allowed him to continue because he was successful at church growth and there was an increase in tithe.

Using the overhead screen during the adult meetings, he quoted information and statistics from Fuller Evangelical Theological Seminary which he had attended. He quoted Willow Creek and other non-Adventist sources to support his methods. 

Pastor Johns also read from Sister White’s writings, warning us against being critical and dictating the methods others must choose in evangelism. These quotes were not on the screen long, but I could tell he used both of them out of context.

Then he asked, “What kind of worship service should we hold for the black community?” I don’t think he heard me answer, “A godly one.” He heavily emphasized “marketing the church” via megachurch methods.

Pastor Johns explained that we can apply the principles of megachurch success and “make it sweet,” but Adventist attempts to imitate the apostate churches have failed time after time after time. Nevertheless, the president and most of the conference leaders responded with hearty “Amens.” 

During his last meeting, Pastor Johns boldly boasted, “Nobody tells me what to say, and I’m getting on a plane shortly anyway.” He finished with a Q & A session.

Q&A

President Hewitt had the roving mic in my section. Those with questions expressed affirmation for the methods of Marquis Johns. The session was coming to a close when someone nearby pointed out my tired, upraised hand. Pastor Johns said that he would take one more question, so the president presented the mic before me. I asked, “Pastor, in your opinion, what do the churches out there in Babylon, have to offer us that we do not already have in the Spirit of Prophecy?”

He responded, “That is an excellent question.”

Repeating my question, he replied, “Not much of anything, however. . .” He went on to explain that the early church and Millerites received help from other churches.

I wanted to ask another question: “If you truly mean that these churches have not much of anything to offer us, then why are you going there, and why are you quoting them?” However, the mic was whisked away. 

We cannot market God’s remnant church using Babylon’s enticements. Yes, megachurches sometimes flourish for a time. However, what holds the attendance at Joel Olsteen’s church does not and will not work for God’s Commandment-keeping people. We can’t bait and switch the converts that God brings us. Using Babylon’s gimmicks and the counterfeit gospel attracts only worldlings, and keeps them there.

Switch to the pure cutting truths of self-denial in the Three Angels’ Messages and these people would leave. When Adventist churches adopt worldly methods and erroneous church growth strategies, they distance themselves from truth, grow more ecumenical, and find it next to impossible to call people out of Babylon. 

Reflections

During camp meeting, I visited with a good friend and retired colporteur, Wanda Hunt. In the past, she always looked forward to camp meeting but now she mourned,

“Most of camp meeting this year was not good, and I will not return again. If I come at all, it will be just to see friends.” Many things at camp meeting troubled her, but particularly the messages by Pastor Johns. Another friend said, “I’m never coming back.”

An elder from the western part of West Virginia told me the spirituality at camp meeting was very low. A friend that drives over from Virginia each year shared many concerns as well.

Both Hispanic and Caucasian pastors voiced their concerns with camp meeting. One challenged Pastor Johns personally.

Another said to me, “What they are doing here is idolatry.”

A third pastor said, “They will bring drums into my church over my dead body.” No doubt others were quite concerned, but less vocal. 

I believe that leadership expects opposition to these new “methods” because they have pledged to “do whatever it takes to bring in the youth.” President Mike Hewitt told us, “Take what’s good and leave off that with which we disagree.”

While that sounds good, the problem is that seeds of deception often take root in the minds of even pastors. 

I had a long conversation with one of the West Virginia pastors. He claimed, using the example of Stephen and Paul, “There will be sin in heaven.”

I responded, “A lack of knowledge is not sin.” The millennium will take care of any questions between Stephen and Paul. How sad that these pastors are leading flocks, pastors who think there will be sin in heaven! 

On the last Sabbath there were several last-minute baptisms. One minister that was baptizing put down the “old” idea that candidates need preparation and teaching first. He said,

“But that’s not how it works. The study will take place later.”

Maybe it will and maybe it will not. We know that after baptism less attention is given to new members. Will the local church be willing to vote this child into membership before the young person knows what commitment to truth he is making? 

Conclusion

Why would a Conference invite speakers that teach error? Are not speakers carefully researched? Where is the discernment? One can only give leadership the benefit of the doubt to a point. Then one must conclude that things are organized and planned accordingly.

Some of us have lost or round-filed the blueprint in many areas, not just one. Lord, remove the scales from our eyes and bring us back again!

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A convert from Catholicism, Kevin Mortenson works as a Literature Evangelist residing in West Virginia. For 27 years, he’s canvassed in Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. His wife Damarys has worked for the Federal government for 27 years; she is currently assistant to the state in soil conservation. They have two teenage children in academies in Tennessee and Pennsylvania.

Thanks to Diane Kobor for her editing contribution to this article.