Mission From God: The Upstart Christian Sect Driving Invisible Children and Changing Africa

Many of the men responsible for the Kony 2012 campaign follow something called the Emerging Church, which has become an unusual and newly influential wing of the larger evangelical mission to Africa.

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Jason Russell dances in an Invisible Children video. YouTube

For Jason Russell, co-founder of Invisible Children, stumbling into Uganda's one-time civil war wasn't an accident; it was a divine calling.

While the rest of the world laughs at or ponders the psych ward-ridden creator of Kony 2012, the unlikely Internet video sensation that brought both himself and a vicious Ugandan rebel instant and overwhelming fame, the mystery of his inspiration and success only grows more curious.

Who is this man? Is he crazy?  What drives him? Russell summed it up in two hesitant words -- Jesus Christ.

"For me, that's the motivator," Russell told me in an interview early one morning from California in March, as the video was first going viral.

He'd just had what was among the first of many nearly sleepless nights, he told me at the time, which his family later said contributed to his nude psychotic breakdown on a San Diego street corner.

"I can't do it without that faith," he said, calling Jesus the "ultimate storyteller." Excitement rushed through his voice. "If I thought I was doing it myself, it would feel myopic."

Behind the origins and success of Kony 2012 is an eclectic and powerful network of Christian activists, traditionally dominated by the Christian right, that has at times brought mass attention, almost single-handedly, to some of Africa's worst and most ignored conflicts, from South Sudan to the Nuba Mountains, Darfur to the Lord's Resistance Army.

The movement has also sparked controversy. It is a community of activists that wields disproportionate influence over African affairs, from military politics to public health to social policy. As they work to organize a global effort to catch the leaders of the Lord's Resistance Army, a distinct but not-so-distant wing of the same movement helped to implement Uganda's notorious anti-gay law, which legalizes the killing of "repeat" gay men.

Still, for all the financial links connecting Invisible Children to the socially conservative American activists in Africa, the two could not be more different.

Invisible Children, as an organization, does not formally affiliate itself with any religious entity. Indeed, not all of its staff, supporters, and financial backers are actively Christian or affiliated with Christian organizations -- just most of the most important ones.

The group is a product, and perhaps the most successful manifestation of, a little-known, ultra-liberal, and highly controversial post-Evangelical Christian movement known as the Emerging Church.

Like more traditional evangelic organizations, Invisible Children is out to spread the gospel. But they are not out just for Africa. They seem to be -- based on their past efforts, the statements of the group's leaders, and the religious ideology that drives them -- out for you. And the Kony 2012 campaign is how they're doing it.

No doubt, Russell is evangelic, but he and Invisible Children are spreading the gospel in the Emerging Church style. No Bibles, but movies. Instead of telling us what to believe, silently, secretly pulling our consciences towards Jesus.

 "America has wrapped itself around the cross, and that is blasphemy," Russell told me. "Our point is, let humanity be the identity; then just join with humanity."

For a young Jason Russell, growing up in a sunny and observant San Diego community, two things seemed to matter most: acting and God. His parents helped found Christian Youth Theater, an after-school theater arts program that calls itself the nation's "largest youth theater."

He "accepted Christ into my heart" when he was five-years old, he said in a 2010 interview on Catholic radio station Relevant Radio.

He even met his current wife in the theater program -- he was seven and she was six -- according to a 2005 newspaper interview. They abstained from sex until they were married. He sang "The Luckiest," by Ben Folds, when he proposed.

Russell's Christian upbringing focused as much on faith as an experience as it did on faith as a belief. It was a time when a generation of young believers who "crave spirituality but feel disconnected," as a local newspaper article put it, began moving towards something different. It didn't have an address, but people threw around the name Emerging Church.

Russell's first experience with Africa, he says, was as a missionary in Kenya, in 2001, with a Christian organization that spread the gospel through dramatic theater.

After returning to the U.S., he helped write a treatment for a musical film that was sold to Dreamworks, he told me, and graduated from the University of Southern California with a degree in film.

"The dream for my life, at that point, was just to make Hollywood musicals, like Moulin Rouge, and Chicago, and Hairspray," he said during a 2011 conference at Liberty University, a Christian university in Virginia. 

While in college, he discovered the journals of Dan Eldon, a young photojournalist who was killed in Somalia in 1993 and left behind a litany of collage-diaries of his experiences in Africa.

"It changed my life," Russell said. "I saw what it was like to look at life demanding explanation, capturing powerful stories."

"I think about Dan Eldon constantly."

He also thought about how that meshed with his faith. His ideas about Christianity were evolving, and his experience as a missionary in Africa had left a gnawing disillusionment on his conscience.

"I didn't like what we were doing, I didn't like spreading the gospel in this way," he said during our March interview. "All the Kenyans I met, they didn't need faith, their faith was stronger than mine."

"That was when I decided to go back and tell a story," he says, "telling it apart from any organization."

In 2003, he and two friends traveled to Sudan, where a decades-long civil war between the north and the south had been largely forgotten by the rest of the world, except for human rights activists -- and a handful of evangelical Christians.

Russell and his friends wanted to tell a story about the relatively Christian southern Sudanese victims of the war, and went to neighboring Uganda to try to find some. Instead, a story about the victims of the ongoing Ugandan civil war found him.

"I really felt God was saying to me, 'Jason, you went on this experience for a reason, and I'm showing this to you because there is a story that I desire for you to tell,'" Russell said in a 2006 newspaper interview.

He had found his mission. Russell would spread the gospel of Jesus Christ, and he was going to do it without talking about Jesus Christ. Rather, his plan was to embody the gospel by, as he put it, "ending genocide." And he was going to do it through a movie.

"The trick is to not go out into the world and say I am going to baptize you, I'm going to convict you, I have an agenda to win you over," Russell said at Liberty University. "Your agenda is to look into the eyes, as Jesus did, and say, who are you, and will you be my friend? Like he did to the prostitutes, to the tax collectors, to the fishermen."

Or former child soldiers. Or American teenagers.

Ugandans, Russell told me, "know Christ far more than I or anyone in the Western world and in the Christian church knows Christ." The Western world, he suggested, treated faith like a "line item."

While the story that Russell and his fellow travelers wanted to tell was about the victims of the brutal Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda and central Africa, the message they were trying to send -- much of the "experiment," as Russell narrates in the Kony 2012 film -- was to the people back home.

Engage. Get passionate. Find a cause. Rediscover the gospel.

"God said, Jason, open it up, open it up," Russell testified at a 2005 conference. "Do not limit it to the church, which often times can be the most divided, or the most secluded, or the most discriminatory."

In 2004, they founded Invisible Children to try to make it work. And for that to work, Russell argues, religion had to have nothing to do with it.

"It was too delicate of a choice to put the cross on our website, or to put a fish on the website," he said in the 2010 radio interview, "because, you're honestly dealing with the truth."

"You're dealing with the creator, and so to make a brand around that, and to have money flow in and out around that idea," he continued, "felt cheap."

(Invisible Children brought in over $13 million dollars last year, according to its most recent financial statement, and its $30 Kony 2012 action kits were quickly sold out, according to the organization's website.)

Invisible Children had this to say about religious affiliation, according to a 2006 version of their website's frequently asked questions:

Is your organization a Christian organization?

No. The three filmmakers believe in Christ, but do not want to segregate themselves in any way. They believe that this story is not theirs to own/brand. They strongly believe that every person needs to hear this story regardless of race, religion, gender, or culture. Invisible Children is about invisible children, and is not exclusive to people who believe what the filmmakers believe. It's about the "orphans, the widows, the hungry, and the oppressed." It's about children that are born into a horrific situation, with no voice. For further insight, read anything Brian Mc Laren (no relation), or Donald Miller writes.

Brian McLaren and Donald Miller are two authors and Christian theologians closely associated with the Emerging Church movement in the United States.  McLaren was once named one of the most influential evangelicals in America by Time. Miller sits on an Obama White House taskforce on family values

The Emerging Church has no formal organization, no single leader, and no uniform code of belief. It's part of a larger Generation-Y of disillusioned youth looking for a cooler, more accessible brand of Christianity for the 21st century.

At the heart of the movement is the growing perception that mainstream, organized Christianity is not only fundamentally flawed, with its dictates and rigid doctrines and inherently negative and insecure worldview, as many Emerging Church adherents see it, but that it follows a false gospel. Some wouldn't mind seeing the Vatican collapse.

Contemporary institutional religion, as opposed to "redemption," is "the most disgusting false gospel in the world!" Pastor Mark Driscoll, who identifies himself as an Emerging Liberal, declared in a sermon on YouTube.* "Religious people are the ones murdering Jesus."

The Emerging Church preaches, in its uniquely deconstructionist way,  what it claims is Jesus Christ's original, true message, seemingly lost long ago: that God lives in each person, that the Kingdom of Heaven is here on Earth now, and that faith is not belief but an action and spiritual state of being to be experienced creatively, through human relationships, and by raising questions.

"There are a lot of us who would agree that we need to re-focus on Jesus's core message, which is very, very different from what a lot of Christians have focused on," Brian McLaren told me in a recent interview. Members of the movement don't necessarily seek the answer to life's questions or even believe those answers necessarily exist. "It has a lot more to do with what is God's will for the planet, and how do we human beings start cooperating and addressing each other."

A member of the Emerging Church movement might not believe in a literal hell. He or she might question final judgment or the significance of the cross. An Emerging Church might look like a living room of sofas arranged in a circle, as does Solomon's Porch in Minnesota, instead of pews in rows.  A DJ might play ambient music while "gatherers" partake in a "discussion" rather than listen to a sermon.

Not everyone has been receptive. "There is an alarming trend in Christianity today," warns an anchor on a Christian YouTube channel, that is "finding its way into many churches and Christian colleges."

"They have erased the boundaries!" exclaims Pastor Bob DeWaay on the show. "You imagine God how you want to imagine God, you imagine the future how you want to imagine the future." He warns, "Dear ones, don't be deceived by these people!"

"Assuming we are in a secular culture, which we are, that is in need of the church, which it is," Pastor Driscoll, of the Emerging Church, said in 2006, "the question is, how should we function as missionaries and emerge a faithful church for post-modern culture? What does that church look like?"

As the years went by, and the Invisible Children organization grew, it began to shy away from its public stance on religious affiliation.

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Pastor Mark Driscoll in a sermon entitled "Why I hate religion." YouTube

As of March 11, just days after the Kony2012 video first went viral, the group's website seemed to assume some religious drive to their work. "Invisible Children is not a religious organization, meaning we are not affiliated with a certain church or ministry," the FAQ page read. "While we do not focus on proselytizing, we allow all of our employees and beneficiaries to practice their own personal beliefs."

As of March 18, the same answer reads simply, "No, Invisible Children is not affiliated with any religious organization."

A week later, that question on the FAQ page had been deleted outright.

Though the organization now chooses to be publicly silent on the religious affiliations and convictions that inspired its founding, Invisible Children has been explicit from the very beginning, using personal Christian connections. It's worked with Christian high schools, universities, churches, charities, and private companies for its awareness campaigns, financial funding, and volunteer recruitment drives.

According to data in the organization's first financial record from 2006, more than half of the money received from donations of $5,000 or more came from Christian entities or individuals who strongly identity themselves with the church. One funder was a wealthy evangelical charity, the Christian Community Foundation, also known as Waterstone, which has over $100 million in assets. Its website says the organization "exists to glorify Jesus Christ" and describes itself as "a launching pad for Kingdom work nationally and internationally."

Invisible Children's original financial report states the organization's aim as "TO BUILD, HOUSE AND CARE FOR ORPHANS IN GULU, UGANDA, AND AFRICA." It also reports that the group spent over $140,000 on Apple computers and digital cameras.

In 2005, they went across the U.S. showing screenings of their original and namesake movie, Invisible Children: Rough Cut, an endearing documentary that tells the story of three young Americans (one of whom is Russell) finding their purpose while discovering the Ugandan civil war.

"It's really become an underground phenomenon," Reverend Sherman Williams told an Oakland newspaper in 2005 after seeing the movie.

In some ways, so was Invisible Children. The organization more than doubled its gross revenue from the year before, according to its 2007 financial record. The list of Christian-affiliated donors grew longer.

Invisible Children got more active in Uganda and in the U.S. And Russell's sense of confidence, crusade, and artistic creativity flourished.

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Josh Kron is a writer based in Kampala, Uganda. He covers east Africa and Africa's Great Lakes Region for The New York Times and has written for Foreign Policy, The Guardian, CNN, and Ha'aretz.

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