Kirk Cameron: From Atheist Teen Idol to Devout Christian
The 'Growing Pains' and 'Left Behind' actor talks about his ministry and being a Christian in Hollywood.
You grew up in a nonreligious but moral household. What happened to make you decide to embrace Christianity?
I grew up as an atheist. [But] we had a traditional family [with] some good old-fashioned family values. But the thing that really got me thinking about God was realizing that I was part of the ultimate statistic. Ten out of ten people die. You start thinking about that and it really makes you start to ask the big questions: Where did I come from? Where am I going when I die? What happens when we step out of here? What's out there?
As I started asking these questions, I also knew that things were not right between me and God—if there was a God. And I began to ask these questions with a humble heart and a willingness to want to learn the truth. I began reading the Bible and became convinced of the truth of the gospel, and its power to really transform me from the inside. It's what developed my ability to form convictions and stand on those convictions in every area of life, whether it's being a dad or being a husband or an actor.
Your parents wanted you to choose your own religious path once you were older. As a parent yourself now, do you embrace that attitude with your own children? Should parents who are Christians lay the foundation for their children or let them choose their own path later?
As a father of six kids and as a man who's been transformed by the power of the gospel, I would never just let my kids flounder and just sort of try to figure out their own way through life when I know that I've got the best guide on the planet—God and His word.
So of course I'm going to bring my kids up to know and understand who God is, and then pray that God will regenerate their heart and bring them to a living, real, and lasting faith in Him through repentance and faith in Christ.
|[Y]ou really need to decide if you're an actor in Hollywood whether you want to be faithful to the Lord or you want to be popular, because chances are you're not going to be both.|
Is simply leading a moral life good enough to go to heaven?
I'm part of a ministry called The Way of the Master in which we go out and we talk with people on the streets, asking them, "What do you think it takes to get to heaven?'"In essence, someone was approaching that same question when they asked Jesus what do they have to do to get eternal life. Jesus first stopped this man and corrected his understanding of what "good" was and said, "There's none good but one."
And so, the idea that you can be good enough to enter heaven is really a man-made idea. From God's point of view, none of us are good enough. We've all sinned and fallen short of God's standard and what we need is His grace. We need His grace to transform us and to motivate us to do good works for the right reason.
But, ultimately, salvation is a gift. Getting into heaven is not something you can earn or deserve. God makes that really clear in the scriptures.
How difficult is it to be a Christian in Hollywood?
You know, there's a message that's floating around out there that all you need to do is just believe in God and ask God into your heart and life will be a bed of roses and things are going to work out well for you. There's even some books out there that make those kind of crazy promises.
But, the truth is, when you put your faith in Jesus Christ, Jesus Himself said that all who live godly in Christ will suffer persecution. When you have moral convictions and you start to stand on those and you let those guide your decisions in your life, you're ultimately going to be ruffling some feathers and it will cost you something.
So you really need to decide, if you're an actor in Hollywood, whether you want to be faithful to the Lord or you want to be popular, because chances are you're not going to be both.
Do you think celebrities—whether they're Christian or not—have to take more responsibility as role models?
When you're in the public eye and you're in television or music or movies, you are willingly walking into a position of being a role model. Kids are going to look up to you, especially. Culture changes because of musicians and actors and actresses. There's a responsibility there. You may ignore the responsibility. You may choose to be a bad role model. But, you are a role model nonetheless.
And, of course, because I care about kids, I care about my family, I'd want everybody in the limelight to take some responsibility and realize that their actions are going to have some consequences, either good or bad. So they ought to make some good decisions.
When you first became a Christian, you had concerns about certain scenes you were asked to do in "Growing Pains." Tell us a bit about that.
"Growing Pains" had really established itself as a family program. That's one of the things that I've really tried hard to do, maintain a trust relationship with that family audience over the last 25 years.
And so, when I was 17-years-old trying to maintain that integrity with my character, if there was a scene like this particular one where Mike Seaver wakes up in bed under the sheets with some strange girl and rolls over and says, "Hey, babe, what was your name again?" I'd try to talk with the writers and say, "Hey, maybe we can do something different here. Is there a way that we can sort of get the message across without giving these young kids this visual?" I'd try to work together with them.
Sometimes that doesn't go over too well and you get misread as a celebrity who's trying to push his weight around or trying to rewrite scripts, when in reality it's just a young guy trying to live by his convictions and do what's right with the audience.
Would you say that there was hostility on the set when you started becoming more vocal about your concerns?
Contrary to what "E True Hollywood Story" would say, there wasn't hostility on the set of "Growing Pains." We were like a family, and just like any family you have times where relationships get strained and everyone's trying to figure out who they are and they go their separate directions.
We had differences of opinion and we had times where our relationships were more strained than others, and sometimes it was because of personal convictions. Just convictions for conscience sake on what we thought was good or not good for the show.
But today we're friends. We have a great time with each other. Jeremy [Miller] comes over and cooks dinner at our house for my wife and kids. I just saw Tracy [Gold]—she had a new baby. Alan [Thicke] just had a grandson. We get together for little reunions pretty often.
Looking back, would you have done anything differently in handling situations on the set of "Growing Pains"?
Well, in the book I talk in detail about what it was like going from an atheist to becoming a Christian, and how the decisions that I made really affected my relationships on the set.
As I look back at some of those decisions, I think I could have handled things maybe with a bit more grace, maybe not quite as bluntly as I did. But, again, that's also looking back in hindsight. I mean, at the time, you're 17 years old, you're a brand-new Christian, you're wanting to do what's right, and the pressure is on. And you've got to make a decision quickly sometimes when it comes down to a script.
So, I wouldn't have done a lot differently, but maybe just seasoned it with a bit more grace.
In the book you talk about the difference between believing in God and experiencing God. How does a Christian who believes in God work to have a full experience with God?
Well, by definition, a Christian is not someone who simply has a belief in God. A Christian is someone who knows God experientially, someone who has been regenerated by the Holy Spirit. The devil has a belief about God. He knows exactly who Jesus is. That's very different from being a Christian.
People can take a head knowledge about God, [but] they need to have that knowledge move right down into their heart. And it needs to result in an act of their will, of embracing the gospel, of turning from their sin and putting their trust in Jesus Christ. When that happens, God regenerates the heart and makes the person a new person from the inside, gives them a new heart with new desires, and they know the Lord and they have eternal life. That's an experiential thing that is much different than mere intellectual knowledge about God.
Was it a difficult process for you as a teen idol to embrace God?
Some people have this idea that religion is just one more thing that they can sort of add to the mix of things that they've got in their backpack to help them get through the day, sort of a crutch to make life easier.
But Jesus said, "If you want to follow Me, deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Me." And really, the difficult thing for any Christian is to learn to say to yourself, that "life is not about me." As a celebrity that's kind of what you grow up with—the idea that the universe revolves around you, that you're the most important person in your life. And the wonderful realization that you are not God, that you were made by a wonderful creator, and instead of giving you what you deserve, He offers you grace and pardon and forgiveness and eternal life. That is difficult to learn, to deny yourself and take yourself off the pedestal that everyone else has put you on as a celebrity. But it's the most wonderful thing in the world.
It's like when I got married to Chelsea, I had some friends who said, "Man, wasn't that hard giving up the bachelor life? You were playing the field. What are you doing?" And I said no, because I realized how shallow the celebrity bachelor life is. And in comparison to the treasure I found in Chelsea, it's a no-brainer.
And the same with God. Once I realized the emptiness of life apart from knowing God, when I embraced God and the truth of the gospel and the truth of the Bible, it was a no-brainer decision to see that that was a treasure that was infinitely more valuable than some sort of an atheistic Hollywood party life.
|...I think we're watching, perhaps, God remove His hand of blessing from a country that once had it in generous amounts.|
You also mentioned that Christians on the set of the "Left Behind" movies had to hide their faith for fear of being shunned by others on the set—something I never would have expected from a faith-based film series. Did you encourage the Christians on set to go public with their faith?