Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Gay or Lesbian at Teen Mania Ministries?

Are you an individual that is LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning) and has been involved with Teen Mania Ministries? If so, I'd like to hear from you! I know there are a lot of LGBTQ kids out there who have had contact with Teen Mania at some point in their lives, and I am very interested in hearing your stories. All e-mail communications are private, and I would never publish any details of your story without your express permission. If you do want to share your story, I can help you do that completely anonymously through this blog....but again, only if you want and only with your express permission first.

I was a gay teenager who involved with Teen Mania Ministries, and was really hurt by them. Ten years later, I have been able to find some healing and acceptance in my life. But it was a long journey, and I know it's hard. So, if you've been to Acquire The Fire and heard confusing things about gay people...or if someone from Teen Mania said things about being a lesbian that hurt you...or if you just want to talk to someone else who might be able to understand your experience...shoot me a message. I'd love to talk to you. You can send a completely private e-mail to: teenmaniawatch at gmail dot com.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

My Teen Mania Experience

Hi everyone. My name is Robbie, and I'm a 27 year old activist living in Maryland. I've been the one writing all the blog posts to date, so I thought it would be a good time to introduce myself. I got involved with Teen Mania Ministries at a very young age, and attended Acquire The Fire rallies annually through many of my teenage years. When I was a little older, I went on a Global Expedition to Venezuela with TMM. My involvement with Teen Mania marked the beginning of a decade long downward spiral in my life.

I honestly believe that my involvement with Teen Mania really screwed me up, and that they represent a real danger to many kids--spiritually, emotionally, and physically. For those of you interested in hearing more about my Teen Mania experience, I have written a lengthy, detailed narrative below which chronicles my Teen Mania journey. I tried to write what I was feeling at the time, without too much critical analysis from my current point of view...although there is some. This is a very personal, emotional story for me to share, and I have not done so in a public forum before. So, without further ado: My Teen Mania Experience.


Part I: Acquire the Fire

I was 13 years old when I first heard about Teen Mania. I had just joined my church's youth group, and the youth pastor told us about a Christian youth rally coming to Pittsburgh called Acquire the Fire. My first ATF experience was incredible (at least I thought so at the time)...I grew up simply in a small western-Pennsylvania town, and that ATF convention in 1996 was the first time I remember that I could really feel the presence of God. They were the most emotionally intense two days I had had in my entire life until that point. I remember leaving ATF that evening feeling as though my world had really changed...I had been a Christian before Acquire the Fire, but now I was "on fire," and I was going to go out and stop watching television, listening to secular music, start getting people saved, and go on a missions trip!

The day after Acquire the Fire was great...I got to wake up and have my quiet time (a new concept for me introduced by Ron Luce), go to church, and spend time with the people I had shared my Acquire the Fire experience with. I even think we got to watch an "ATF Wrap-Up Video" that Teen Mania had sent my youth pastor. I remember that afternoon starting to feel sad that I wasn't still at Acquire the Fire, feeling the warm, euphoric feelings I had been experiencing the day earlier. But, I was determined to "keep the fire," and knew school the next day would be my first real chance to put my newly-found zeal to change the world to work. I remember taking my Bible and my copy of the devotional Ron Luce had given me to school, thinking that someone would definitely ask me about it and I would have the chance to share my faith and maybe even "get them saved."

The school day did not unfold that way, and I remember continuing to feel sad that Acquire the Fire wouldn't be back in town for another year, and that I was starting to lose that "passionate, on-fire" feeling I had experienced that weekend. I was having my quiet times, avoiding TV & music, trying to share my faith, and really seeking God with all my heart...but I couldn't feel His presence like I could when I was at Acquire the Fire. I tried to remember the praise & worship songs I had learned at ATF that weekend, but even singing those couldn't make that emotional, "close-to-God" feeling come back. When I look back on things, those first few days after my first Acquire the Fire really started what would be a downward spiral of depression and despair that took me almost a decade to get over, and the effects of which still impact my life and my relationship with God to this day.

I kept doing my quiet times for a few weeks, praying regularly, reading my Bible, concentrating on worship, etc. But no matter what, I couldn't get that on-fire feeling back, and eventually I was just getting so frustrated and depressed that I allowed those things to become less and less regular in my life. It was the first time in my life that I actually questioned my salvation, or the fact that God loved me. What had been one of my only sources of love & comfort, my relationship with God, now felt far away and inaccessible. The fall & winter months passed, and the depression got worse & worse.

The new year came, and I remembered that Acquire the Fire would be coming back to Pittsburgh in a few months. I was so excited...I had literally been waiting a year for this! I contacted Teen Mania to get an information packet and promotional video even before my youth pastor did. I became the youth organizer for ATF at my church, and I spent a couple of months really trying to get people excited about ATF and inviting everyone that I could possibly think of (as the materials that Teen Mania sent me strongly recommended that I do). I even made a little countdown chart in my school notebook, and started counting down 100 days before Acquire the Fire...that's how excited I was!

The first night of the 1997 Acquire the Fire in Pittsburgh was absolutely amazing! As soon as praise and worship started that evening, I remember I started to get back that close-to-God feeling I had so desperately been missing for almost a year. Ron's message that evening captivated me, and I came forward during the altar call to re-dedicate my life to Christ--something that would become all too common in the coming years. I had trouble sleeping that night because I was just so excited that emotional high was back. In hindsight, I was downright manic that evening...a Teen Mania induced mania, if you will.

The next day of Acquire the Fire was incredible, and by time the break for lunch rolled around, I was absolutely convinced that God was calling me to go on a Teen Mania missions trip that summer. I spoke with an intern who had me fill out a missions trip application, and I was encouraged to call home and speak with my parents about my "calling" to go on a $1600 missions trip that summer. I was so convinced that God would speak to my parents and they would agree, but my call home was met with a harsh reality check, and my parents said there was no possible way that my family could raise that much money in just a few months. I was disappointed, but figured I could go on a Christmas break missions trip instead, so I set my eyes on that.

Determined to "keep the fire" this time around, I remember spending $100 (which at the age of 14 took me months to save) on Teen Mania books, tapes, and t-shirts before I left the arena that evening. My on-fire feeling was even more intense at the end of this Acquire the Fire convention, and it actually stuck with me for a few weeks this time, as did my strong excitement about going on a Teen Mania Global Expedition. Inevitably, that emotional feeling of closeness to God did start to fade once again, and the depression hit me even harder and faster than it had the previous year.

At some point that fall, I called the Teen Mania 800-number in utter despair and desperation to talk to someone about how I was feeling and hoping for some advice about how I could feel close to God again. A female intern answered the phone, and she listened to me sympathetically and offered to pray with me. She did offer some encouragement, and the call did make me feel better. I told her I had felt called to go on a Teen Mania missions trip, and she pounced on that. She got me really pumped up about going on a Christmas missions trip, and those emotionally intense feelings started to come rushing back. In hindsight, I should have realized that, at least for me, the emotionally-intense world of Teen Mania was a drug and I was hooked.

Part II: My Global Expedition

My family was poor, and $1000-$2000 was a whole lot of money that we didn't have, so I knew a missions trip would be a "once in a lifetime" experience. Because the Christmas trips were only 2 weeks and cost almost as much as the summer trips, I decided to make the most of the opportunity and sign up for a 1 month Teen Mania Global Expedition for the Summer of 1998. The trip would cost $1,800, and because of my family's financial situation, I would need to raise almost every penny of that money by myself.

I spent a solid eight months of my life fundraising pretty much every spare moment that I wasn't in school. I was writing letters, talking to people at my church, selling candy bars, having garage sales...literally doing everything I could to raise this money. My assigned Teen Mania intern called me regularly to pray with me and keep me motivated to raise the money needed to go on my trip.

Another Acquire the Fire convention also happened in Pittsburgh just a couple of months before my missions trip, which of course I attended. As usual, the convention got me really excited and on-fire, and I felt even closer to God during the ATF in 1998 since I knew I had been working so hard to make this Teen Mania Global Expedition happen. I just knew, deep in my heart, that my trip to Venezuela was going to be a "turning point" for me...that spending an entire month immersed in the world of Teen Mania would really teach me once and for all how I could constantly feel connected to God and emotionally fulfilled.

Despite months of fundraising, I was still about $300 short just two weeks before my missions trip, which was the deadline to mail donations. My parents had already donated all the time & money they could towards my trip, and I was terrified that if I told them I was still $300 short for my trip, they would not pay the difference and I would not be able to do. So, I did something I regret to this day, and lied to them and told them I had met my fundraising goal. I knew that if my dad drove me from Pennsylvania to Texas, he'd have no choice but to pay the difference when we got there. Looking back, it should have been a huge warning sign that I was so desperately set on this trip to "serve God" that I was willing to lie to my parents to get there.

I did make it to Texas, and when my father found out about my fundraising shortfall, he put the difference on our family's already-stretched credit cards. It's hard to believe that Teen Mania allows parents to be so out of the loop about major financial issues involving these missions trips. Regardless, I was in Texas and quickly began meeting the people I would be traveling to Venezuela & spending the next month of my life with.

The first night in Texas, we had a big praise & worship session and Ron Luce spoke. It was just like Acquire the Fire, only even more emotionally intense because I had worked so, so hard to get there. I remember Ron telling us that we were different from other teens...we were "world changers" and had a special anointing from God for our trips that summer. I remember being so happy in those moments, and wanting to feel that way forever. Unfortunately, those first few hours on the Teen Mania campus turned out to be the last positive memory I have of my missions trip.

After that welcome session, all of the people going to Venezuela were split into 3 different teams, and each of the teams had their own auditions to see who would get what part in the street drama we would be learning as our primary missions tool. The auditions lasted for hours, well past midnight, and in 80-degree temperatures when you've been traveling most of the day, that is a long time! I was given the role of the Court Jester in our the time I was assigned my role, I was too tired to actually care much about it and just wanted to go to sleep. I wen to bed exhausted, but excited about really diving into drama training the next day.

When I woke up the next day in the dirty, run-down Quonset hut where the teens were housed, I remember being very uncomfortable. It was before 8:00am, and it was already a stifling 90 degrees, which feels even hotter in a big metal building with no air conditioning. The make-shift showers had no hot water and were very dirty, and the lack of privacy was a nightmare for a self-conscious person like me. I remember being very discouraged by all of this, and surprised that they had not made better accommodations for such an expensive trip.

Ron Luce spoke to us again that morning and talked about how Christians should endure physical discomforts. I remember him saying that things like air conditioning and hot water were temptations to keep us lazy, and that God calls us not to be "slaves to comfort." He talked about how those who suffer to fulfill the Great Commission will be rewarded. I didn't realize it at the time, but I now know I was being manipulated to endure some truly horrible conditions over the coming weeks without ever daring to complain about it.

My team had just under 5 days in which to learn and perfect a twelve minute, tightly-choreographed street drama. This meant rehearsing our drama over and over again for 6 to 8 hours per day...outside, in the middle of a grass field, with no shade in sight, in June, in the middle of Texas, during a drought. I definitely wasn't prepared for the extreme physical demands of the drama training, but I felt as if I needed to just deal with it and not be a "slave to comfort," as Ron Luce had shared with us.

When I woke up the morning following the first full day of drama practice, I was alarmed that my right ankle was swelled significantly while I was sleeping and was extremely painful to walk on. I went to the Teen Mania infirmary, and I was told by the nurse that I had probably just spent "too much time on my ankle" and she encouraged me to take some Advil for the pain and continue with another day of drama training.

I took the nurse's advice, and while the Advil helped briefly, it was just a few hours into the day's drama training that my ankle was literally burning & throbbing with pain, and I felt like I couldn't take it anymore. I told my Team Leader this, and was asked to "keep it up for just a few more minutes" until our next break when I could sit and rest. That break actually came over an hour later, and by time I sat down I was literally crying because I was in so much pain. Not wanting to disappoint anyone on my team, I took several more Advil and somehow managed to muddle through the rest of the day's training.

As the week progressed, my ankle continued to get worse and worse. I was taking around a dozen Advil in an 8 hour period just to bring the pain down to the point where I could actually stand on my bad ankle. At times, even that wasn't enough, and I would need to sit down for a few minutes to relieve some of the pressure on my ankle in order to be able to press on with training. My Team Leader, despite me telling him repeatedly that I was in serious pain, actually pulled me aside on day after training to talk about my "attitude of laziness" and said I shouldn't be stopping so much to sit down during drama training. Instead of seeing the absurdity of this, I really took it to heart and thought I was letting my team & God Himself down by taking periodic breaks to rest my ankle, and I forced myself to endure even more pain & not rest my ankle....all so I could be a "good Christian."

Despite all this, I was really enjoying the praise & worship sessions and hearing Ron Luce speak and I did feel really close to God. I figured the problems with my ankle, in addition to the substandard accommodations on the Teen Mania campus, were just my "cross to bear" and that these trials would help build my character and make me a better Christian in the end. The drama training was physically & emotionally draining, but I knew each night I had a "mini-ATF session" to look forward to and I'd be feeling the emotional rush of God's presence soon.

Luckily, the actual travel from Texas to Venezuela took a great deal of time over a couple of days, and I was able to rest enough that my ankle began to feel better. When we arrived in Venezuela late at night on our second day of travel, we went to the hotel where we were supposed to be staying at, only to find out that Teen Mania had incorrectly booked the reservation and there were not enough rooms for everyone. After waiting outside with no water or bathroom access for several hours, our Project Directors were able to secure lodging at another local hotel.

The hotel was run-down and obviously not equipped to deal with the demands of 120+ American teenagers. The hotel's water supply was based on a tank system that was only refilled once per day, and while we were promised we would have at least 8 hours of "water access" per day, with all the kids staying there it ended up being closer to two hours per day. There were 6 guys staying in my room (5 teen missionaries and 1 college-aged "Missionary Advisor"). That means that all 6 of us had to shower within that 2 hours per day, and it also meant we could not flush the toilet 22 out of the 24 hours in a day. Worse yet, there wasn't a set time that the water was turned on, and if your team happened to be out performing a drama while the hotel's water was on, that was just too bad.

This made for some truly appalling living conditions. All the guys in my room were unable to shower for a five day period shortly after we arrived at the hotel because of the timing of the water supply. Teenage guys, sweating profusely while performing street dramas in polyester costumes in the middle of summer all day long, unable to shower for almost a full week. Feces and urine simply built up in the toilet when it couldn't be flushed--sometimes for days at a time. The stench was absolutely sickening. Looking back on it, if an American child was found living in those conditions, they would probably be taken from their parents and placed into foster care. But when these concerns were brought up to the Team Leaders and Project Directors, the missionaries were told to stop complaining & to be thankful for the accommodations God had provided for us.

In addition to no running water, there was no place for us to do laundry. I had been repeatedly assured that missionaries would have access to laundry facilities while abroad, and was encouraged to just pack a few outfits that could be washed so that I wouldn't have too much baggage with me. The original hotel we were supposed to stay at had laundry facilities, but the new hotel picked by the Project Directors did not. Apparently, they didn't feel the need to make sure that the promise Teen Mania had made us regarding laundry was kept. So, I ended up wearing the same 4 unwashed outfits for my entire month-long missions trip, and as you can imagine they were extremely dirty and uncomfortable for most of my time in Venezuela.

Because of the appalling hygiene conditions...and because I wasn't used to being in the heat and sweating so much....I developed a rash that made it very uncomfortable for me to perform dramas and just walk around in general. I knew one of the girls on my team had some baby powder, so I asked her for some, and she asked me what it was for. I told her "It's for a rash that I have 'down there.'" (Those were my exact words.) She decided to report my comment to the team leader, and I was quickly called into a meeting with the Project Directors where I was questioned and had to explain why I made "sexual comments" to a female on my team. I had never intended my comment to be at all sexual, and was just answering a question that I was asked, and having to discuss this with the PDs was absolutely humiliating.

There was actually a discussion of sending me home ("getting BV'd" as Teen Mania refers to it) because of the comment I had made. After some consideration (and a prayer meeting where I had to "confess my sin" to God), it was decided that instead I would be grounded to my room for two days. I couldn't leave my room for anything except to perform dramas or attend worship services. I had to eat my meals alone in the room, and I wasn't allowed to do anything in the room but read, pray, or sleep. Everyone on the trip knew I was "being punished," which was very embarrassing. I ended up getting very depressed over this particular situation, which started with nothing more than an innocent, off-the-cuff remark.

The ministry side of things wasn't much better. Although Teen Mania Global Expeditions recruiting literature makes frequent mention of "street evangelism" and talking to "unreached people groups," most of the time we performed our drama, it was for an established church or a Catholic school. These same churches and schools housed us for several nights & fed us many of our meals, which made me wonder why I had to raise so much money for Teen Mania if they weren't even footing most of the bill for our accommodations while abroad.

Occasionally, we would perform our drama on a street corner or in a public square, which was more exciting because there was a chance of actually reaching people who hadn't yet heard the good news of Jesus Christ. I was alarmed, however, by the emphasis placed on physical healing by the Teen Mania leadership. We were encouraged not only to pray for immediate healing for people with physical ailments, but to "believe in faith" that these people had already been healed. If someone wasn't immediately healed, it was because of a lack of faith, and not because it just wasn't God's will. I witnessed a group of missionaries pray for a man with a broken leg, tell him he had been healed, and tell him to believe in faith and start walking on it. He did try to walk on it, and it was clear that he was in a whole lot of pain and that his leg was still very much broken. Regardless, this story was held up as an example of God's healing power, and everyone involved really did believe this man was healed, even though any uninvolved bystander seeing the situation would know that just wasn't true.

When I expressed the fact that I didn't believe our actions were really in line with what the Bible says about God's healing power, I was quickly "hushed" and a few Bible verses were quoted to me that really didn't answer my concerns. God does work miracles and has the power to heal...absolutely...but that doesn't mean that God is at the beck and call of a group of teenagers, and it doesn't mean that God chooses physical healing in all situations. Just look at the story of Job! But, I quickly learned to just tow the Teen Mania party line, and I tried to stay quiet about this the rest of my trip.

We maintained our daily quiet times while in Venezuela, and in the evenings we would have praise & worship sessions led by our Team Leaders or Project Directors. But something just wasn't the same. I wasn't feeling close to God...I wasn't "on-fire" any more....and my problem of not being able to maintain my emotional high that I thought I would learn to solve on this trip was only getting worse. I felt very alone, very distant from God, and very disappointed that this Teen Mania trip I had worked so hard to make happen just wasn't at all what I expected it would be....and wasn't at all what I had been promised by Teen Mania.

I tried my best to maintain a positive attitude and a focus on God, but those things got harder and harder for me to do as the month dragged on and conditions didn't seem to be improving. Then, another issue started to surface for me. For a very long time, I had thought that I might be gay, but I was usually able to suppress those feelings and focus on something else, like my relationship with God. My Teen Mania trip was the first time I had ever really been involved in a large group of male peers, and I started to find it harder and harder to make my feelings of attraction towards members of my own sex go away. This was extremely scary for me, because I firmly believed at that point in time that there was no such thing as a gay Christian, and if you were a homosexual you were going to hell.

I had become good friends with one of the Missionary Advisers (not mine) who was in Venezuela with me, and towards the end of my month in Venezuela, I was getting so depressed about my inability to feel close to God that I decided I had to confide in him the struggles I was having with my sexuality. To his credit, he was very sympathetic and I didn't feel like I was being judged by him at all. He prayed with me, and I actually remember him "casting the homosexuality out of me in the name of Jesus." Then he told me it was up to me to believe that God had delivered me and to make sure that I didn't fall into temptation. Years and years of wrestling with my sexual orientation, "solved" in a one hour conversation with a Teen Mania team leader!

The problem is, nothing was actually solved. I still felt distant from God, and I was still very much struggling with my attractions towards other guys. The only thing that was different is that now these things were 100% my fault. I had been "healed" by Jesus through my team leader's prayer, and now the only thing standing between me and a normal heterosexual life was how much faith I had in God. I really beat myself up over this, trying so very hard to just believe a little more or muster a bit more faith, trying to claim the "healing" from my homosexuality that I just knew Christ had granted me. But it didn't help. My despair and depression over all of this was just growing deeper by the day.

I remember being excited to get back to the Teen Mania campus in Texas because I knew there would be awesome praise & worship, and that I would get to hear Ron Luce speak. But by the time I made it back to Texas, something had fundamentally changed in my life. I felt like there was a simple solution to me feeling distant from God and my struggles with sin--more faith--but no matter how hard I tried I just couldn't make it happen. I couldn't get that "close to God" feeling back during the praise & worship sessions, and hearing Ron speak didn't fire me up like it had before. I remember praying so hard the night before I left Teen Mania to return home...begging that God would set my heart on fire again and let me feel his presence. Unfortunately, all I ended up feeling after my Teen Mania missions trip was loneliness, sadness, and emptiness that would stick with me for years to come.

Part III: The Aftermath

Things got extremely difficult for me when I returned home from my missions trip. Teen Mania does very little to prepare kids to return to the "real world" after being part of a Global Expedition. I had many strong emotions when I returned from my trip, but I didn't feel like anyone could really understand what I had just been through and wouldn't really be able to relate. I had talked to pretty much everyone I knew about my trip before I left in an effort to raise money, so of course everyone was asking me about it when I got home. I felt guilty saying anything negative about the trip to people who had donated to help me go, so I covered up my emotions and usually just smiled and said "Oh, it was great!" or something like that.

I felt absolutely disconnected from God when I got home from my trip. I was still very much struggling with same-sex attractions, and thanks to the advice & "healing" I received while on my trip, I now viewed this as a direct lack of faith on my part. I was lonely, scared, and confused. I started to question my salvation. I became suicidal for the first time in my life. I didn't know who to turn to, so I made a phone call to the Teen Mania 800-number and started talking to the intern who answered the phone. She was confused because I wasn't calling about Acquire The Fire or a Global Expedition...I just wanted to talk to someone. She listened to me talk for a few minutes about how I couldn't feel God anymore and I didn't know if I was "saved" anymore...then she sort of cut me off and tried to quote me a few Bible verses about God never leaving us and she prayed for me while I was on the phone. Then, she wished me luck and hung up. I felt like there was no real effort to really get to know more about my situation, and she definitely didn't ask me for my contact information or follow up with me in anyway.

The depression I was experiencing was growing worse by the day, and I was seriously considering taking my own life. I still, however, believed that someone at Teen Mania could offer me something....some sort of glimmer of hope...anything, really. I read and re-read books by Ron Luce, hoping I would find some real advice for Christians struggling with homosexuality. I checked their websites and message boards to see if I could find anything. When I couldn't, I got so desperate that I decided I would send an e-mail to Teen Mania detailing my struggle and asking for some specific advice. I also sent a similar e-mail to the male Project Director from my missions trip to Venezuela.

Neither of the responses I got were anywhere near adequate. The intern who responded to the e-mail I sent to Teen Mania quoted some scripture about how God won't tempt us beyond what we can bear, and he or she actually wrote a little prayer I could say to ask God to get rid of the "demons of homosexuality" in my life (I thought I already tried that!). Again, there was not any inkling of being interested to hear more about my story or any desire to follow-up with me at a later date to see how I was doing. The response I got from my Project Director was basically "just keep praying about it." I was crushed. I just so desperately wanted to be a "good Christian," and it took so much courage to send those e-mails and share such personal things with these people. And instead of trying to actually get to know me and offer me some real suggestions, these people just had canned responses to my hurt and pain, and showed no interest in making sure I was okay.

It was at that time that things just went from bad to worse in my life. The next few years were characterized by such extreme loneliness and depression that it is still hard to think about 10 years later. I was completely disillusioned with Christianity as a result of my experience with Teen Mania, and that last e-mail I sent to them would end up being the last direct involvement I ever had with the ministry. I realize now that so many false beliefs and unrealistic expectations about God were instilled in me by Teen Mania, and I still find myself struggling with some of these issues even as I approach the age of 30. I see in my own life how far-reaching the damage done to an individual by Teen Mania can really be, and I'm starting to find out that I'm not alone....that there are a whole bunch of other people out there who have been really hurt at the hands of Teen Mania. This is my story--and I want to protect other kids from going through the hurt that I had to go through, which is why I'm speaking out.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

How Merchandise is Sold at Acquire The Fire

A lot of recruiting for Teen Mania's income-generating programs goes on at Acquire The Fire events, but that's not the only way Teen Mania uses these Christian youth conventions to make money from kids. Ticket sales generally only cover a portion of the overall cost of producing an Acquire The Fire event, so the pressure is on to produce additional revenue at the event. One way Teen Mania does this is by agressively marketing books, CDs, clothing, and a wide variety of other items to teens attending the event. In 2007 (the last year for which tax records are currently available), Teen Mania Ministries brought in $1,633,631 by selling merchandise at live events, which represented 8.1% of their income for the entire year.

Having merchandise available for sale at an event isn't necessarily a bad thing, but some of the marketing techniques used at Acquire The Fire to sell merchandise are coercive and manipulative. Starting Friday evening and continuing throughout the weekend, Ron Luce reminds kids from stage to "check out the merchandise table." He talks about all the "great stuff" there is to buy, and mentions specific items he thinks will help you grow as a Christian. An on-going theme at ATF is encouraging kids to get rid of their secular music, but of course there's lots of wholesome Christian music CDs available to purchase at the merchandise table! Ron encourages kids to "pick up a few CDs that will build you up instead of tear you down" sometime during the weekend. Ron also highly encourages kids to buy t-shirts to help them start conversations about Christ with their peers. As more & more teens buy these t-shirts throughout the weekend and start wearing them, a strange sort of peer pressure develops in the arena, further driving Teen Mania's merchandise sales.

Perhaps the most manipulative marketing tactic of all, however, usually occurs during the third session of an Acquire The Fire event. From stage, Ron is talking about how daily quiet times are the key to becoming a strong & mature Christian. Then volunteer ushers walk around the entire arena and hand every last person a copy of Ron Luce's latest devotional "workbook," filled with Teen Mania teachings about the Bible along with study questions & activities for the reader to pursue. Ron talks about how this book is such a great resource, and he really wants to make sure every teen in the arena has what they need to continue growing as a Christian after the event, so he is giving the book away. BUT, the book does cost money, so there is going to be a "love offering" to help pay for it. He encourages teens to put in the $7-10 cost of the book if they have the money....and to put in more money if they can afford it, to help pay for the kids who can't afford to "donate" anything. Then the volunteer ushers make another sweep of the arena, passing around buckets to collect cash from the crowd.

I've attended several Acquire The Fire events, and I can tell you that a lot of teens I've spoken with feel great amounts of pressure to donate because they were just "given" a book...this guilt demonstrates just what a coercive marketing tactic the "free book" thing really is. Make no mistake about it: these "love offerings" are a key source of revenue for Teen Mania and they rely on collecting a certain amount of money from the crowd at each event. This free gift/love offering strategy allows Teen Mania to pedal hundreds of thousands more copies of their books than they would be able to if they simply had the books available at the merchandise table. Not to mention, every single one of Ron Luce's devotionals spends a fair amount of time encouraging kids to go on a short-term missions trip--which is a great way for Teen Mania to keep their marketing message front of mind months after the arena event has ended.

While Ron Luce claims to just be selling stuff that will "help kids," there's also plenty of items with no clear radios, jackets, key chains, and more emblazoned with the Teen Mania or Acquire The Fire logos. How is a Teen Mania key chain supposed to help you grow as a Christian? Merchandise sales at Acquire The Fire represent just one of the many ways Teen Mania markets to teenagers to keep the cash flowing in. When you've built an empire, the money to run it has to come from somewhere, and in the case of Teen Mania, it's coming from the pockets of impressionable & vulnerable teenagers across the country.

Monday, April 5, 2010

What Happens at Acquire The Fire Conventions?

Acquire The Fire (ATF) youth rallies are held in large arenas in major cities all across the United States nearly every weekend of the year (except for the summer months). Teen Mania says these live events are all about getting teens fired up for God. Complete with music, live drama, videos, and live teaching, these 2-day conventions draw-in tens of thousands of teenagers every year. The events are expensive to produce, especially because the typical ATF involves lots of pyrotechnics and sophisticated lighting & sound systems. But Teen Mania Ministries has defended the cost of the event, saying it is worth it because teens have genuine encounters with God during these weekends. Indeed, many kids do report making first-time commitments (or re-commitments) to Christ at these rallies, and some have even credited ATF for "changing their lives."

Unfortunately, at Acquire The Fire there is also a heavy emphasis on recruiting kids for other Teen Mania programs. Starting early in the first session and continuing all weekend, people attending Acquire The Fire are literally presented with dozens of advertisements for Teen Mania's Global Expeditions and Honor Academy programs. Slickly-produced videos featuring attractive interns as actors make Teen Mania's programs look like the adventure of a lifetime and help to generate interest. Then Ron Luce speaks from stage about needing to completely dedicate your life to Christ, and he has just the suggestion to help you do it--sign up for another Teen Mania program!

All weekend long, the message is pounded home that the "most radical" Christians go on short-term missions trips or sign up for the Honor Academy internship. Teens are encouraged to really pray about whether or not God is calling them to sign up for one of these programs, and if they "feel" any sort of inkling that He might be, they are encouraged to visit a booth and talk to a current Teen Mania staff member or intern. From there, it's a high-pressure sales routine like you wouldn't believe. Interns gush about how wonderful Teen Mania is, and how great & fun missions trips are--or how much God will change your life at the Honor Academy. Somehow, they fail to mention the serious health & safety issues, not to mention the strict rules, involved with these programs. Teens are encouraged to fill out applications for these programs on the spot, before talking to their parents about it. TMM discounts the application fees "just for this weekend" and offers to bill teens for the fee later if they don't have the money on hand.

The recruiting tactics get even more intense specifically for the Honor Academy, Teen Mania's free workforce. Juniors & seniors in high school are offered a free pizza lunch in exchange for sitting through a one-hour presentation about the Honor Academy. Don't underestimate how powerful this is as a recruiting tactic for lower-income, inner-city teens. Teens are encouraged to sign-up to attend a free "campus preview weekend" at Teen Mania's headquarters in Texas, just to see if the Honor Academy "might be something they like." Throughout the weekend, Teen Mania gathers as much personal contact information as they can about potential recruits so that they can keep marketing these programs to teens well-after Acquire The Fire has packed up and moved to the next city.

Make no mistake about it: missions trips and the internship program make up a very large percentage of Teen Mania's income for the year, and the organization's existence depend on keeping these programs chock-full of paying customers. A single teen that goes on a Global Expedition represents anywhere from $1,000 to $4,000 of revenue for TMM, and a first year intern brings in a whopping $8400 worth of income for teen mania (much more if the recruit joins the "Center for Creative Media" program). Teen Mania has massive bills to pay, and the pressure is on to keep the recruits coming and the money flowing in.

At Acquire The Fire rallies, recruiting goals meet a presentation of the gospel, which results in a dangerous and damaging climate for teenagers. Attendees get all hyped-up about "living their lives for God" by stunning, multimedia stage shows, and then their level of commitment as a Christian is tied to whether or not they sign up for one of Teen Mania's other income-generating programs. Teen Mania openly refers to participants in the Honor Academy as "the cream of the crop" and "elite warriors," preying on young people who just want to live for Christ and need some guidance about how to do that. This is great for Teen Mania's bottom line, but not so great for teenagers. Some teens make it through Teen Mania's programs just fine, but others not so much. When a teen's sense of self-worth and spiritual well-being are tied to their level of success in an organization, and they happen not to fit-in there, damaged and broken lives are the inevitable end result.

Friday, April 2, 2010

You CAN Do Something!

So, you've been hurt by Teen Mania, or you just want to take a stand against the organization, but where do you start?  Is it wise to try to do something?  What are you comfortable with doing?  There are a whole lot of questions to consider, and it is easy to feel overwhelmed--like you won't be able to make any difference at all.  Fortunately, nothing could be further from the truth!  There are all sorts of actions you can take to stand up to Teen Mania Ministries, big and small, including:

  • You could write a letter to Teen Mania and tell them how they hurt you.
  • You could start to speak up about your negative Teen Mania experiences whenever you hear someone talking about the organization.
  • You could talk to your pastor, and the pastors of other churches, about your experience with Teen Mania and why you think it is a dangerous place for kids.
  • You could write a "Letter to the Editor" of your local newspaper whenever Acquire the Fire comes to town.
  • You could politely decline a request by a teenage missionary or intern to donate to Teen Mania, and tell them why you are doing so.
  • You could Tweet or post on Facebook and explain to people how Teen Mania damages kids lives.
  • You could organize a protest at an Acquire the Fire or BattleCry event, or just go give kids more information about what Teen Mania is really all about.
  • You could even start a blog! (Sorry, I had to.)

There really are so many ways that you could choose to stand up to Teen Mania.  There are tons of other ideas that I have that aren't included on this list, and I bet you have some ideas that I haven't even thought of.  Just remember, every little bit counts. Every less dollar that goes to Teen Mania means one less dollar available to fund programs that hurt people. Every time someone stands up and starts to speak out, change happens.  Teen Mania is a giant machine, with lots of moving parts, just waiting to be dismantled.  You can definitely be a part of that if you want to be.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Teen Mania Machine

You've probably heard me refer to "the Teen Mania machine" a couple of times now. But what does that really mean? In order to effectively counter any large company or organization, I think it is important to understand the 'machine conecpt,' so let's look at that a little closer.

Most machines, like a car for example, require many moving parts to work in harmony with each other, and without that harmony, the machine won't run. A car requires wheels, axles, brakes, a steering column, an engine, and many, many other parts to work together perfectly in order to get you from point A to point B. Like with most machines, not every part is absolutely essential, and you could remove some parts and still have the car work. You might be able to get around with just one brake, or with a flat tire, or maybe even a broken belt in the engine. But if too many parts start to fail, eventually the whole car will breakdown and you won't be able to drive it anymore.

Businesses and organizations like Teen Mania run in much the same way. A bunch of little things add up to making the whole organization run. Hundreds of thousands of people write checks to Teen Mania each year. Tens of thousands of people and church groups buy tickets to dozens of live events. Thousands of people volunteer at Acquire the Fire and Extreme Camps. Hundreds of high school graduates sign up for the Honor Academy each year. If a few people stop giving money to Teen Mania, or if a couple of their live events don't run so smoothly, or if they lose a few volunteers/interns, it's not the end of the world for them and the organization will keep running. But if these things start happening on a larger scale, the organization quickly reaches a crisis point and the "machine" starts to break down.

When trying to figure out how to confront a large organization like Teen Mania, the task can seem daunting and it is easy to believe that nothing you do will be able to make a difference in the long run. But it can help to look at it as trying to dismantle a large machine. You might not be able to stop a car with brute force, but if you start ripping stuff out from under the hood piece by piece, you can be pretty sure that eventually the car will stop.

Teen Mania has lots of gears & belts under their hood. It might be hard for one person to take down Teen Mania or bring serious reform to the organization. But you better believe that if enough people start actively trying to pull out parts or throw wrenches into the works, eventually the machine will stop.