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.