Wednesday, March 31, 2010

To Confront or Not to Confront?

Switching gears from previous posts for a second, I wanted to take a moment to look at the question of whether or not it is worth trying to "do something about" or "confronting" Teen Mania.

The people who say "no" have a few good arguments. First, some people say that all sorts of good things are going on at Acquire the Fire conferences, and that teens really are finding God there. I would say that both of those things are true. But, there's also a few other considerations to keep in mind. First, if a teen does "find God" at an Acquire the Fire convention, but finds the messed-up, fundamentalist version of God that will end up taking them years to recover from, is that really a "good thing?" Second, if we believe that God is almighty and really does work in mysterious ways, does He really need Acquire the Fire to save that teenager? Isn't it more likely that he would find some other, less damaging way to bring that teen to Him?

The second argument for not trying to do anything is that outside opposition only strengthens Teen Mania. That they can use lofty rhetoric and militaristic language to demonize "outsiders" who are attacking and further reinforce commitment to the organization and its goals. I would agree that is also a correct statement, to an extent. But there is only so much outside pressure that a single organization can withstand. If enough people start to hear the truth about the organization, less people will give money and less parents will be inclined to send their teens on missions trips. If parents & teens hear the truth about Teen Mania and churches stop taking their youth groups to Acquire the Fire and BattleCry, Teen Mania has less recruits for their internship program which is the lifeblood of their ministry.

The worst thing any oppressed or abused person can do is to stay silent. It is only by speaking out, or doing something, that things can really start to change from the status-quo. In the words of famous holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, "We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented." I think that is definitely true in cases of spiritual abuse, like what is happening in the world of Teen Mania ministries. If you think that what is going on is really wrong on some level and that people are being hurt by Teen Mania, then you should absolutely speak up and try to do something about it, in whatever form that happens to take for you individually. In the next post, we'll look at different levels of involvement that you might want to have in "standing up" to Teen Mania.

Blog Tracks

I want to start this post by thanking those of you who have (already) been reading the Teen Mania Watch blog on a regular basis.  It's great to see that there is so much interest from so many people in taking a closer look at Teen Mania Ministries.

It seems like a good time to pause for a second to look at the ultimate goals of the Teen Mania Watch project, and to help readers navigate the blog with a little more ease.  Starting today, every post will be labelled with one of 4 different tags:

1. Intro to Teen Mania - People who have been involved with TMM are already probably very familiar with the organization, but Teen Mania Watch wants to create a resource for newcomers to learn about the organization, even if they have never heard of the ministry before.  "Intro to Teen Mania" posts will often provide background information that those who have been involved with the organization already know.  These posts will also lay some of the groundwork for taking a more critical look at some of the practices of the organization, and are worth reading even for those who are "in the know" about Teen Mania.

2. Teen Mania News - We also think it is important to create an internet resource so that people can keep up-to-date on current Teen Mania events & happenings.  We'll try to keep you informed when Teen Mania gets media coverage, holds a big event, or any time something unusual is going on.  If any readers come across an item they feel is newsworthy, please forward it to us (see sidebar for our e-mail address) so we can post it!

3. Activist Resources - Currently, very few resources exist for activists who want to take a stand and actively confront Teen Mania Ministries.  One of the primary goals of this blog will be to provide resources & strategy information for those looking to educate others and take action to stop the 'Teen Mania Machine.'  We'll try to give people a good education & wide variety of options when it comes to TMM-related activism.

4. TMM In-Depth - Finally, we'll be taking a closer look at some of the elements of the organization that aren't immediately apparent to outsiders, or are kept secret from the general public.  Readers who have been previously involved with Teen Mania will be especially interested in these posts, as they will provide information that you may not have heard openly and critically discussed before.

To help you navigate between postings more efficiently, posts will now be tagged with one of these 4 labels, and you can choose to view only posts from a particular category by using the new navigation box on the sidebar of each page.  It may appear that our posts jump from one topic to another from day-to-day, but by filtering the posts using labels, you'll be able to find just the information you want quickly & easily.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Teen Mania's Sustainability Problem

Free labor sounds like a great idea, and it often takes many years of dedicated service by volunteers before a non-profit organization can really grow large enough to start paying full-time staff members.  But when established non-profits like Teen Mania Ministries rely on free labor to run the majority of the organization, certain problems arise.  Usually, non-profit organizations have to report the salaries of administrative staff as "overhead expenses," and one of the things that most donors look for when giving to a charity is a low percentage of money being used for overhead, and the majority of funds being used for program expenses.

By relying on the free labor of interns to take care of the massive amount of administrative work that goes into running Teen Mania, the ministry is able to report very low overhead expenses which helps them raise more money, especially from larger donors.  The problem is one of sustainability...or lack thereof.  Donors expect organizations to get "bigger and better" each year, but they also don't like to see overhead expenses go up very much as a percentage of total revenue.  Teen Mania has indeed exploded in size through the years, putting on more expensive events and building more expensive facilities than ever before.  This means having to recruit more & more teens each year to join the Honor Academy and work for free to build the ever expanding Teen Mania empire.

Now, there is no problem with non-profit organizations needing to recruit volunteers to help with day-to-day operations.  The problem comes in when the "volunteer opportunity" is presented in a high-pressure setting, to vulnerable young people, and used as a measure of a person's level of spiritual commitment.  The vast majority of Teen Mania Honor Academy participants are recruited at a live event like Acquire the Fire or BattleCry. These events can be extremely emotionally charged and intensely spiritual...many teens have reported having their first real "crisis of faith" at Acquire the Fire conventions.  Enter Ron Luce, telling these emotional teens that they can find real purpose and meaning for their lives by coming to work for Teen Mania for a year.  That they will become Christian warriors and future great leaders by joining the Honor Academy.  That signing up is the ultimate commitment to God that a person can make during their teenage years.  They're encouraged to pray about it, to consider it, and (of course) if they have any inkling at all that they might want to join the Honor Academy, to talk to a Teen Mania staff member (usually a current intern).

The truth is, the Honor Academy isn't a great place for every teenager, and sometimes God has other plans for someone's life.  Though, you definitely wouldn't know that by talking to a Teen Mania staff member or reading the Honor Academy marketing materials.  Teen Mania has to recruit a certain number of teens each year just to be able to make ends meet and fulfill all their vast commitments. Huge events are planned years in advance, and not having enough staff to produce them when the time comes is simply not an option--there's too much money at stake.  This creates a high-pressure recruiting environment where the needs of the organization are placed above the needs & well-being of individual teenagers.  The Teen Mania recruiting staff have quotas to fill, and need to get a certain number of teens to fill out Honor Academy applications at every single event.  Slick videos and brochures present a very one-sided view of the Honor Academy, and the pressure to "just fill out an application and make a decision later" is very high at Acquire the Fire & BattleCry events.  Teen Mania knows that if they can get someone to fill out an application, they can keep marketing the program to them after the event, and a certain percentage will eventually's a "numbers game."  Ultimately this is how Teen Mania Ministries meets its recruiting quotas.

Unfortunately, a lot of teens get caught in the crosshairs of this numbers game.  Teens end up feeling guilty, or like they are not good Christians, because they do not want to participate in the Honor Academy.  Other teens end up abandoning long-held, well-laid plans to attend college or start a career because of a promise that the Honor Academy will make them closer to God or help them "find their purpose."  Some teens' families go into serious amounts of debt to keep their children in the Honor Academy when donor money dries up or when the ministry convinces the intern to stay for a second (or third...or fourth) year.  If a teenager starts the Honor Academy and decides it isn't for them and wants to leave, they are made to feel like they are breaking their word and letting God down.

Teen Mania has grown so large that, in order to maintain the size of the ministry, these are the "necessary evils" of recruiting and retaining a workforce.  Teen Mania can't substantially increase their number of paid staff members without raising overhead expenses and alienating donors.  They can't afford to lose any donors because the events they produce are so expensive.  Free labor is the gasoline that keeps the Teen Mania machine running, but unfortunately, ensuring that the Honor Academy is a positive experience for an ever-increasing number of teens is an unsustainable prospect.  This is becoming increasingly apparent as more information about the Honor Academy becomes public, which we will explore in future posts.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Free Labor: The Lifeblood of Teen Mania Ministries

Although they spend massive amounts of money to produce expensive stadium events and send teens on missions trips to foreign countries, one line item on Teen Mania's IRS Form 990 is surprisingly small: labor expenses. Most religious organizations spend anywhere from 35 to 60 percent of their budget on payroll expenses (many ministries spend even more than that), but in 2007, Teen Mania spent just $4,170,373 on payroll, or 20.6% of their twenty million dollars in revenue for the year. This is especially surprising since so much of what Teen Mania does is so labor intensive.

Producing dozens of live stadium events each year, with elaborate stages and lighting to set-up and tear down nearly every weekend, takes a massive team of dedicated employees who do nothing but travel from city to city producing events. The tickets to the live events don't sell themselves, and another huge team of employees spend their time calling youth pastors and teens all day long to try to convince them to buy tickets and ensure the events are well-attended. Arranging travel for thousands of teens to foreign countries each year, and keeping track of all the money coming in to pay for these trips are also jobs that are very time intensive. Not to mention the work required to maintain a huge campus in the middle of Texas, and produce a weekly television show. So how does Teen Mania do all of this on what would appear to be a 'shoestring' labor budget?

The only way Teen Mania Ministries is able to afford all of their massive undertakings is that most of their employees not only work for free, but also pay Teen Mania thousands of dollars per year for the privilege of working for them. You heard that correctly: most of the people working for Teen Mania are required to pay between $600 and $800 directly to the ministry each month, and will never receive a single penny for their long hours of hard work. The vast majority of the people producing Teen Mania's live events, selling the tickets, planning the missions trips, and just making the ministry run in general are members of The Honor Academy, Teen Mania's year-long internship program for high school graduates.

Teens (primarily recruited at Teen Mania's live events) who want to attend The Honor Academy live in dorm-style housing on the Teen Mania campus in Garden Valley, TX for one year while they work full-time for the ministry, and also attend mandatory TMM classes & events when they are not working. To cover the cost of the program, all Honor Academy participants must pay monthly tuition, and interns who are unable to raise the money due are kicked out of the program. According to the Honor Academy website, the program is "designed to cultivate and develop the leadership potential in young adults while preparing them to impact today's world for Christ." Luckily for Teen Mania, the program has the added benefit of providing hundreds of free employees each year, in addition to being a steady & dependable source of income for the organization.

In future posts, we'll look at some of the finer details of the Honor Academy program, as well as some of the dangerous dynamics this "free labor" model creates at Teen Mania Ministries.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Teen Mania Financial Highlights

When trying to figure out the inner-workings of any organization, it is helpful to take a look at the company's financial statements. Non-profit organizations like Teen Mania Ministries are required to file an IRS Form 990 (highlighting key financial information) with the federal government each year, and these IRS forms are a matter of public record. The most recent Teen Mania IRS Form 990 was filed for the 2007 tax year, and is available for viewing by clicking here. Here are some of the highlights of the most recent Teen Mania financial statement:

2007 Teen Mania Revenue & Asset Highlights

  • Made up mostly of private donations and program fees, Teen Mania Ministries had total revenues of $20,167,167 for the 2007 Tax Year.
  • TMM brought in approximately $6.5 million by selling tickets to Acquire the Fire, BattleCry, Extreme Camps, and leadership seminars.
  • The organization made another $1.6 million selling merchandise (primarily to teenagers) at these events.
  • Teen Mania also has a financial stake in the Creation Music Festivals (held annually in Pennsylvania and Washington) currently valued at $1.9 million.
  • At the beginning of 2007, Teen Mania had net assets worth $11.1 million, but by the end of the year they were $2 million in the hole (largely because ticket revenues did not cover the cost of producing 34 live stadium events).

2007 Teen Mania Expense Highlights

  • Ron Luce and his wife Katie were paid a combined total of $188,745 in 2007 (including retirement plan contributions).
  • Teen Mania Ministries spent almost $1 million on advertising for the year.
  • TMM spent approximately $6.9 million to take 3,111 people on missions trips, at an average cost of $2,212.88 per participant.
  • $9.4 million was spent to produce live events attended by 142,741 people, at an average cost of $65.76 per participant.
  • Teen Mania spent $950,584 to pay the interest due on approximately $10.8 million worth of debt.

(NOTE: There are many more details about Teen Mania's finances which I didn't include here for the sake of brevity, but which are included in the actual IRS form linked to above.)

As you can see, these aren't exactly small numbers...Teen Mania Ministries is a massive, multi-million dollar organization that operates like a big business. We'll be looking at some of these facts & figures in more detail in future posts, but for the time being, here are some important questions that any potential donor to Teen Mania should consider before opening their checkbook:

  • Is it appropriate for Ron & Katie Luce to be making over 3 times the median U.S. household income of $50,233?
  • Why does Teen Mania spend over $2,200 to send a teen missionary overseas, when other Christian organizations can send someone on a similar trip for less than half that amount?
  • Should an organization supported largely by teenagers and their families be taking on so much debt that they have to pay almost $1 million per year in interest?
  • Is is appropriate for a Christian ministry to spend $1 million each year on advertising?
  • Could the massive amount of money being funneled through Teen Mania each year be spent more effectively to help reach people with the gospel?

What do you think about Teen Mania's finances? Where are they being wise, and where could they be better stewards of their donors' money? Leave a comment with your thoughts.

Friday, March 26, 2010

A Brief Introduction: What is Teen Mania Ministries?

Although I suspect that most readers of this blog will be at least somewhat familiar with Teen Mania Ministries, I thought it might be valuable to give a brief overview of the organization for those who may never have heard of it. Teen Mania Ministries (TMM) is a evangelical Christian youth organization based in Garden Valley, Texas. Teen Mania is probably most well known for the live stadium and arena events they produce, including Acquire the Fire and BattleCry youth rallies. TMM holds these 2-day events in major cities across the United States each year, and according to the Teen Mania website, approximately 2.5 million teenagers have attended one of 553 live events they've produced since 1986.

In addition to an emphasis on spiritual growth, Acquire the Fire and BattleCry events also are the primary way that Teen Mania recruits young people for its other programs like Global Expeditions and The Honor Academy. A Teen Mania "Global Expedition" is a short-term mission trip, usually to a foreign country and lasting 2 to 4 weeks, that teens can participate in on an individual basis or with their church youth group. These trips generally range in price from $1,000 to $4,000 and most teens do significant amounts of fundraising in order to participate in a Teen Mania Global Expedition. Approximately 62,000 teens have gone on a TMM mission trip at some point in their lives. The "Honor Academy" is a year-long internship program offered by TMM, primarily targeted towards recent high school graduates. The internship, which involves working full-time in whatever job TMM leaders place you in on an unpaid basis, also requires teenage participants to raise between $600 and $800 per month for Teen Mania in order to cover their room & board.

Teen Mania also has a weekly television show that is watched by a reported 1.6 million viewers each week--this is no small organization. In fact, according to Teen Mania's most recent IRS Form 990 (available for free on the Guidestar website), Teen Mania brought in just over $20 million in revenue in 2008. Teen Mania is gaining increasing amounts of political influence, and they are a member of the Arlington Group, a coalition which unites the leaders of prominent Christian Right organizations in the United States. At first glance, Teen Mania certainly looks like another large, successful evangelical Christian ministry. However, as we dive into the core of the various components of Teen Mania's programs over the coming weeks and months, you may be surprised to learn that things at TMM aren't quite as "bright and shiny" as they seem on the surface.

Monday, March 1, 2010


Welcome to the official blog of Teen Mania Watch, dedicated to keeping a watchful eye on the world of Teen Mania Ministries, one of the world's largest evangelical Christian youth organizations. Perhaps you or a loved one have been involved with Teen Mania, or maybe this is the first time you've ever heard of the organization. Regardless, it is our hope that this blog sheds some sorely-needed light on the activities of this extremely influential and well-funded non-profit organization.

In the coming weeks and months, you will find a wealth of knowledge about the leadership, finances, and day-to-day operations of Teen Mania. While some of this information may be critical, it is the goal of Teen Mania Watch to relentlessly pursue the truth and only publish accurate, honest information. We encourage people to explore the issues presented in this blog more deeply through their own personal research, as most of our blog posts will be based on information that is publically accessible and easily verifiable.

We'll be posting frequently, so be sure to come back often...or better yet, subscribe to our RSS Feed and be notified every time the Teen Mania Watch blog is updated. If you want more information about anything you see on the blog or just need more resources, please e-mail us at the address in the sidebar and we'll get back to you! And if this blog helps you out, please share it with your family & friends! Thanks for stopping by.