About me

I'm just a believer that is recovering from my experience at Teen Mania's Honor Academy and I would like to share my journey of healing with you.

April 5, 2011

At the Protest: Is Acquire the Fire Abusive?

Note: If this is your first time here, please check the "Allegations" tab at the top or the "true stories" category on the right to read about abuse at Teen Mania.

One of the most common questions that was asked during our protest is do we think the Acquire the Fire event is bad?

In 2 years of blogging, I have not once written about Acquire the Fire. I do not find it systematically abusive or damaging on any level that is even close to how the Honor Academy treats interns. (A weekend event under the care of your youth pastor is quite different than a year long intensive on a campus in the middle of nowhere, totally isolated from all your friends and family.) Many of us have seen the good fruit from ATF and have wrestled with the stark differences between the good that comes from it and the bad that comes from the Honor Academy.

Right before this video starts, I've just finished telling the youth pastor that I don't have a major beef with Acquire the Fire in and of itself. If your youth group is able to worship and connect with God there, then that is a great thing. My two main problems with ATF are these:

1) ATF recruits teens via false advertising which sucks them into the Honor Academy, where many eager teens are subsequently damaged.

2) Although the theology at ATF is much "lighter" than what you will hear at the Honor Academy, you can see the beginnings of works based righteousness. This only gets worse, the deeper you get into Teen Mania.



Again, to clarify, if ATF is your only exposure to Teen Mania, by and large I don't think there is enough time or enough opportunity to damage most young people in a significant way. I do believe there are many opportunities at ATF for a genuine encounter with God. However, the ATF is EXTREMELY different from the environment at the Honor Academy and that is why you must exercise caution.

This is my personal opinion and my personal experience. I'm sure there are a variety of opinions on this topic within this community. Feel free to share yours in the comments.

35 comments:

I've seen this before in my own cult experience. People start out hearing about Jesus and get very, very exited. (Personally I LOVE that part.) Then as the individual gets deeper into the organization they; with all their youthful zeal and vigor) sell out to an organization whose chief people do things like Stoner did and bully one young lady into making a false statement in order to attack another.

The problem is oftentimes that the zealous ones mistakenly assume that the leaders who brought them their excitement are good people when they are in fact just glorified thugs and manipulators.

I believe that ATF is actually damaging. The intense marketing of Global Expeditions and the Honor Academy are not to be taken lightly. I would be more afraid of that than of a false teaching during a sermon! Then, consider all of the products they are selling (where the money for these products goes, back into ATF, to GE, wherever doesn't matter in this issue) directly to these children. ATF is all about marketing their brand.

There is a man that comes to my child's school once a year for a "motivational assembly" He has a nice little message about doing your best and some catchy ways for the kids to remember it. He also does some cool yo-yo tricks. THEN He sends home a flier with each child to beg their parents to buy them a $10 yo-yo plus a $3 strap to hold the yo-yo. I can't stand this marketing stunt and I see ATF along those lines.

We know kids expect GE and HA to be these extensions of the hype they feel at ATF and even if a Youth Pastor thinks they can let their kids take what *might* (highly subjective) be positive from the experience, and not encourage them to get any more involved with TM, I believe those messages are getting in anyway and have a much bigger impact on the teen than their youth pastor.

How many of us went to the HA against our parents/pastors/friends wishes? (Oh, right, because TM told us to ignore the naysayers!!)

I'm just glad that Hannah and RA are doing ok after all that! Those events speak highly of RA's character :) and I hope and pray that Hannah is doing well and recovering herself, from her Honor Academy self-serving victimization.

I like this! We get to hear your tone. I think a lot of the time your tone gets lost and people think that you are, as I will quote my good friend Jack Hayford, "vociferous."

Kudos to you, Mica. Keep smiling!!! :)

@ enlightenmentisntsoscary I think you are right.

So meny of the 'true stories' have started with "I first heard of TM at an ATF" and most of us believed the hype surrounding ATF's. Most of us thought the HA would be a year long AFT. It is the front door of the marketing machine. It looks exciting, fun, filled with passion and zeal. When you pull back the curtain you find that TM is run by sad little men, working the levers of the smoke and mirrors - and not actually the great and powerful Oz.

My biggest beefs with ATF in my experience have been:
1. The hype (and then talking about how we shouldn't trust hype)
2. The self-promotion. In some ways it feels like the event is just there to get students to fund-raise to get more involved with the organization.

In my opinion, ATF is the gateway drug to Teen Mania. Believing that ATF is benign is similar to thinking that snorting cocaine at a party is harmless. The event looks like it fits many of Lifton's criteria (mystical manipulation, demand for purity, etc)for a thought reform environment.

I went to more ATFs than I could count in my high school years and while overall I think they were fine. I loved the worship sessions. However, they do make you think that you should always feel hyped up and ON FIRE all the time and if you aren't, something is wrong. Unrealistic, impossible expectation. Of course, I can't remember if that was something they actually taught or something I just took away from it...

I would say, ATF can be confusing for teens. It's important to have an adult who will help them deal with what they learned and how that applies to real life. I didn't have a youth group growing up, I went with other friend's youth groups so I didn't have a youth leader following up what I was taught at ATF until I was a senior in high school and a mentor of mine who had gone with me challenged a few of the ideas. It was like being hit with a sledgehammer. I had trusted everything Ron Luce said so completely that it was astonishing to have someone question him. Thus began the end of my relationship with TMM.

I'm also glad to see via their website that the "WorldChanger Oath" we were asked to take when I was going to ATF's has been updated to the seemingly more reasonable ATF Creed. http://www.acquirethefire.com/creed
That Worldchanger Oath really threw me for a loop as a teenager.

Perusing the ATF website, notice that a handy link on the top will take you right to "the world of TeenMania" including Honor Academy and BattleCry and Extreme Camps and the works. Considering this post about ATF's agressive marketing tactics, the "gateway drug" characterization seems pretty strong.

Lots of cults or high-control groups are known to intentionally put a very positive face to the public to mask their inner abuses (Scientology's appeal to high-profile celebrity endorsements comes to mind). ATF could be seen as this for the other more overtly abusive TM ministries.

Also, in view of the scores of stories from people emotionally devastated by their experience with other TM "ministries," their repeated appeal "Broken homes, pressures at school, and destructive habits are creating a generation with broken hearts, and wounded spirits...." seems a bit disingenuous at best. Log in your own eye, TM.

There's also the issue that ATF essentially depends financially on the unpaid, overworked, coerced labor force of Honor Academy to be financially solvent. I wouldn't go to an ATF event for the same reason I wouldn't buy shoes that were made in a sweatshop in Cambodia.

@Eric and whoever else- when did "Extreme Camps" start? Those were definitely not on the roster in my TMM days. I saw the link and tried not to roll my eyes...

SZB - I think they were around 99/2000. Can you elaborate on how the Worldchanger Oath affected you? I'm interested to hear more about that.

"...they do make you think that you should always feel hyped up and ON FIRE all the time and if you aren't, something is wrong. Unrealistic, impossible expectation. "

I can relate. This mind-set paired with years of ups-and-downs (in my "walk") eventually led to the decision to join the HA internship. I thought that surely at the HA I would acquire the tools to achieve a constant "on fire" lifestyle. Gateway drug indeed.

For those who don't remember or weren't around this is the WorldChanger Oath:

"I am determined to have passion for the Almighty God and to use that passion for His cause.

I will love all, honor all, and lead all I can to Him.

I am determined to keep my relationship with Jesus alive by keeping my quiet times.

I commit to defend God's cause by being active in Bible Study, my church, and my youth group.

I commit my mind to God and my courtship to purity.

I am determined to honor my parents and to be accountable to Godly friendships.

I refuse to live in slow-motion because I am determined to live a life of worship and holy actions.

I commit to reach out through missions while I am a teenager.

I will start a revolution in my hometown. I am determined to stand up, shout loud, sweat hard, pour out, give all, love, live, breath, and die if I must for the one who died for me.

I am a WorldChanger."

Not terrible things to strive for but when you are being told that if you break an oath God will hate you (I know you mentioned this teaching in another post) things get scary. I had this signed oath on my wall through most of high school and I remember being quite afraid when I would miss a quiet time. I had no idea how to "start a revolution in my hometown" and I wasn't sure if not having a youth group at my church got me off the hook for that one or if I needed to join a youth group at another church (I went for the latter, it seemed safer but I couldn't go all the time so that was sketchy). I'm sure other teens reacted very differently to this, but I was pretty fearful of not pleasing God and being damned by my mistakes, so this was a really big area of fear for me. (I hadn't discovered grace yet)

For these reasons I'm very glad the "oath" has become a "creed" and I hope that the practice of telling teens to make promises to God while also telling them that if they break them God will hate them has stopped. I think being challenged is great and giving teens goals to work towards are fine but manipulating them through emotions and peer pressure to make promises they might not be able to keep is not good. What if you take this oath and have your parents say you can't go on missions? Now you're screwed because you either are breaking the oath about going on missions or breaking the oath about honoring your parents.

SZB - Thanks for sharing your experience. That is a lot of pressure to put on someone.

@ SZB OH. MY. GOD. I totally forgot about that - I could actually 'hear' RL in my head as I read that. THAT is the reason I went to HA - the ATF's made it seem like it was the only place where you could really become this 'worldchanger' person.

WOW. ATF's *are* the gateway to the HA.

@phoenix - Hahaha... I googled to find the oath and when I read it I could hear his voice too. A tad creepy...

ATFs are definitely a gateway to the rest of the TMM world. They're flashy recruiting sessions. However, I believe that there are enough people there with genuine hearts and motives that teens can be blessed through them. They just need to have a reasonable influence in their life to help counter-balance all the crazy.

I wanted to go to the HA after all my ATFs (followed by going to ORU of course!) but my parents absolutely refused and now I'm so thankful. I had a close friend who went and did not have a good experience.

Warning: This is LONG, but I wanted to describe in detail why I think that ATF is very damaging to teenagers. This goes beyond the recruiting for mission trips and ultimately the HA.

I went to ATF every year as a teenager, and I thought it was AMAZING. The smoke machines, colored lights, repetitive, emotional choruses, melodic guitars, massive crowd of my hyped-up peers, and Ron's charisma and manipulative appeals--all of that made my experience with God seem so much more REAL and significant than my experiences with God say, on any given Sunday morning or any other time in my life. We were always encouraged to make great, sweeping commitments to God, in order to keep being ON FIRE once we went home. These included things like never listening to "secular" music, having a quiet time EVERY day (using whichever poorly-written TM devotional had come out that year), and of course the ambiguous charge to "change the world" by starting a "revolution" in your youth group and high school.

Every morning session (or is it the afternoon session?), Ron has the ushers pass out his new daily devotional, which always coincides with whatever that particular year's theme for ATF, to every single kid in the venue. So the kids have it in their hands, and the book looks so cool, and everyone is so hyped up and all they want to do is stay on fire and change the world and start a revolution, and they have to sit there and listen to Ron tell them how CRUCIAL this devotional will be in helping them do just that. He presents it as if this is the KEY. He tells the youth pastors how helpful these books will be in assisting them in their leadership. And then he announces the price of the book and takes up an offering. If you want to keep the book that's in your hands, you cough up the money. Otherwise, you pass the book back in to the usher. Of course, almost everyone buys it.

Continued....

The last session on Sat. night is the most emotional. Everyone leaves feeling on fire and thinking that everything in their lives has changed. At least that's how I felt. Of course, once I got back to real life, I discovered that everything was pretty much the same--home-life was still hard, school still sucked, still struggled with depression, etc. I would read the devotional, trying to keep my fire, trying to FEEL God the way that I did at ATF, begging him to show me that He was still there and that I was still saved. The devotional always had challenges and rules: THIS is what a World Changer does. THESE THINGS are what you should avoid if you want to stay on fire. The same old legalism you find at the HA. I would end up feeling guilty because it was absolutely impossible to live up to all of those things, to keep all the commitments I was manipulated into making at ATF as an impressionable young teen. Because all of the feelings I'd had at ATF had long faded (as will *inevitably* happen), I thought that I wasn't on fire. I thought that God was displeased with me. And I thought it was all my fault because I would forget to have a quiet time one day or I broke a "world-changer" oath. Not to mention that I was DECIDEDLY unsuccessful at changing the world or at starting a revolution at school. I could barely navigate my home life! At ATF they put SO MUCH pressure on teenagers; we are bombarded with messages along the lines of: God always uses YOUNG PEOPLE to start revivals; NOW IS THE TIME; God is calling you tonight, don't MISS this opportunity; YOU NEED TO GO HOME AND CHANGE YOUR TOWN/YOUTH GROUP/HIGH SCHOOL/WORLD. Originally it would give me a sense of purpose and significance; God wanted to use ME!! But when I wasn't able to change the world (I wasn't even *allowed* to go anywhere or do anything anyway), I felt a horrible sense of failure. I was growing up, getting too old, missing my chance to be used by God.

Continued again....

Then ATF would show up again the following year and I would just KNOW that this time, it would stick. This time, I wouldn't fail. And then I would. My decision to go to the HA was based largely on the fact that I thought it would be like an ATF all the time, and I would finally know how to not lose my "fire". I would finally actually DO SOMETHING for God, He would finally think I was worth using.

So, based on my extensive experience with ATF, I think it is dangerous in more ways than just the fact that it is a "gate-way drug" to the Honor Academy. It indoctrinates teens in legalism, and in a relationship with God based on emotions (which is an immature approach to ANY relationship, and one teens ought to be steered away from). It is manipulative and shame-producing. It draws insecure teenagers into the weird, teen mania culture that alienates them from people in the real-world (as most of us have experienced from trying to reintegrate after leaving the HA). It presents the wrong idea of Christianity and the wrong idea of Jesus.

Wow littlegraygirl THANK YOU!!!

That is a beautifully written account of the way MANY MANY teens feel before/during/after an ATF event.

I completely agree with everything littlegraygirl said. I would still say there are some teens who would not take it so seriously (just there to goof off whatever) but I personally will never want my kids going to anything like this. It's manipulative and I have no faith in Ron Luce's motives. The whole passing out the devotional thing seemed suspect to me even as a 14 year old.

I guess I am most wary of taking a strong stance against ATF because I haven't been in over 10 years so I don't really know if they are still the same or if they have changed. Frankly, from a cursory glance it seems they are worse, but I don't want to make accusations where I don't have facts. If asked my opinion, I would tell youth leaders to avoid ATFs and really anything like them. I attended something similar my senior year of college and I felt literally nauseous because it reminded me so much of ATF. Emotional, flashy manipulation. Thousands of dollars spent on pyrotechnics and screens. Is that really where a Christian organization should be putting their money? UG. I'm getting off topic.

littlegraygirl, you're awesome. Thanks for taking the time to write all of that. RA, maybe you should make her comments into a post if she wouldn't mind. It's a really good portrayal of how ATF was for me.

Littlegraygirl - I feel like you wrote about my experiences/views of ATF exactly word-for-word as I would have expressed them. You really hit the nail on the head.

I agree, I read LittleGrayGirl's comments and thought it should be a post. LGG - you ok with that?

Yes, that would be fine. Though, if I'd known it would be a blog post, I wouldn't have written it so hastily and I would've edited it for grammar. :-) You have my full permission to fix any grammatical errors you run across (there are several) if you feel like doing so.

Hey RA Can LGG's post be made into a POST because I think that kinda shows to Youth Pastors what the real danger of ATF is far better than what any protest could!

Hello all, I am 16 and have been very involved with TM and ALSO have been reading this site for quite some time. I agree with a lot that is said here as well disagree some, and of course I have questions as well. I wont get into any of that right now, but I just wanted to say that in the past years I have been To ATF I have never ever seen the whole book selling thing to that extreme AT ALL. I remember them selling things at vendors but never pushing it. In fact, the main thing they were pushing last year was to sponsor a child in a 3rd world country through Compassion Ministries. Also, I can deffinetly see littlegraygirl's perspective and can relate to that in some ways, but not completly. I am acutally going to ATF tommorow in SAC and im not going to lie, I am VERY excited, but I will be excersisng caution. This year will be different for me because I now know about this website and about the HA, so I may have a completly different perspective on it. We will see. But basicley, I just wanted to add my 2 cents about the book selling and also thank RA for posting something about the ATF. So thank you all!

@anon 5:27 Caution is good. I do believe it's entirely possible to experience God there, But I also believe it's entirely possible to experience God on top of a hill by your self in prayer or lighting a candle in a field on a clear night. God isn't in ONE place or with one person more than any other. Just go there with an attitude of wanting to be with God but knowing that it isn't all sunshine and rainbows at the things they are trying to convince you to do and you should be fine!

Oh deffinetly! Thats really really something God has tought me in the past 2 years, relying on his promises and not on my FEELINGS. Thank you for the encouragment!

Anon - you sound wise beyond your years.

The book/devotional thing may be out dated, but it was big in the late 90's early 00's.

Have fun - be causions, look things past face value, and never let them make you feel like you don't measure up.

Phoenix - As of 2007, TMM made $1.6 million per year from merchandise sales at live events. (Source.) Thatsalottamoney.

Anon - Sounds to me like you're approaching it exactly the right way. Learning to see beyond the hype is a skill everybody should cultivate. Good for you! I'd be interested if you care to report back with your impressions of ATF now that you know both sides.

Anon- I am proud of your ability to look at the event with another perspective in mind. I urge you to share this perspective with your friends and youth leader!

Eric, I would deffinetly love to. Just as a side note: I have been on 3 mission trips with GE and am planning on going to Japan this summer as well (If my parents still let me with the radiation issue). The missoin trip may be completly different as well. Once again, I will just wait and see. :)

enlightenmentisntsoscary: I have shared with a few people what I have read on this site, but I have talked to a lot of people (esspecially Jr. Highers, im a youth leader) about not relying on our emotions and such. Like I said, its something God has really shown me. I am deffinetly praying for the right words this weekend, WHATEVER they might be.

I just recently attended an ATF in Denver and I thought it was incredible. I think that every speaker has a different way of doing things, too. My speaker was very down to Earth and told us that we are going to go through hard times and we are going to not want to bother with God a lot of the time, but he also shared that God is still there and will still help us out of it. A LOT of teen Christians don't know this, and this is a great opportunity for them. I don't know much about the Honor Academy, so I can't really comment on that, but they did make it sounds a lot like ATF, but longer. And I know that they can't possibly have that, so they are obviously making some things up or something... I don't really know, though.

@littlegraygirl--
Although a lot of teens feel that way after leaving ATF, if they would actually read their Bible and talk to their Youth Pastors, then they would know that that isn't what the Bible says and that they are going to fall and they can't keep a perfect record of church attendance or praying or doing devotionals. As long as you accept God, then you should strive to live like that, but He and your youth pastors know that it is REALLY hard and they should help you pick yourself up after you fall. The ATF that I went to told us exactly that. I'm not sure when the last time you went there was, but they may have changed a lot since then. Anyway, just something to keep in mind.

I hold a lot of bitterness towards teen mania, acquire the fire, and global expeditions and i'm 28 years old! I remember going to ATF and believing I could be perfect if i prayed, read the bible and read those stupid devotionals they gave out. In 2001 I went on a trip to New Zealand with them, while we we're in Training before we left I distinctly remember during worship I swore I heard God tell me I was going to marry the girl I was dating. I stuck out 4 years of physical and emotional abuse thinking it would all be in God's glory. The First incling something was not right was when I was inprocessing and Ron Luce popped up riding in on his harley. He was shaking hands and such and stood next to me and I put my back to him. Also I think the leader's M.a.'s tried to set me up for failure by giving me 60+ peoples passports on the way to New Zealand. Why would they give them to me and not a T.A. or somebody in authority?

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