We Were Just Kids Who Wanted To Change The World

No one warned me how easily my youth could be hijacked by a cult.

Image courtesy of Pixabay

There’s a widely held belief that cults are easy to spot, and only the most weak-minded among us could fall for such absurdity. But getting involved with a cult is a lot like falling into a toxic romantic relationship. Press the right buttons, and it can happen to anyone.

Aside from that one year when I told Santa I wanted to be a lion for Christmas, my biggest childhood dream was to change the world. To make a difference and actually help others in need. But growing up in an extremely dysfunctional home, I was unaware of the ways those desires could be used against me.

In the late nineties, a Christian organization in Lindale, Texas called Teen Mania Ministries was having it’s heyday. Their success coincided with my high school years and I attended their annual Acquire The Fire conventions each time they returned to the Twin Cities. Those conventions changed my life--I was officially on fire for Jesus.

The ATF conventions were typically a two-day event filled with music, speakers, videos and live dramas to encourage teens to become not merely Christians, but to become their own brand of Worldchangers. Often adopting military rhetoric about the army of God locked in battle with The Enemy aka Satan, ATF encouraged teens to "live out loud" for God--especially through their Global Expeditions mission trips and their year-long Honor Academy internship.

Honor Academy interns were always at the convention, volunteering behind the scenes and even performing on stage. One group of second-year interns were called the Ministry Team. They traveled across the the country to work each convention throughout the year.

We were “called.”

First-year interns usually got to work at one convention while they were in the program. These interns offered testimonies about how incredible the program was, how it shaped their lives, and how it would change your life if you too were feeling the call.

The call to be a worldchanger.

I felt that call. And I was positive that going to the internship would lead me to my life's work.

By my junior year of high school, I knew I was destined to be a Teen Mania intern. But before you could be accepted into the year-long program, you had to first go on a mission trip with their Global Expeditions ministry. If that went well, you then filled out an application for the internship. They didn’t just accept everyone--Teen Mania staff prayed over every single application. Everyone knew someone who’d been turned down.

The year-long Honor Academy was a program open to Christian high school graduates between the ages of 16 and 23. Most interns were 18 and just out of high school. A few graduated high school early and were just 16. So we were incredibly young and naive.

We were too young.

In July 1999, I went to Trinidad on a short-term mission trip with the ministry. There were many rules in their code of conduct, but coming from such a strict Christian home, I wasn’t surprised nor stressed. However, this first taste of the Garden Valley camps and overseas trip gave me a taste of what the internship would be like: hard. Mentally demanding and physically grueling.

When you went on a mission trip with Global Expeditions, you put on dramas. Fucking pantomimed dramas, like that was going to somehow save the world. And we had to practice them until they were perfect.

Seriously perfect. We practiced this 15 minute drama for hours. At this point, we were all kids mostly 12 to 17 with dreams of becoming interns. We practiced outside in the red Texas dirt and heat without breaks for hours. Our knees were bruised, scraped, and sore. It could be misreable, but it was ingrained in us that we were serving the kingdom of God.

The Teen Mania campus had dormitories for interns, but they also had kwanzit huts. That’s where we slept as summer missionaries and eventually brand new interns for the first couple weeks. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the stench. A nauseating smell of stale... dirt made its way through every bag and article of clothing.

Living out of bags in the stinky huts was just one more way of “roughing it” and proving ourselves to God. That was the most insidious thing about any Teen Mania program.

There was always something to prove, and any bad experience was turned into an act of service. Which means there were no bad experiences. We didn't have the right to complain.

We were quiet.

Most people don’t know I was in a cult. It’s not the kind of thing that comes up in day-to-day conversations, and to be fair, it took me many years to recognize the group as a cult at all.

For a long tine, the ministry operated in the most mainstream view possible for any Christian organization. It was on Christian TV stations, websites, and magazines. Esteemed authors like Josh McDowell, John and Lisa Bevere all talked up the ministry and spoke at various retreats on its behalf. Christian bands like The Newsboys and Switchfoot participated too.

This is where people get cults wrong. They think their toxicity and danger is obvious. But that’s not always the case.

As with many other secrets or scandals, cults thrive on buzzwords and the trust of well-respected people who never know the full story. There’s zero transparency, yet most people can’t see that. They think they’re just sending kids off to church camp.

Another way cults thrive? The kids don’t talk. No one told us we couldn’t talk about our experiences on mission trips, conferences, and prayer retreats. They did however put us through routine “debriefing” and warn us about how weird our peers and family would think all of it was.

Most of us wouldn't begin to talk about what happened behind the scenes until we finally realized that maybe it wasn’t all okay.

We were unprepared.

Most parents and teachers will never warn their youth about the dangers of real life cults. They don’t think they have to. Yet most cults thrive on two basic things: appealing to the inexperienced and well-meaning youth and/or fringe adults who always wanted to be different; and maintaining an environment in which one does not question authority.

Unfortunately, most youth today are still raised to believe it’s inappropriate to question parents, teachers, or anyone else in authority. We tell kids to have a stiff upper lip and take their punishment like a champ even if they think the adult is wrong.

We all too often tell kids that rules are always there for a good reason. That if a rule doesn’t make sense, they should still follow it. In much of Christianity, we tell our youths to respect all authority because every station is ordained by God.

Like Trump.

This is why books like Coraline and A Series of Unfortunate Events are so important for kids to read. And why we need to have uncomfortable conversations with our kids about Trump, white privilege, black lives matter, and more. We need our youth to grow up understanding that adults don’t always get it right.

There are wolves in the henhouse and our kids are not okay. I know this first hand because I stepped right into a cult and it took me years to break out of the mindset they taught.

My internship year with Teen Mania went from August 2000 through August 2001, and left lifelong scars. It will take a book for me to fully unpack everything that happened out there in the Texas back forty. All I can do for now is unpack and explain pieces of the baggage.

We were broken.

In the winter of 2001, I was bussed into Indianapolis with a team of interns for a one day Acquire the Fire conference. Single day events were unusual, and meant that the team working the event would have to work a full 24 hours from setup to teardown.

Upon arriving in the city we were given a meal and told to get a few hours sleep before our 24 hour shift. I remember that I couldn’t sleep in the host’s home because I was too cold. So I just laid there for hours shivering and telling myself I was a part of something great.

For the next 24 hours I was on call for whatever the ministry team needed from me to help make the event run smoothly.

Being an attendee at an evangelical Christian conference is very different from being a volunteer at one. All interns who worked at least one convention faced some amount of disillusionment when we saw how much effort went into creating such an emotional and spiritual experience for conference-goers. We learned how heavily produced and engineered it all could be.

I was thinking about this and about the dissonance during a rare quiet moment after tear-down. Longing to know that God was indeed there and my faith wasn’t in fact the byproduct of something so contrived and manipulated.

This is what I wrote in my journal at that moment, some 16 years--half my life--ago. I called it Brokeness:

God, i asked You to break me and found my dreams on hold.
i cried out for brokeness but secretly longed to be whole.
let me be an empty vessel but let me contol everything myself.
make me willing to suffer, give me no pain.
it isnt right.
it isnt fair.
i want to fall in love with You but cherish other infatuations.
i seek closure and aim to hold the door open.
it isnt right.
it isnt fair.
God, i want You to break me but am learning that it hurts.
i can do nothing — less than nothing — so i dont know where to begin.
i shrink when people are loud and explode when they are quiet.
i can do nothing outside of Your grace.
it isnt right.
it isnt fair.
i am a perpetual hypocrite, but You died for me.
i whine to be changed yet i refuse to move.
go ahead and break me, Lord.
if i have to lose everything i could ever love — so be it.
take it all away — i am only Yours.
i cry out for brokeness and cannot care how i get it

I have held onto that narrative that I was broken, or am broken for most of my life. When I read it now, I can’t help but recognize how abusive the whole situation was.

If a young girl wrote such things about any other type of relationship, we’d tell her to run.

We just wanted to change the world.

Former Teen Mania participants aren’t part of some fringe community. Chances are if you’re a millennial/xennial/genXer with any Christian ties, you know someone who got involved with or wanted to get involved with the ministry at some point in the 90s early 2000s.

It was a cult that preyed upon youth within mainstream Christianity. And very few grownups will even recognize such potential threat. While I plan to write a lot more about the "ministry" and my experience with them as a young adult, you can get a taste of the problems by checking out the documentary below called Mind Over Mania.