I WAS A TEENAGE MANIAC
How My Year In The Honor Academy Shaped My Life
My eyes felt soldered shut. Someone was shaking me. I was just so tired — I was always so tired; I grumbled something about letting me sleep. Eventually, I comprehended they were saying something back.
Family meeting. I had to get up.
I shuffled along with everyone else toward the auditorium, blinking curiously at the sight of over six hundred teenagers stumbling sleepily through the East Texas darkness. It was eerily quiet for so many people. None of us knew why we were being summoned at this time of night.
I sat with a few Kitchen Crew friends. Some people didn’t bother sitting, knowing they couldn’t keep their eyes open. Instead, they stood along the wall or at the back of the room to keep awake, as we’d been trained to do. None of us was a stranger to exhaustion.
Then David Hasz, the Director of the Honor Academy and Ron Luce’s right-hand man, was standing at the podium. His face was drawn, sober; my stomach clenched.
Dan O’Donnell, a graduate intern, had been in an accident. He and three others had been driving through Michigan. The roads had been icy. He was pronounced dead on the scene.
I was suddenly wide-awake. A hush fell over the room, except for the gasps of a few people who were crying. Dan had been a mentor to many of them.
Afterward neither I, nor my K-Crew friends, felt like sleeping. Instead, we used the manager-in-training’s keys to sneak into the cafeteria and hang out for a while.
Hunched over on milk crates in the back room by the kitchen, we cradled our bowls of stolen ice cream and quietly discussed our memories of Dan O’Donnell. I felt a deep respect for him: he must have successfully completed God’s purpose for his life; otherwise, nothing could have killed him.
That’s what I’d been taught in the Honor Academy.
Setting Teens On Fire For God
Founded in 1986 by Ron and Katie Luce, Teen Mania Ministries began with just the two of them and their beat-up little car, leading “Beach Bash” youth rallies wherever they went. These eventually grew to become what were known as the Acquire the Fire and BattleCry stadium events, replete with pyrotechnics, Christian rock bands, and charismatic speakers. They would also take teams of teenagers on “Global Expeditions,” which were short-term summer mission trips all around the world. Those became Teen Mania’s main two focuses: youth rallies and mission trips.
The Honor Academy started in 1988, while Ron and Katie still lived in Tulsa near their alma mater, Oral Roberts University. The way Ron told it to us, six young people approached him to mentor them, so he took them on as full-time volunteers for Teen Mania; it was already growing faster than he could handle on his own.
Then they migrated; until a couple years ago, Teen Mania had grown to the point where it owned a gated compound in Garden Valley, Texas, running on the labor of its seven hundred Honor Academy “interns.” The only requirements to join the HA were a faith in Jesus Christ, participation in at least one Teen Mania Global Expedition, and a GED. There was also an age cap; interns couldn’t be over twenty-six years old. This meant the vast majority of them were teenagers fresh out of high school.
All Honor Academy interns were required to donate upwards of $8,400 to work for Teen Mania for a year; some gave over $18,000 per year for two years, to work for the Center for Creative Media. Teen Mania was a 501(3)c non-profit organization, so when they had a Finance department, it tracked how much each intern raised, but deposited all the money into one general fund. Interns were told that it was for this reason that no donor’s check could have any intern’s name anywhere on it, even on the memo line. They claimed this was the only way the donations could be tax-deductible; they also said this was why they could never get a refund on anything they’d given. Yet, although these were “donations,” interns who fell behind on fundraising were dismissed and sent home in shame.
At the same time, there were never more than forty paid, permanent staff members; the teenagers who were paying to be there did most of the work. And every year for about twenty-five years there was a fresh crop, eager to “devote a year to God” and “fast from the world,” running the requisite car washes and bake sales to be able to afford to do so.
I was one of them. It was the summer of 1999: I was twenty, and my family had spent three days driving down to middle-of-nowhere Texas from Southwestern Ontario. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that not all of the state was desert; East Texas is green and lush, and has a vibrant red earth that would soon stain every article of clothing I had. With wide eyes, I looked out the car window at the compound’s solid brick walls and shining black gates and smiled at my new paradise.
There were about five hundred of us starting the internship that August, almost all fresh out of high school. One boy had even home-schooled and finished his GED early; he was only sixteen. There were also about a hundred other teenagers who’d already been working since January, as well as another forty or so second-year GI’s (or graduate interns), ready to show us the ropes and mentor us.
That first week of the undergraduate internship was “The Gauntlet,” a week of intensely physical “team-building exercises” that the staff used for observing us and determining our work placements.
It was also when I first became acquainted with our mantra for the year: “I beat my body and make it my slave,” an out-of-context partial quote of 1 Corinthians 9:27. Paul meant it as a metaphor for his spiritual mindset, but I was meant to take it literally and push my body past its limits, to prepare for “the real-world mission field.” My body was a lazy liar that could hold me back from saving someone’s soul, so I needed to teach it to obey my will.
After The Gauntlet, my ministry work placement was in the kitchen, on the Breakfast Crew. A couple classmates cried because of their placement there, but I grew to love it after getting over my initial disappointment at not becoming Ron Luce’s assistant. The Kitchen Crew was comprised of all the rejects of the other departments. It was our Island of Misfit Toys.
Being on the Breakfast Crew meant I had to be at work at 6 AM on cold breakfast days (Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays), and 5:30 AM on hot breakfast days (Tuesdays and Fridays). Since our requisite one-hour Quiet Time personal devotions were supposed to happen before work, this meant I was sometimes up at 3:45 AM. I didn’t mind this except when I didn’t get to bed early enough to sleep through my five roommates returning from their evening shifts in the call center. They’d talk into the wee hours of the morning since they didn’t start work until mid-afternoon. It made it hard to sleep.
The K-Crew was the only group to interact with every other intern every day. It was our opportunity to shine the love of Jesus on them while we served them their biscuits and gravy, hopefully putting them into the right frame of mind to recruit some teenager to a mission trip so hundreds of souls could be saved. I remember praying over every single dining tray when it was my turn in the dish room, asking God to bless whoever used each one.
We prided ourselves on Excellence in the kitchen; on Fasting Days every other Thursday, when no one ate and we didn’t cook anything, we’d take the day to scrub the entire kitchen and cafeteria. Being a zealous group, if we were ahead on our tasks on regular days, we’d start our Fasting Day chores early — which meant our GI manager had to find extra-special tasks for us come Fasting Day. I once had to clean out a decades-long-forgotten, heavily congealed grease trap under the sink in the dish room. Another time, I had to scrub the cafeteria bricks with a toothbrush until they became a brighter shade of red. There was even one time when the whole K-Crew donned rubber gloves and used toilet bowl cleaner to chip away the calcification that had accumulated in the serving line steam trays for over twenty years, starting when Keith Green first bought the property for his Last Days Ministries. The noxious fumes had us all giggling and saying blackmail-worthy things, but we were very proud when we later got a perfect score on our health inspection.
The Kitchen Crew was a tight-bound group of misfits after working at least forty-five hours a week together, more over summer missions. I made some life-long friendships there.
In Defense Of Cult Members And Their Leaders’ Motives
On her blog Under Much Grace, Cynthia Mullen Kunsman, ASN, BSN, MMin, ND, an award-winning teacher and researcher who works as a consultant in areas of forensic medicine and medical case review, offers tools to help former cult members recover from their experiences. An active participant in the International Cultic Studies Association — and a former member of a cultic church herself — she prefers to focus on the science of how mind control works and why it is so effective.
“People who fall prey to the deception used in manipulative groups have done nothing wrong,” she wrote in an email. “In fact, they very likely possess many positive personality traits and qualities of virtue which con-artists exploit to their own advantage. Hoping and believing good things and assuming the best about people who appear to be genuine is a function of love and an indication of virtue.”
In a blog post from November 24, 2011, she goes a bit deeper: “Quite often, people get involved with groups…because the leaders are…very charming and idealistic. They are impassioned individuals that seek to make a great difference in the world for the better…They are usually inspiring and highly charismatic. Good, considerate, and thoughtful people who wish to make a difference in the world are attracted to these leaders, and they become the workers and followers of the organizations founded by such leaders.”
Kunsman is not quick to judge those leaders, though. “Whether a group leader knows what he’s doing or not is often a mystery,” she wrote, “but I believe that those experienced in conducting [groups] like this have learned what works and what yields very positive results.”
And what is it that works? Cognitive dissonance. “A cohesive sense of self depends on congruence among [an individual’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors], and manipulation of a single aspect creates tremendous and painful psychological stress,” she pointed out in an email. “When a person experiences this dissonance, their brain waves actually slow down to the ideal state for hypnosis which bypasses the capacity for critical thought, and they become much more malleable on every level.” And since the basic definition of a cult could be a group that lets the end justify its means, this would be the ideal state for its members to be in, so they would accept beliefs and perform actions they might otherwise question.
As her blog name states, Kunsman gives a lot of grace to anyone who has ever been associated with a cult. Quoting Blaise Pascal’s Pensées, she philosophizes that “the heart has its reasons that reason knows not” and “the last function of reason is to recognize that there are an infinity of things which surpass it.” We may never fully understand how or why cults exist, so we should not judge those who are a part of them. Instead, we should do everything we can to help them.
“The Cream of the Crop”
According to Ron Luce and David Hasz, we were a bunch of elite leaders and “worldchangers.” We were the people everyone would look to for direction. We would be calling God a liar if we didn’t believe that’s how special we were to Him.
Because of this higher calling, we had to “live by a higher standard” most people would never understand. I had to beat my body and make it my slave.
So I beat my body and got used to an average of five hours sleep per night. With full-time hours on the Breakfast Crew, three (unaccredited) classes a week, homework, daily Quiet Times, required exercise at least four times a week, chapel, room meetings, weekly “core” meetings with all the rooms mentored by my GI Core Advisor, weekly advisor meetings with all the cores mentored by my staff Intern Advisor, early morning core prayer, Friday night street ministry in Dallas two hours away, church, fasting days every other week — sleep was something to fight against. We had to save the world, and we needed to do it ASAP. I quickly adopted Ron’s attitude from when he was my age: I could sleep when I was dead.
I beat my body and didn’t question why I had to run over a mile at least four times a week, even if I was sick or hurt. I had to claim God’s promise of healing from Psalm 103:2–3: “Praise the Lord… who… heals all your diseases.” Saying I was sick or hurting was calling God a liar. That heaving cough or twisted ankle was just a mind trick used by the Devil. I was healed, and needed to literally walk it out in faith.
This environment didn’t seem strange to me. I’d only been out of high school a short time, so when Ron explained we were creating “positive” peer pressure it made sense. We needed to learn how to discipline ourselves, so he’d “baptized” something negative to help us. By confronting our brothers or sisters who were “in sin,” we could help them stay on the path to purity. None of us wanted any of our friends to do anything “dismissible,” so we kept a watchful eye on each other.
For instance, since romantic relationships were strictly forbidden, I could be confronted for “curbside chatting,” or talking to someone of the opposite sex in front of the dorms. It had the “appearance of evil,” as if I was interested in more than a friendship, and meant I was being a “stumbling block” to my brother, who had to be struggling with impure urges about me. God was the One who had called me to the Honor Academy, and knew they had a rule against romantic relationships. He would never then call me to break that rule — that would go against His character. My brother and I were being tempted by Satan’s lust, to distract us from God’s work. We should just focus on our same-gender friendships, and treat everyone of the opposite gender as someone else’s (future) spouse. It was a relief to not worry about dating anyway; it meant I could keep guarding my heart for my one true Husband, Jesus.
What It Means To Be Honorable
About a month into the internship, we had “The Week of the Ring.” Like The Gauntlet, it was a week of “team-building exercises,” but had a special focus on Teen Mania’s core values of Faith, Integrity, Relationships, Excellence, and Vision. It was all a test to make sure we were worthy to receive our Honor Rings.
At the end of the week we had our Ring Banquet. Everyone dressed in their best non-red-dirt-stained clothing for the feast in the auditorium-turned-banquet-hall, and, after dinner, was surprised with proud letters from their parents (my Dad was far more eloquent than I’d ever realized). Then there was the Ring Ceremony: I, along with the rest of my class, signed a commitment to stay for the full year. My Core Advisor cried tears of pride as she then put my Honor Ring on my left ring finger.
I couldn’t stop fondling that Jewish wedding band once it was there; I loved its Hebrew script (“My lover is mine and I am his”), and the tiny “S.H.” engraved inside reminded me to be “Semper Honorablus” (fake Latin for “always honorable”). It was my commitment to live the life of an intern for the rest of my life, and was my connection to “The Line,” or everyone else that were alumni. I was now bonded to them forever, like family; we were obligated to help each other out.
If I was ever dismissed or did anything dishonorable, though — even after the Honor Academy — I was warned that I would have to return the ring and break my connection to The Line. It was not my property, but Teen Mania’s. I chuckled at the idea of David Hasz, Director of the Honor Academy, showing up on my doorstep twenty years in the future to reclaim my Honor Ring, but still took the warning to heart.
After that, to stay honorable and pure, I needed to confess anything I did or felt that might not break the rules, but could be considered “breaking the spirit of the law.” This meant I sometimes confessed things that weren’t actually sins or that I hadn’t done yet, because they seemed like they could lead me down the path to sin. I had to maintain our higher standard by exposing Satan’s methods to the light and robbing them of their power to control me.
If I didn’t maintain a lifestyle of open confession — if I “lacked a teachable spirit” — I might end up in front of the Honor Council, a top-secret group of my peers who would judge whether or not I had to turn in my Honor Ring and leave.
I had two roommates go before the Honor Council for the same thing: kissing an old boyfriend while home for Christmas. One confessed immediately, and was put on a month’s probation of intense counseling, special reading, and strict room curfews. At the end of the month, because she’d repented so thoroughly, she was allowed to stay.
The other didn’t confess for months. When she finally did, she was deemed too hard-hearted for hiding her sin for so long.
She was gone the next day.
What It Means To Be “Integrous”
Honor Academy interns lived lives of integrity. One essential part of living an “integrous” life is to “swear to your own hurt.” I had to have the integrity to keep commitments, no matter how difficult it was to follow through.
The example used was the Old Testament story where the Israelites are deceived into signing a peace treaty with the Gibeonites, their Promised Land neighbors God had commanded them to kill. Even after they realize the truth, the Israelites decide to keep the treaty; it would be ungodly to break it, even if it keeps them from obeying God’s original command. So, like the Israelites, my word ought to be my bond.
This was the argument whenever any of us was tempted to quit the Honor Academy, since we’d all signed commitments to stay. A few friends did disappear — one even loaded up his car and went out a back gate in the middle of the night — but I couldn’t understand how they reconciled it with themselves. No matter how difficult things got, how could they break their word?
Another element of being “integrous” was avoiding gossip and slander: I was never to speak ill of Teen Mania or its employees, either past, present, or future. If I had issues, I ought to follow Jesus’ directions for confronting a brother who has harmed me, from Matthew 18: pull the offender aside to tell them, and never say anything to anyone else unless they’re unrepentant. In that case, bring one more person along to try again. Otherwise, if I said anything negative about Teen Mania, I had a rebellious spirit, which is the same as witchcraft (1 Samuel 15:23) — and too many rebellious acts could get me dismissed by the Honor Council.
These were the definitions of honor and integrity according to Teen Mania.
The Psychology of Mind Control
Back in 1961, Dr. Robert Lifton published a book called Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of ‘Brainwashing’ in China. In it, he outlines eight criteria to hold against any group, to determine whether they’re practicing mind control. They are:
1. Milieu Control, the establishment of domain over any communication someone might have, both with the outside world as well as within themselves.
2. Mystical Manipulation, the idea that there’s a “chosen” person who has the right to manipulate the group because of their calling — which the group must also prioritize because of its “higher purpose.”
3. The Demand for Purity, the teaching that purity is attainable by following certain principles, and anything or anyone impure must be cast out. This implies that all outsiders are impure because they’re not following these principles.
4. The Cult of Confession, creating an environment where, to become pure, all sins must be confronted and confessed — even sins that have not yet happened, or aren’t actually sins.
5. The “Sacred Science,” the prohibition, either implicit or explicit, of questioning the basic assumptions of the group’s dogma. Anyone who does question is considered irreverent and impure.
6. Loading the Language, the creation of buzzwords or phrases that have a distinct, weighted meaning within the group.
7. Doctrine Over Person, the belief that the teachings of the group always trump personal experience, no matter what. This makes those teachings more important than the people who follow them.
8. The Dispensing of Existence, the compulsion to destroy all “false” existence, either through persuasion or force.
A group doesn’t need to have all eight characteristics at all times in order to be practicing mind control — in fact, it is rare for any one group to do so.
But sometimes one will.
Physically Overcoming Spiritual Strongholds
Pike’s Peak was a long sixteen-hour drive, with everyone from campus crammed into a few re-purposed school buses driven by interns with “keep-awakes” at their sides. When we got to Colorado, we found our rooms at the Y, got some sleep, then hiked up the Peak the next day. We didn’t take any time to acclimatize to the altitude.
In order to be allowed to climb, Teen Mania’s only requirement was that we be able to run a thirteen-minute mile. This ruled a few people out, but there were quite a few others who shouldn’t have been climbing. Jennifer was one of them.
We’d been told to treat the climb as a physical example of what we could do in our spiritual lives. Determined to overcome the “satanic strongholds” on her life, Jennifer pushed herself up three quarters of the mountain before having a massive asthma attack. She passed out and couldn’t be revived: her airway was too constricted. It was snowing, so she couldn’t be airlifted directly off the side of the mountain — but she was also too heavy for her team to carry.
If it weren’t for several strong young men coming back down from the peak they’d just crested with a stretcher, she would have died right there. They carried her up, successfully overcoming their own exhaustion, so she could be rushed to the hospital by helicopter. Thirty minutes longer, and it would have been too late.
The guys who rescued her were given Teen Mania’s “Silver Cross” award for saving her life. But Jennifer was also treated with awe: we assumed God had something big in store for her, since Satan had tried so hard to kill her.
Inspired By G.I. Jane
It was a Friday evening in October 1999, only a couple weeks after Pike’s Peak. All I’d been told was to wear clothes I wouldn’t mind getting dirty, and to show up out by the stretch of red dirt road called Maniac Mile.
I was a volunteer for the first E.S.O.A.L., or “Emotionally Stretching Opportunity Of A Lifetime.” The staff and GI’s had seemed giddy while sneaking around planning it, so hundreds of us had signed up without knowing anything about it; anyone who didn’t sign up was silently judged.
At the moment the clock struck the start time, those same staff and GI’s appeared, in fatigues, and became our drill sergeants, shouting cruel, personal insults at each of us.
We were marched into the “Bach Forte,” the back four hundred acres of bush, and lined up in a mud pit they’d made. The thick red mud caked onto my shoes and clothes, making my feet and legs so heavy I could barely lift them, let alone do the endless jumping jacks and scissor kicks Dave Hasz, my “Commander Master Chief,” barked out to do.
We were then marched to Hamburger Hill. I rallied my energy to comprehend what they were telling me to do next: I had to barrel roll down, and once I got to the bottom, I had to climb back up to the top and do it again. Over and over, I had to keep going, even as people vomited on the hill in front of me. I couldn’t stop until my Commander Master Chief told me to move on.
After that, we were back in the mud pit, the leg raises and push-ups excruciating from the weight of the red clay.
Then there was crawling through obstacle courses while quoting Bible verses. And eating Beanie Weenies served in diapers. And, always, more exercises in the mud pit.
At the end of the day, we were left to find our way back through the gloom and the bush while our drill sergeants hunted us on four-wheelers, equipped with night vision goggles and competition-grade paintball guns. One group got lost, spending the entire night wandering aimlessly in the dark.
When I arrived at the long, narrow, un-insulated Quonset Huts used for housing summer missionaries, I stumbled inside to find a spot in one of the rows of triple bunks. But loud hardcore music was blasted in while our drill sergeants paced the room, screaming at us whenever we managed to drift off out of exhaustion.
In the morning, the process began again.
We were given the option of “ringing out”; a large bell was carried around with us wherever we went. But to give up on E.S.O.A.L. would mean my body was beating me and making me its slave, not the other way around. When I did ring out, twenty-four hours into what turned out to be a forty-eight-hour nightmare, I was ashamed. My body had won. I collapsed into my dorm’s shower, fully clothed, and wept with exhaustion as the red clay swirled down the drain.
I then slept the entire next day.
Afterwards, we were never to tell anyone what had happened that weekend, even the other interns on campus. We needed to preserve the element of surprise for the next generation.
It made me feel special to have that secret. It made us all feel special.
Stanford Prison Experiment, Re-Mixed
My favorite retreat was the Unreached People Groups, or “Tribal,” retreat. We were all divided into teams of “Missionaries” and “Nationals” and sent out into the Bach Forte for a weekend. My goal as a Missionary was to convert my Nationals by the end of the weekend.
Because we were going to a “closed” country where Christianity was illegal, my first task was to sneak through customs without their discovering my evangelistic intentions. I didn’t make it: I was captured by GI customs agents and imprisoned in one of the dingy, red-stained shower stalls used for summer missionaries. After about an hour, I bribed a sympathetic GI guard with chocolate and a bracelet to get out — but other detainees were put into stress positions and forced to recant their faith.
My team and I found our Nationals’ campsite and set up our tents. We then immediately set to work befriending them so we could learn their (fake) language and religion; we were looking for the best way to tell them the Gospel. We also hid from the “authorities” whenever they came zooming through the woods on their four-wheelers, paintball guns in hand.
By Saturday evening, our team had successfully converted our Nationals. They, in turn, then invited several other tribes of Nationals for a giant bonfire to share the news. Everyone sang and danced and had their shamans lead ceremonies of worship to their respective gods, all while our Nationals tried to “witness” to them. I looked around: most of the Missionaries assigned to these tribes of Nationals hadn’t been invited to the party. We had won.
After the weekend was over, there were stories of Missionary women being forced to “marry” their Nationals to gain trust. Or of annoying Missionaries being forced to walk planks and jump into ponds — one girl was even left tied to a tree for an entire night for exasperating her tribe. And there was one group of Nationals that had gotten so enraged at their Missionaries that they’d “executed” them all.
We believed this was preparation for the real-world mission field. I’d done so well, I started dreaming about translating the Bible in some jungle for some tribe that had never heard the Gospel before. Since, according to Matthew 24:14, “this gospel… will be preached in the whole world… and then the end will come,” it was the godliest possible calling to do this. It meant you were personally responsible for helping Jesus come back.
But we also had two Vision retreats, during which we fasted and took a vow of silence for several days to find God’s purpose for our lives. By the end of the second one, I turned in my five-year-plan and vision statement, realizing God was calling me to stay at Teen Mania for a second year instead, for Ron’s new and intimate “Fellowship of the Burning Heart” GI mentorship. I was devastated I wasn’t fit for God’s highest calling, but also excited to stay. I loved living in “the bubble.” It felt safe to me.
Months later I was cut from the third stage of the Fellowship’s selection process. I was forced to graduate and move back to Canada to figure out what to do with the rest of my life. I was miserable.
Jeremiah started his internship in January of 2000 and was placed on the Dinner Crew, so we hadn’t become close until summer missions, when I was switched from the Breakfast Crew. During summer missions we had worked twelve-hour shifts for six days at a time, so it had been a good chance to get to know someone. He was one of the ones who’d been hit hard by Dan O’Donnell’s death.
Several months after I’d graduated and gone home, Miah called me with horrible news. He’d been feeling unwell, so he’d had some tests done, only to discover he was HIV positive.
It was early December and Miah only had a month left at Teen Mania, but even though he’d already fully paid, he was told their insurance couldn’t cover him if he got sick. He had to leave. But since they didn’t have a reason to dismiss him, they sent him to stay for a week with the local relatives of an intern he didn’t know. Then he was exiled two hours away to Dallas, to stay in a hotel until his paid-for internship was finished, without money or food or any way of getting around.
This was heartbreaking for Miah. He adored Ron and Dave — they were our spiritual leaders! For them to shun him during his hardest time felt like God was rejecting him, too. I was too far away to know all the details, but could tell it was affecting Miah’s salvation, as well as those of two other K-Crew alumni who’d gotten involved. I reached out to Dave Hasz, naïvely asserting he needed to make things right.
To his credit, Dave did email the three of them to apologize for how his actions had hurt them. But it was too late. They had each already walked away from their faiths.
Ten years after starting my Honor Academy internship, in the fall of 2009, I started to question everything. I had recently moved to a new apartment in Toronto, another new city in the long list of places I have lived. Just a few months prior I had gotten my Master’s degree from Northwestern, and was trying to cajole myself into writing a brilliant television script. It wasn’t working — I was still pretty bitter about not moving to L.A. after graduation, so I mostly just spent my time by wasting it.
On this day, I was on Facebook (not working on my spec script for the yet-to-be-canceled Dollhouse), when I saw the link for My Teen Mania Experience. I still remembered my Honor Academy days with fondness, and its teachings were still core values for me, so I clicked on it to see what it had to say.
It was a blog full of stories from alumni, all breaking the vow to never speak ill of Teen Mania. It was a shock — how could they be so dishonorable? I glanced at a few entries, my heart hurting for these people, and said a silent prayer for their healing.
But I kept coming back. I was drawn to the posts where the anonymous “Recovering Alumni” broke down Ron and Dave’s teachings to show how unbiblical they actually are. Then, in early 2010, it was as if scales fell from my eyes: there was no such thing as “elite” Christians (Honor Academy alumni) versus “nominal” Christians (Christians in name only)! According to the Bible, you’re either Christian or you’re not.
It shook me to my core.
I suddenly felt very free, but also very lost. Teen Mania’s teachings felt like thick, East Texas vines that had grown into the very foundations of my faith. I wasn’t sure I could pull those out without compromising everything I stood for.
The Recovering Alumni Movement
Starting in the summer of 2009, Mica Marley began My Teen Mania Experience, posting anonymously as “Recovering Alumni.” On it, she shared her story of recovery from the “spiritual abuse” that came from the Honor Academy’s teachings (she was an intern in 1998–1999). She picked apart Ron Luce and David Hasz’s teachings, showing how contrary they are to the Bible.
She did not claim Teen Mania was a cult; in fact, she asserted it wasn’t one. She merely thought it was a dangerous, spiritually abusive environment.
The blog quickly grew. Other alumni sent Mica their testimonies, sharing how Teen Mania had damaged them, too. The comments section on each post became makeshift forums, where conversations and debates happened about how dangerous Teen Mania actually was. Mica viewed her blog as a recovery group, and fiercely defended the right for alumni to express their anger over what had happened to them.
Then came Mind Over Mania, MSNBC’s exposé on E.S.O.A.L. Showing footage of its most recent iteration, as well as parallel footage of Mica and two other young women receiving counseling from cult experts Wendy and Doug Duncan, MOM strongly insinuated that Teen Mania is, in fact, a cult. Mica shifted her position on My Teen Mania Experience as well.
This incited strong reactions from Teen Mania and its supporters. Before this, the RA community had approached Teen Mania’s Board of Directors, hoping to help the ministry become a healthy environment — but, after collecting hundreds of testimonies from alumni, the Board suddenly dismissed their complaints and decided not to follow through with a promised investigation. They were no longer open to criticism from “Recovering Alumni.”
The RA community was outraged. They felt betrayed, and started to murmur about potential malicious intent from Ron and Dave. Their goal became to shut Teen Mania down for good.
And now they have succeeded.
It’s now almost six years since that revelation, and many things have changed.
There was an MSNBC exposé in 2011 on E.S.O.A.L. called Mind Over Mania, which led to the retreat’s “indefinite hiatus.”
Then there was David Hasz’s sudden resignation, after seventeen years as the head of the Honor Academy; according to his LinkedIn profile, he’s now Vice President of Leadership Development for another missions organization, in Minnesota.
Then, after losing their campus to foreclosure and trying to relocate to Dallas, Teen Mania cancelled its 2014 fall internship only a few weeks before it was supposed to start, planning to reinstate it in 2015 — but that didn’t end up happening. Without that free (or, actually, paying) labor, they couldn’t continue operations.
Finally, there’s Ron Luce’s arrest warrant.
After Teen Mania canceled many of their 2014 and 2015 Acquire the Fire events, they were sued for breach of contract by Compassion International, a charity that raises money to help impoverished children around the world. Compassion was seeking almost $175,000, since they’d paid Teen Mania to be promoted at said events — and Teen Mania never reimbursed them (according to World magazine, “Charity Navigator ranks Teen Mania as the nation’s fifth-most insolvent charity with a net worth of negative-$5.2 million.”).
Ron didn’t show up for court. This means there’s a warrant out for his arrest.
All this has contributed to Ron finally shutting Teen Mania down. It brings a small bit of relief, really.
Right now, though, I also have a vague sense of companionship with my friends who’ve had to come out of the closet.
After praying the “Prayer of Salvation” when I was eight years old, getting baptized when I was sixteen, and living as a devoted Christian for the majority of my life, I had to confess to my Evangelical parents three and a half years ago that I no longer believe god exists.
They reacted well, though I’m sure they still think it’s just a phase. I’m not about to disabuse them of that hope, though I know it’s not true. Whatever I believe now, whenever I actually take the time to think about it, it’s constructed through rational, deductive reasoning. And that is a HUGE amount of relief.
There’s a whole big world out there, and I feel, at last, I’m ready to explore it with wide-open eyes.