When I was eighteen years old, instead of heading off to college I spent a year in Garden Valley, Texas. I was there for a ministry internship called The Honor Academy, one branch of Teen Mania Ministries.
Twenty, twenty-five years ago, Teen Mania was in its prime. A full class at the HA might have more than 600 first year interns. After graduation, some of those interns would stay on for a second year.
Some would stay even longer and become “lifers.”
Everything at the HA was focused on serving the ministry and becoming a super Christian. We were expected to be excellent in every aspect of our lives.
For the first two weeks, new interns had to go through “the gauntlet,” which was basically a series of physically strenuous and emotionally stretching tasks.
We had mandatory corporate exercise at 5AM, where a dude called Mr. Sunshine led us in running laps and completing a number of other exercises. It was grueling for most of us, but we were made to recite bible verses like, “I beat my body and make it my slave.”
During the day, we went through repeated rounds of hazing. Again, it was called the gauntlet. But they modeled the activities off of shows like Fear Factor and movies like GI Jane. We completed hardcore obstacle courses which often involved crawling through the mud or running away from facilitators shooting us with paintballs guns.
They called us maggots and pansies, and we didn’t have any protective gear. The paint balls made holes in my pants as they made impact.
I had my period during the gauntlet. Because I have PCOS and endometriosis, my periods tend to last longer and affect me harder than the norm. In that first week, I list so much blood that I thought I was going to pass out doing belly flops in the mud in the sweltering Texas heat.
If it all sounds a bit like Lord of the Flies or The 100, it was. And leadership was adept at convincing us that all of these tests and challenges would help sharpen our character. Of course, we would also prove how much we wanted to be there.
“Proving ourselves to God” was a huge part of the Honor Academy experience.
Even after the gauntlet, things were intense. We had monthly retreats designed to “challenge us.”
Only one of those retreats was optional, but those of us who chose not to participate in ESOAL (emotionally stretching opportunity of a lifetime) were given plenty of pressure to change our minds. “Don’t you want God to speak to you?” Second year interns and staff told us how much ESOAL changed their lives for the better.
I refused to do it. It was a 36- to 80-hour challenge (it varied each year and the schedule was always a secret) where interns were not allowed to sleep.
There was one challenge toward the end of the retreat when they stuck interns into a warm, dark room with soft music. If you fell asleep, you had to “ring out.” Ringing out meant you literally climbed up on a platform to ring an enormous bell and admit that you couldn’t cut it.
Each challenge was designed to be grueling and miserable. Defined to make interns want to ring out. In some activities, participants were forced to eat bugs or pet food. In others, they had to repeatedly roll down hills until they puked… which meant rolling through each other’s vomit too.
Frankly, it boggles my mind that the Honor Academy and ESOAL continued for years. But I think that’s because for a long time, interns didn’t actually talk about what happened during the gauntlet or in any of those retreats on campus.
And honestly, they groomed us to stay quiet.
You see, prior to getting your application accepted to even attend the internship, you had to first attend one of their mission trips with their ministry called Global Expeditions.
The summer before my senior year of high school, I went to Trinidad with them. For three days before flying down to the island, we had to practice a choreographed mime drama for several hours a day on their Garden Valley campus.
The drama practice was miserable. We were just kids. Thirteen to nineteen year old kids who were expected to strive for perfection.
My part required plenty of time on my knees and eventually, I couldn’t stand any bit of pressure on them. When I spoke up to say I needed rest and that my knees were bruised and bleeding, I was pressured to not “wimp out.”
With Teen Mania, there was always this pressure disguised as encouragement. As if the ends always justified the means. And the main lesson that was always to be learned was how much we needed God.
When we returned from our missions trips, we spent a couple of days back on the Texas campus to go through “debriefing.” During debriefing, the founder, Ron Luce gave talks to inform us that the people back home were not going to understand what we’d been through. He joked about how we might forget to flush our toilet paper for a few weeks because of the lack of good plumbing on our trips.
But there was this underlying message that God was at work in everything that happened at Teen Mania, and that if we talked about any of the really grueling stuff, our loved ones wouldn’t get it. They might even think we were crazy.
Back then, I simply didn’t have the language or understanding to see that all of this was abuse. I didn’t realize they were always pushing some angle. At the time, Teen Mania was well connected to churches, charities, Christian writers, and successful musicians. In those days, they had a stellar reputation.
It never occurred to me that it was wrong. Whenever it was really hard to be there, I just thought I needed to be stronger.
“Are we happy plastic people
Under shiny plastic steeples
With walls around our weakness
And smiles that hide our pain”
- Casing Crowns, Stained Glass Masquerade
It was easy for the people of Teen Mania to prey upon me and many other well-intentioned kids because the messaging was congruent to so much that we were already taught at home.
Sure, we weren’t forced to complete insane obstacle courses. Our parents and churches didn’t make us eat cat food. But for so many evangelical kids, we were taught that suffering was godliness. And that we had to constantly prove our love for God.
We were taught that honesty about our struggles was wrong. In other words, we were impacted by deeply entrenched hypocrisy within Christianity.
And this is not a secret. Everybody knows that there is overwhelming pressure to conform and perform as a super perfect Christian who has all their shit together. No matter how much folks deny it. That’s why, when the Christian band Casting Crowns came out with the song Stained Glass Masquerade, it was so relatable.
Through the pregnancy and birth of my daughter in 2014, I finally turned away from my lifetime of Christianity. My deconversion was painful and conflicting, but today, I feel glad to call myself an exvangelical. Christianity is a part of my old life, one that was riddled with shame and pain.
But that’s what abuse does. Until you deal with the abuse, it wreaks havoc in your life. It fills you up with shame. It causes unbelievable pain.
When I write about my current views on Christianity, I have to be honest that I’ve seen Christians do much more harm than good.
And plenty of people don’t like to hear that.
It’s not unusual to see Christians respond to my writing with complaints about facing needless criticism and persecution. They don’t understand why anyone would have a problem with their beliefs.
So, I want to be very clear.
No matter how you slice it, Christianity has a long history of abusing children. It’s not just a problem among catholic priests. And it’s not all about sexual abuse.
It’s about every form of abuse that is so often excused among Christians. If it seems like more and more people hate Christianity today, the truth is that they do.
For good reason.
And the Christian church only has itself to blame.
There’s a great myth among Christians that says they are going to be persecuted for loving Jesus. For following God. There’s a myth that anytime somebody speaks out against Christianity it’s happening because the world is evil.
It’s a convenient myth because it means that Christianity never really has to grow. Never has to admit to any wrongdoing.
Even when I am explicit about the abuses I experienced as a child or young adult, Christians make excuses. They tell me that I can’t punish all of Christianity for a few mistakes. Or they tell me that I didn’t love God enough or do things right.
Even today, it’s shocking to me how many people think it’s okay to make excuses for abuse within Christianity. I’m still surprised by how many folks have no problem blaming victims.
The truth is that it’s not my job to play nice with Christians. It’s not my job to give churchgoers pats on the back. Frankly, I see very little overall good being accomplished by most Christian ministries, plus their widespread denial of abuse.
The onus is not on me to trust my past abusers. Those of you who continue to call yourselves Christians are the ones who are supposed to be making yourselves known with the love of Christ.
Instead, most Christians are stuck on complaining that the world doesn’t take them seriously. And let’s face it. It’s Christians who normalized Trump’s abusive behavior. Given my experiences with the church, it shouldn’t be a surprise.
The likes of Paula White and Donald Trump should have been shut down ages ago. And it should have been Christians who shut them down. If Christians really want to show people like myself who’ve been victimized by its leaders that “true Christianity” isn’t abusive, they’ve got to stop turning a blind eye to all of the abuse.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m all out of empathy for Christianity. Are all Christians bad people? Of course not. Yet, the majority in America are complicit to abuse. That includes every well-meaning Christian who tells me that I can’t let other people impact the way I see God.
The reality is that a person’s view of God is impacted by other people. For better or for worse. Telling a victim of abuse that they should “take the high road” is ineffective and out of touch.
Because I grew up immersed in a Christian bubble, I used to feel guilty for cringing every time I heard some faith-based platitude after I left the church. I used to think I was a terrible person to roll my eyes at bible verses or to groan anytime somebody brought up “the good news.”
And then I realized that my knee jerk disgust at most Christian things isn’t about my heart being full of hate. It’s about my survival as a human being and mother. My survival as a victim of abuse.
The way I see it, Christianity is not going to survive as anything remotely beneficial until it finally admits why people hate it. Or why we seem to hate it.
It’s not about undue persecution of Christians.
It’s about the needless trauma and abuse perpetuated by those who call themselves Christians.
In 2015, Teen Mania Ministries finally shut down after being around for about 30 years. I attribute its destruction to the popularity of social media.
After I graduated from the internship in 2001, people began to talk about their negative experiences with Teen Mania, the Honor Academy, and Global Expeditions online.
Once former interns began opening up about life on campus in Garden Valley, Texas, they started to understand that those experiences were abusive.
Teen Mania had a hard time dismissing the bad press. The ministry founder went on record claiming that the disgruntled interns were just weak kids who couldn’t cut it.
Eventually, they lost financial support and got into deep debt. They filed for bankruptcy in 2015 and finally closed shop. Unfortunately, that’s not where the story ends, however.
After failing to pay their debts when they canceled a number of youth conferences, the founder Ron Luce and his wife came back in 2019 with a new ministry called Generation Next.
That website is full of much of the same propaganda they spouted in the Honor Academy.
Is it any wonder that so many people seem to hate Christianity today? The most notorious abusers continue to get away with their crap.
We can’t keep pretending that trauma or abuse in Christianity is such a rare thing.