Closing Thoughts on the End of Teen Mania

14 Jan

I close my eyes. The music is so loud it shakes my insides. I say a quick prayer of gratitude thanking God I am there, thanking Him that I get to be a part of this “movement of passionate young people.”

I open my eyes. The lights and sounds make the atmosphere overwhelming to my senses. I am in a large football stadium with thousands of people singing with a band at the top of their lungs. Many have their hands in the air and their eyes closed, swaying. I am overcome with emotion. I am 20 and I can’t believe I am on this journey. I know I am part of Something Much Bigger Than Me. 

I get to help make this happen. I get to be here.

————————————————————————–

Rewind three years back. It was 2002. I  was seventeen and spent most of my life in a tiny, rural town in New Hampshire. I hadn’t exactly traveled a lot, besides family camping trips to Maine and visits to relatives in Connecticut and Florida.

My best friend had convinced me to sign up for a two-week missions trip.

“We need it. We are so up and down. So complacent. I think this will change our lives.”

I knew she was right. I felt it deep down. But I also didn’t feel good enough.

She flipped excitedly through the colorful Global Expeditions brochure in her living room.

“This is where we are going. JAMAICA!”

I agreed excitedly. I wanted to get away from the small-town drama sucking us in. I needed a real adventure. Plus, I did love Jesus. I wanted to be a good Christian. I was sick of feeling like a hypocrite.

At youth group, I’d go down to the altar and cry because I felt so guilty about doing bad things, but inevitably I’d go back to my old ways.

Maybe a clean break away, focusing on Jesus was exactly what I needed.

We had a bake sale and wrote letters asking people for money so we could tell people in Jamaica about Jesus. A few thousand dollars each later we were on our way.

On the airplane, my best friend and I talked about how we probably would end up breaking up with our boyfriends when we got back home.  They were trouble.  From now on, we would only date real Christians.

At the airport, young, good-looking people with bubbly personalities and colorful T-shirts met us and lead us to a big bus where others were waiting to drive the 2 hours from Dallas to the campus in East Texas.

Once the bus started moving, videos screens came down and played a music video.

We both cried and felt deep down our lives would never be the same.

When we arrived on the enormous, neatly groomed campus in Garden Valley, we were thrown into a frenzy of activity. Every moment of our time was taken with team-building activities, worship sessions, preaching, and classes.

I remember having a moment in the auditorium where I felt God’s love tangibly like I never had before.

I remember thinking, “God is more real than this chair I am sitting in.”

That moment was a turning point for me. Whenever doubt crept in, I’d look back at that second in time and the feeling I had, and I knew that no matter what, God was real and He loved me.

It was also during that time I decided I had to move there.

I was going to The Honor Academy, Teen Mania’s internship program.

My best friend said she was going too.

————————————————————————–

The first year: I wasn’t allowed to date and I was glad. I burned the letters from my ex I had kept. I fasted and almost blacked out. I rolled down a hill repeatedly till I got sick. I slept in the mud. I slept on a broken school bus seat. I confessed my sins. I ran more than I ever ran. I did more on less sleep than I thought was possible. I did flutter kicks in a puddle. I hiked down the Grand Canyon and almost got trampled by a pack of wild donkeys. I wrote passionate promises to myself and to God. I learned to hug.  I sat in the dark woods for hours by myself and begged God to show himself. I avoided guys completely. I cleaned houses for people living in poverty with Hillsong Church in Australia. I learned to be vulnerable. I cried a lot. I obsessed with making every moment count. I spent hours on the phone talking to prospective interns about their problems when I had no clue how to deal with my own. I crawled on my hands and knees through a hay bale maze. I luged down a mountain in New Zealand. I fell in love with Jesus. I soaked up hours of teaching and felt more and more burdened to be better.

My plan had been to go for one year then return home to “ignite a fire in the apathetic church in New Hampshire.” I also had plans to move to Australia and learn to be a Youth Pastor.

Instead, I stayed.

I could probably write several books on the adventures and weird things that happened those 3.5 years. (Was it only 3.5? I always said 4, but time was weird for someone in the January class.)

I spent 2.5 years on the road. Living on a bus. With 3 different teams. Sharing beds, church floors, breathing space, prayers, tears, body odor, laughter, and fear.

Letting go of the religious facades I had unknowingly built around myself.

It was on the road that I fell in love with writing again. I started a book and I felt for the first time in my life that I truly had something to say.

It was on the road that I feel deeply in love with travel. I loved the way the road whizzed passed me as I fell asleep. I can still close my eyes and picture that feeling: cramped on a tight, stuffy, uncomfortable bus. Laying with my body pressed against the cold window.

Watching the lines of the road pass by, filled with a crazy, overflowing joy that I was exactly where I was supposed to be and I was living the greatest adventure. 

I even loved the sketchy trucker stops at 3 am, and when our bus broke down for the 12th time and we were forced to make the most out of it.

Everything was always new and different.

But every great adventure is difficult and it was, on my mind, body and  soul.

I was pushed and prodded and stretched out of my comfort zone in ways I could have never imagined.

On the road, I was exposed.

I couldn’t hide like I had done my whole life.

It was on the road that repressed memories from my childhood were brought to light.

But somehow with God’s strength, I faced my fears and overcame them.

Somehow insecure-little-me rose up to be a leader when it was asked of me.

Somehow I spoke in front of people. Somehow I mentored and encouraged a few.

I was just 20 or 21.

So young. I had no idea what I was doing.

But it was an exciting time.

Teen Mania Ministries was the name in the Christian subculture.

We were big. Everyone knew us. We were making a difference.

Ron Luce led us into a new era of youth conferences…

Battle Cry.

We were doing things in youth ministry nobody had done before.

We were rubbing shoulders with every popular Christian band.

We were cutting edge and revolutionary.

We had lights, fire, dancers, multimedia.

We had a Navy SEALs parachuting into the bay next to SBC Park in San Francisco.

(While I, behind the scenes working as the VIP host for the SEALs watched in terror as this group of tough men got extremely nervous when something malfunctioned on the parachute mid-jump. Thankfully, he fixed it and landed without a hitch. Nobody knew anything had gone wrong but us.)

The mainstream media was noticing. So were groups who thought we were there to destroy their way of life.

(We had protestors before the Westboro Baptist church was infamous.)

In the midst of all the lights, speakers, music, media attention, and excitement of changing the youth of America,

There was a lot of hurt. A lot of strict, overbearing rules.

A lot of things being done in the name of God that weren’t very godly.

There were a lot of really overworked and underpaid people in their early twenties surviving on Starbucks, adrenaline, and prayer.

A lot of legalism, and not a lot of grace.

With all this came a lot questioning of the things I had always believed to be true.

Mostly, why is Christianity so militant and aggressive?

Does God really expect all these things from us?

Did Jesus really mean, “Come to me all who are weary and I’ll give you rest?”

If so, why are we so weary doing so much for Jesus?

Speaking of Jesus, what is His role in the Battle Cry?

Changing lives….. right?

I began to look at the event I had seen week after week and I realized something was missing…

Jesus.

The events had become about trying to fight a culture war against all the immoral things stealing teens from the church.

They had become about being the boldest, biggest and best no matter what the financial cost, no matter how many interns and staff were bulldozed over. 

By then I was done. I had had it. I had seen too much.

Everything was changing and my time was up. I went on to work with several other organizations and go on more adventures all over the world.

Now I am 30 and married with a baby.

My theology has changed.

Or, simplified maybe.

My understanding of grace has changed everything in my life.

I no longer feel burdened or guilty by the weight of religion or my own imperfection.

I spent years frustrated and mad, and just plain heartbroken.

I wanted this ministry that I had loved, that I had grown at, that I had spent some of the best years of my life at to change.

To focus on the finished work of Christ instead of our own works.

I wanted people to feel loved instead of overworked,

To regain the joy of their salvation instead of being “burnt out.”

The more I saw the world, the more I embraced the simplicity of a gospel that really is:

Jesus plus nothing is everything.

The more I disregarded the empty super-spiritual acts that I once deemed important, The more I stopped trying to be holy and realized I already was, The further I felt from this place that had been my spiritual home.

I saw all the bad. The evil in magnifying our own holiness. The weird, cultish ways we tried to get closer to God.

I got angry for all the people that were still deceived. I wanted them to be free.

I had a new Battle Cry: THE WAR IS OVER. IT HAS ALREADY BEEN WON.

I saw the way they were misusing finances and the downward spiral begin.

Honestly, I am glad I got out when I did.

Honestly, I am surprised Teen Mania managed to stay afloat this long.

Honestly, I’ve struggled whether or not to use the word “cult” for years.

And yet, I surprised myself by bursting in tears when Ron and Katie sent that final, inevitable email.

Yes, a huge part of me is relieved.

There is a time for everything under the sun.

But there is a part of me that also has to grieve.

And this is why I decided to write this.

To share the good and the bad.

To remember.

To bring closure.

I wouldn’t trade my time there for anything. I have no regrets, other than the fact maybe I could have walked in freedom a little sooner.

I am the person I am today because of what I experienced, positive and negative.

The joys of the adventure of the road. The tears of spiritual oppression.

The deep, real friendships that only comes from going to hell and heaven and back with a group of people.

Those people who were real, bright beacons of light that truly loved others like Jesus and radiated grace.  (Thank you.)

The moments of truly grasping how big and beautiful life is because of the love of God.

The feeling like the whole world is open to you and nothing is impossible.

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One Response to “Closing Thoughts on the End of Teen Mania”

  1. Becca January 15, 2016 at 12:14 am #

    I love this story. Impossible is nothing.

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