It seemed like Teen Mania was poised for explosive growth. Just last year, the evangelistic youth organization changed its name to include the word “International,” a reflection on its strategy to take what had been a successful ministry from Texas to the world at large. “We look forward to partnering with you when we come to your region,” founder Ron Luce wrote in Solutions, a Christian magazine, in May 2014. Just over one year later, Luce announced that Teen Mania is shutting down operations. “Teen Mania has completed this assignment,” he told Christianity Today. What happened?
In the beginning was Ron Luce. Born in Northern California, Luce ran away from home at 15 and got involved with drugs and alcohol. At 16, he got involved with Jesus. “I felt God whisper in my heart, ‘Build an army of young people who will change the world,’” he said. In 1986, a few years after graduating from Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Luce and his wife Katie started Teen Mania with “nothing more than a hatchback car and a dream to raise up an army of young people who would change the world.” And he found them: More than three million teenagers have attended an “Acquire the Fire” event–an annual youth conference–since it began in 1991. In 1999, Teen Mania held Acquire the Fire at the Pontiac Silverdome, former home of the Detroit Lions with a capacity of 82,000. Since 1986, there have been over 500 Acquire the Fire events in North America and, in July of this year, the first international Teen Mania event took place in Yangon, Myanmar, with more than 13,000 attendees. Behind the scenes, though, things weren’t going so well. Charity Navigator, an independent organization that evaluates charities in America, put Teen Mania on its list of “10 Charities in Deep Financial Trouble,” noting that not only was Teen Mania insolvent, but its total debts outstripped its assets by $5.2 million. Meanwhile, it was coming under criticism for the tactics used in the Honor Academy, a yearlong post-high school “internship” that involved military-like exercises meant to encourage teens to beat their bodies into submission. And in September of this year, a warrant was issued for Ron Luce’s arrest after he failed to appear at a court hearing for Teen Mania’s failure to repay one its partners after canceling an event.
1986 was a good year to be an evangelical Christian in America. Ronald Reagan was president; the megachurch movement was on the verge of great success; and no one was talking about the rise of the “nones.” The same year that the Luces started Teen Mania, they began organizing mission trips to developing countries and would eventually send more than 75,000 people to 67 countries to build houses for the homeless and share the gospel. “It was during my first trip with Teen Mania that I learned about unreached people groups and knew the Lord was calling me to reach those who have never had the opportunity to hear the Gospel,” a missions alumnus named Sherry Asprec wrote in a letter Teen Mania posted on their website. The success of the Acquire the Fire conferences led to a television program, atf.tv, and the creation of the Battle Cry Campaign. Battle Cry was a particularly interesting spinoff within Teen Mania. It sought to fight the influence of permissive, liberal culture in America through a series of gatherings and church programs that would encourage youth to stand strong in their faith. “It’s a battle,” Luce told Nightline in 2007. “It’s a spiritual battle. It’s a very real battle for their heart and their soul…but it’s also a cultural battle. We live in a Christian nation with a very un-Christian culture.” Battle Cry Leadership Summits featured Luce as well as a speaker lineup including Ted Haggard and Jerry Falwell, all of whom rallied around cultural decline and waning Christian influence as the reason for the battle. The enemies? Gay marriage, pornography, drug and alcohol use, and abortion, among others. The stakes were high, and the soldiers needed to be well-trained.
That’s where the Honor Academy comes in. Each year during the mid-2000s, nearly a thousand recent high school graduates flocked to the Teen Mania headquarters in East Texas, to take part in a yearlong work and Bible study program. Serious training requires serious obedience, so “interns” (the name given to Honor Academy students) were often required to wake early for an hour of exercise, followed by classes in subjects like “Character Development.” In addition, interns were given the opportunity to participate in an experience called ESOAL–Emotionally Stretching Opportunity of a Lifetime. “In this optional event, we’re placing the participants in very adverse scenarios to stretch them emotionally and physically,” wrote ESOAL facilitator Heath Stoner. (Later, participants would take issue with whether ESOAL was truly optional.) Teen Mania rhetoric was redolent of the battlefield, so in some ways it was no surprise that they would actually recreate the torture of war to purify their interns. There is a Biblical concept, too, of beating one’s body into submission: the apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians that faith is like a race: “So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.”
Donors gave and gave to Teen Mania. As Christianity Today noted, Teen Mania recorded a revenue of $23.1 million in 2001; six years later, in 2007, it was $35.6 million. It was endorsed by such conservative luminaries as George W. Bush and Franklin Graham, and wealthy evangelicals saw Teen Mania’s mission as a natural extension of their faith. But the organization spent money almost as quickly as it came in–their 2007 IRS form 990 shows that their expenses were $22.7 million. By 2011, ProPublica reports show, Teen Mania spent over $16 million but brought in only $15.3 million, leaving them with a net income of negative $1.3 million.
According to Dan McLeod, who was Teen Mania’s CFO from 2012-4, “the Honor Academy was the most profitable of the arms” of the ministry. In its heyday, the Honor Academy brought seven-figure profits to Teen Mania–in 2014, its last year of operation, interns paid $8,400 to participate. In 2010, a local Texas television station investigated the ESOAL experience, observing how it pushed teens to physical breaking points, including vomiting, sprains, and sleep deprivation. Interns had to ring a bell if they chose to stop at any point, and leaders hung signs on campus that read, “I cannot quit. I will not quit. Quitting is not an option.” The report led to a rebranding in which ESOAL was changed to PEARL—Physical, Emotional, and Relational Learning—but the damage was done. Watchdog websites sprung up, and some alumni started sharing their stories of time at the Honor Academy. Heath Stoner, the facilitator who write about ESOAL on his blog, was a name that came up frequently; one video shows him asking a participant why he is crying. “Now these critters haven’t eaten. They eat on grain products,” Stoner can be heard saying to the scared intern as someone else pours what looks to be flour into the confined space the intern has crawled into. “You might want to keep that powder off your face,” Stoner says. “Those rodents like to bite.”
Training for battle is serious business. When you see your faith as a war, like Ron Luce did, every moment is an opportunity for victory. It doesn’t matter if the interns are young—aren’t our men and women in uniform the same age? What matters is that they’re prepared. That’s what Luce envisioned, and for nearly thirty years, that’s what Teen Mania did. Preparation for the battle, it turned out, was the battle itself. Addie Zierman, a Christian writer and blogger, wrote in her book When We Were on Fire about her experience with Teen Mania. She went to Acquire the Fire and on a mission trip to the Dominican Republic, and her older boyfriend spent a year at the Honor Academy. “I lost track of how many times God ‘told him to break up with me’ and then changed his mind over that couple of years,” she told me. Over time, Zierman began to see the lasting legacy of Teen Mania in her life. “Teen Mania trafficked in the emotions and passion of young people and set up an expectation of faith and the Christian self that is both unrealistic and dangerous.” (A group of Honor Academy alumni have set up a website detailing their grievances with Teen Mania and Ron Luce.)
There are several youth-oriented parachurch organizations that have done well over the last few decades; groups like Young Life, a youth ministry that puts on weekly meetings and summer camps, and InterVarsity, a college ministry that has worked intentionally to foster multi-ethnic communities on Christian campuses. Both organizations were founded in 1941 and have been able to weather the changing Christian culture because they did not depend entirely on being relevant to the trends of their eras. Where Teen Mania fought the culture wars, Young Life and Intervarsity tended to keep their focus on welcoming newcomers and sharing the gospel.
Although Ron Luce would want us to believe that Teen Mania is closing because they accomplished the mission they set out for, the numbers tell a very different story. After years of declining revenue and waning influence, there was little demand for the product Teen Mania was putting out. Evangelical Christianity in America is changing, and young people are growing up in a different, more pluralistic society than those who were raised in the 1980s and 90s. The closing of Teen Mania is part of a shift in evangelical engagement in public life—younger Christians no longer want to fight the culture wars that their parents did with the Moral Majority. They are more likely to be accepting of homosexuality than their parents were, and they recognize that America’s religious pluralism requires sensitivity, not emotionally manipulative evangelistic tactics.
Back in 2005, Teen Mania launched www.battlecry.com as an alternative Christian social media: “Let MySpace be His space” was the tagline. If you were to type the URL into your browser today, you would find a blank white page. The “Acquire the Fire” website has replaced its splashy home page with a press release about the number of people their events reached. Like the ministry itself, its digital footprint is fading quickly. Soon, all that will be left of Teen Mania is the memory.