Earlier this week, I blogged about Acquire the Fire for the very first time. It generated several reader reactions, most notably this extended comment from “Little Gray Girl” which resonated with a lot of readers:
I went to ATF every year as a teenager and I thought it was AMAZING. The smoke machines, colored lights, repetitive, emotional choruses, melodic guitars, massive crowd of my hyped-up peers, and Ron’s charisma and manipulative appeals – all of that made my experience with God seem so much more REAL and significant than my experiences with God say, on any given Sunday morning or any other time in my life. We were always encouraged to make great, sweeping commitments to God, in order to keep being ON FIRE once we went home. These included things like never listening to “secular” music, having a quiet time EVERY day (using whichever poorly-written TM devotional had come out that year), and of course the ambiguous charge to “change the world” by starting a “revolution” in your youth group and high school.
Every morning session (or is it the afternoon session?), Ron had the ushers pass out his new daily devotional, which always coincides with that particular year’s theme for ATF, to every single kid in the venue. So the kids have it in their hands, and the book looks so cool, and everyone is so hyped up and all they want to do is stay on fire and change the world and start a revolution, and they have to sit there and listen to Ron would tell them how CRUCIAL this devotional will be in helping them do just that. He would present it as if this was the KEY. He told the youth pastors how helpful these books will be in assisting them in their leadership. And then he announced the price of the book and took up an offering. If you wanted to keep the book that’s in your hands, you coughed up the money. Otherwise, you passed the book back in to the usher. Of course, almost everyone buys it.
The last session on Saturday night was the most emotional. Everyone leaves feeling on fire and thinking that everything in their lives has changed. At least that’s how I felt. Of course, once I got back to real life, I discovered that everything was pretty much the same – home life was still hard, school still sucked, still struggled with depression, etc. I would read the devotional, trying to keep my fire, trying to FEEL God the way that I did at ATF, begging him to show me that He was still there and that I was still saved. The devotional always had challenges and rules: THIS is what a World Changer does. THESE THINGS are what you should avoid if you want to stay on fire. The same old legalism you find at the HA. I would end up feeling guilty because it was absolutely impossible to live up to all of those things, to keep all the commitments I was manipulated into making at ATF as an impressionable young teen. Because all of the feelings I’d had at ATF had long faded (as will *inevitably* happen), I thought that I wasn’t on fire. I thought that God was displeased with me. And I thought it was all my fault because I would forget to have a quiet time one day or I broke a “world-changer” oath. Not to mention that I was DECIDEDLY unsuccessful at changing the world or at starting a revolution at school. I could barely navigate my home life! At ATF they put SO MUCH pressure on teenagers; we are bombarded with messages along the lines of: God always uses YOUNG PEOPLE to start revivals; NOW IS THE TIME; God is calling you tonight, don’t MISS this opportunity; YOU NEED TO GO HOME AND CHANGE YOUR TOWN/YOUTH GROUP/HIGH SCHOOL/WORLD. Originally it would give me a sense of purpose and significance; God wanted to use ME!! But when I wasn’t able to change the world (I wasn’t even *allowed* to go anywhere or do anything anyway), I felt a horrible sense of failure. I was growing up, getting too old, missing my chance to be used by God.
Then ATF would show up again the following year and I would just KNOW that this time, it would stick. This time, I wouldn’t fail. And then I would. My decision to go to the Honor Academy was based largely on the fact that I thought it would be like an ATF all the time, and I would finally know how to not lose my “fire.” I would finally actually DO SOMETHING for God, He would finally think I was worth using.
So, based on my extensive experience with ATF, I think it is dangerous in more ways than just the fact that it is a “gateway drug” to the Honor Academy. It indoctrinates teens in legalism, and in a relationship with God based on emotions (which is an immature approach to ANY relationship, and one teens ought to be steered away from). It is manipulative and shame-producing. It draws insecure teenagers into the weird, Teen Mania culture that alienates them from people in the real-world (as most of us have experienced from trying to reintegrate after leaving the HA). It presents the wrong idea of Christianity and the wrong idea of Jesus.