This is another guest post by community member, Shannon Ashley.
My entire Teen Mania experience has followed me with a very deep cost. I lost many things in my life as a result of the lessons I learned there. Among those things, one of the most damaging losses was love—my belief in love and also my ability to love.
The fact that TM squashed my love is contrary to some of the most frequent complements I hear about the Garden Valley campus. So many people—visitors, fellow alumni, parents, present and former staff members—will gush about the LOVE that flows from Teen Mania’s veins. Teen Mania itself certainly encourages this idea among present and potential interns. We hear a lot about the “brotherhood”and family among Teen Mania people. We hear testimonies about being stranded in an unfamiliar place with no roof overhead, to be offered a place to stay and a hot meal by a fellow HA ring bearer.
It’s all very compelling—this idea that we’ve been through something no one else, except other TM people, so only TM people can understand it. We’re bound to a lineage of people before and after ourselves all by our blood, sweat and tears. Not to mention red dirt. So all of this intensity and emotion builds into this strong allusion of love. The problem is that Teen Mania practices their own brand of love and the illusion is much gentler than the reality.
So what did Teen Mania teach me about love?
· Love is not a feeling. (Although if you “feel”an absence of God’s love, you’re probably in sin. And if you’re talking about the love you “feel” from Teen Mania, that’s love. So sometimes love is a feeling, but only under certain circumstances.)
· Love is about regularly doing the stuff you don’t want to do. (Because love that comes too easily is not really love. Plus adversity builds character, which in turn generates love.)
· Loving your community means adhering to rules and principles which will make you stand out as “different”. (Just don’t act too snobby about it because you’re not supposed to brag about being better than anyone. Even though you’re supposed to be better than the rest of the world since you’re an ON-FIRE Christian.)
· God has about 10 potential mates for me if I’m supposed to get married and I should try to find the BEST one for me. (Which means I need to be constantly aware of my appearance and attitude to attract a husband.)
· You don’t date if you’re looking for love—you court. (Dating is a modern invention all about instant gratification. Courtship is God’s design and TM leadership has all the details how to court correctly.)
· It’s a wife’s job to be beautiful, enchanting and sexually available to her husband at all times to satisfy his lust and libido. (Missionary position only please, bedroom only, no toys or trashy lingerie allowed. Because we’re not animals.)
· It’s wrong to have arguments in your spousal relationship. (Women submit even if the man is wrong as long as he’s not requiring you to act EXPLICITLY out of line with the Bible.)
· Nothing can separate us from the love of God. (Except for any type of sin.)
· Love means having many “confrontations”. (It’s better to give than to receive!)
· Love and passion pretty much never go together for long. (If you’re looking for weak knees, butterflies in the stomach, love-like-a-movie love, you need to come to terms with the fact that love like that has never existed for anybody anywhere.)
· Love will only happen under certain conditions. (You’re near perfect and TM leadership says you’re mature enough for a relationship.)
· Finding love means walking around with a magnifying glass to scrutinize the flaws of every potential mate. (Just imagine how good it feels to have someone do that to you!)
· You won’t know if it’s love if you don’t measure it by a list of guidelines first. (Get out your ideal husband checklists!)
· If a couple has sex before marriage, they have to break up because they just ruined the entire future of the relationship. (Really. Even if you take a break and let time pass before resuming the relationship, there will always be mistrust.)
Things Teen Mania never taught me about love:
- Love crosses boundaries. Love is messy. It doesn’t fit into a box or our best-laid plans.
- Love is the birthright of everyone on this planet—it’s not something we work to earn or be worthy enough to receive.
- Love is worth fighting for and it’s worth the pain it takes to get it. But love is also natural and easy–we were born to love.
- Love isn’t perfect. And that’s okay.
- Loving our community doesn’t require a sermon. Nor does it require drawing attention to ourselves or religion. It simply requires doing something that people need or could be useful to others.
- Love can surprise you with a plan of its own. You don’t have to make it happen and be in control.
- Love makes us foolish and a little bit of foolishness can be magic.
- It’s okay to hope for the type of love you want, to dream of and desire romance.
- Sex doesn’t need to be scary or weird. It’s even okay to enjoy it. You don’t have to worry if you’re doing it wrong because Ron Luce said your preferences are bad!
- Even good people do stupid things and hurt the ones they love.
- You don’t have to be ashamed if you’re divorced. You haven’t lost your chance to be loved.
- Loving and instructing do not always go hand in hand. Even a “confrontation in love” can be something someone never had any business saying to you.
- Love does not excuse abuse—that includes emotional and spiritual abuse too!
Among my deepest regrets after Teen Mania is buying into their idea of love. Love at the internship was all about pain—I worked beyond my limits because I loved God. God pushed me past the needs of my body and soul because he loved me. I felt lonely and far away from God because he was revealing sin in my life. Retreat facilitators called me names because they were doing it out of love. Daily confrontations happened to me because I was such a bad person, and my confronters all were speaking out of love to guide me to be a good person.
Ultimately, as someone who never seemed able to “measure up”to the TM standard, love was an elusive prize I’d failed to deserve. I wrote my potential mate checklist and knew that I could never deserve a really good man. So the men I chose from Teen Mania on were all men who had at least one glaring issue that bothered me. In my mind, I believed that if I punished myself by being with someone I didn’t quite love as much as I’d wanted to love someone, I wouldn’t be taking a good man away from a girl who was better than me. Who actually deserved his love. It also meant that I wasn’t basing love on a feeling. When I finally lived in an extremely unhappy marriage, I believe that there was no way out, and it was my lot in life. I believed that making the choice to stay with a liar and a cheater was even a form of obedience to God.
These thought processes sound crazy, I know. But when you’ve been the victim of a cult, it’s really difficult to separate truth from lies. Cult members and ex-cult members do all sorts of bargaining with themselves to find a way to fit in with the group’s ideals. Sometimes we’ll go as far as to do something that we believe will damn us to Hell or get ourselves kicked out of the cult simply because we carry guilt over not being able to measure up to the cult’s standards. It’s part of being so deeply manipulated.
I wish I could say Teen Mania taught me how to love. Sometimes I wish I could remember the warmth on the campus and believe it was love. But there is nothing loving about chewing up and spitting out the young people trusting you with their development and spiritual growth. The feelings people have when they talk about Teen Mania love aren’t love at all. They’re intensity and emotional manipulation.