I recently hosted a screening of The Pink Room Movie with a small group of strangers–mostly friends of friends and college students five to ten years younger than myself. Someone asked how I’d found the film and I gave a brief explanation that a Teen Mania friend introduced me to it. Two girls beamed up at me with an anticipation I recognized instantly and one asked if I’d been an intern… like them. I felt my walls go up around me.
“Yeah, but it was really a long time ago. I left in 2001.” I didn’t mean to sound disinterested. But the words came out automatically and I saw a flicker of disappointment in their eyes. I promptly went back to talking about The Pink Room and Agape International Mission.
Later that evening, a friend asked where I was going to church. I began to say I was trying different places based on letters I had sent to a number of churches, asking whether or not they support TM and would consider taking their youth to Acquire the Fire conventions. Because their support of TM is currently a deal breaker for me. But I stopped, recalling that I had two alumni in the room who appeared to be very much in love with Teen Mania and I found myself a little bit at a loss.
The thing is, those girls were the first alumni whom I’ve met face to face in years. All I could think was that when I was their age and recently out of the Honor Academy, I was starting blog rings like “No, Teen Mania is Not a Cult” on Xanga. I was defending the HA against my college classmates’ questions. I even encouraged one friend to enroll and he did. And I was extremely judgmental and caught up in a doctrine focused on avoiding the appearance of evil. I had very little understanding of Love or Grace.
It’s such a surreal experience to meet alumni now, particularly new ones. I want to be sensitive to the place they’re coming from, and not negate any of the good they experienced during the internship. I know much of my own healing has been related to the freedom to call the good good and bad bad. To understand that abuse in the name of spiritual growth is not okay, but wisdom can still be gleaned from bad situations. And I can be grateful for meeting really wonderful friends as a result of my Teen Mania experience. But this whole thing of meeting alumni affected me. And then we had an anonymous comment made on my Love is Louder entry last week, which put extra weight upon my heart:
“My experience as a parent is with Campus Crusade For Christ. My daughter had trouble making friends sophomore year of college, so starting going to things involved with them, and then went on a retreat. She came back a changed person, and to me, not a good change. I lost the daughter who was vibrant, random, funny, etc. She now tries so hard to follow God, and won’t even so much as look at a fella with his shirt off. I’ve tried talking to her, but she get so defensive. She is happy that she finally has friends, but truly to me, has no life. She is always trying to “save” someone, and I wish I could save her. She had so many dreams, and no they push for them to come on staff once they graduate. I’m hoping this is just a phase, but worry that it’s not. I don’t expect a response, but just have to talk about it sometimes, because so much of it makes me so sad. Thanks for listening.”
Does that sound familiar to you? It certainly resonates with me. I don’t know the actual situation with this parent and their daughter. But I understand why one might have concerns. Particularly when it seems this parent has seen her child lose her life and vibrancy–that’s a red flag for me. When a young person gets involved with a Christian ministry, whether it’s Teen Mania, Campus Crusade, YWAM, or anyone else. the expectation is “this will bring me closer to God.” Or “this will make me a better person and build character.” The main reason any of us became interns was because we wanted to make a difference in the world.
There’s nothing wrong with that. I think it’s something to be cherished, that we have these hearts which so badly want to Love others and lead a different kind of life. There’s nothing shameful or naive about it. But there’s a definite challenge when we emerge from this religious experience and return to our everyday life–we have to determine what faith looks like as lived out by us.
Teen Mania uses debriefing. It’s essentially reeducation on how to live after going through an intense experience. Debriefing at the Honor Academy involved writing out a personal “sabre”. A code of conduct stating what we would and wouldn’t do when we went home. I could probably write a book about all of the issues I have with that, but for today, I think it’s worth noting that no one can tell you what your life should be. They can’t tell you what your faith ought to look like from the outside any more than they can tell you what to think or feel on the inside. Oh, they’ll tell you alright, but it’ll be coercion. It may affect you, you may listen to them and act accordingly, as I did, but it won’t make your faith real. It amounts to simply following laws and regulations–cleaning the outside of the cup–so it has no effect on moving our hearts to love. Frankly, I see that as a huge problem within Teen Mania and Christianity on the whole.
The advice that I would give a parent in the situation like Anonymous is to first and foremost love your child. Do everything you can to create a safe environment where your daughter feels free to discuss her experiences within and beyond the Christian group. Ask her questions about what she thinks and feels without judgment or even offering many answers. She’s going to have to sort things out for herself and really just needs to be reassured that she is valued and worthy and there’s nothing she can do to be more loved by God.
Personally, I would recommend reading a couple books on spiritual abuse and cults. My favorites are The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse and Take Back Your Life. I’d also recommend the films Blue Like Jazz and Paradise Recovered. Try to go through these with your child and have frank discussions about faith and her ideas about what a Christian life looks like. You might wish to also check out Relevant Magazine and Un-Learning. Really, do everything you can to expose your kid to cult/abuse awareness, Grace and Love.
Ultimately I believe that leading a life of faith should add to an individual’s joy–not take it away. If dreams are being pushed aside in an effort to “save” people, it’s a sign to me that something has gone wrong and it’s not a healthy faith. Recovering Alumni, do you agree? What suggestions do you have for parents of young people who’ve found religion but lost their joy?