Note from RA: Teen Mania leadership has repeatedly assured us that the events in this story no longer happen at Teen Mania. However, this story is extremely recent – Global Expeditions 2011.
I have been a Christian nearly all my life. I loved Jesus and knew that Jesus loved me, and right around the summer of my fourteenth year, God called me to be a full time missionary overseas. I saw how many missions Teen Mania sponsored, so the year of my seventeenth birthday I applied and was on my way across the world to spread the word about Jesus.
I was so excited. There was nothing else that I thought about, and as the deadline for the trip drew near, I also applied go to Honor Academy. In fact, I even got accepted. I had a friend who had gone there, and I was stoked. Then my mom pulled up a couple of websites, including this blog, and I found myself second guessing. However, I didn’t worry about it too much as I went overseas that summer.
But something was wrong. Something felt very, very wrong.
Before officially setting out to the mission field with Global Expeditions, you spend a couple days at the Honor Academy for training. It was awesome when I arrived. There was live worship, and inspiring messages, and people who truly and genuinely loved Jesus. There were people who had my heart for missions, for the poor, and for the gospel. I couldn’t wait to finally go. I had waited for so long to go to this country, to meet its people who I already loved. How were we going to do it? We were going to put on dramas and share our testimonies through the help of translators. We were going to do street ministry. And in reality it was awesome. Why? Because I was obeying Jesus with every cell of my body. I was being Jesus, because Jesus is God, and God is love. [1 John 4:8] But sadly, there are things that happened overseas that I don’t want to talk about, because Teen Mania hurt me.
Here comes the really bad part.
Before departing to our foreign country, we had to learn our skit. It was eighteen minutes long and pretty cool, although it played really bad 80’s techno music. (Anyone else do the Journeyman?) At about one-o-clock in the afternoon we set out to practice our skit in the hot Texas sun. It wasn’t until twelve-thirty in the morning that we were allowed to finish. I had been dancing non-stop for twelve hours.
I remember there was a lot of yelling, a lot of telling me to suck it up. A lot of kneeling on the ground. (I had a hard time getting up, my ankles swollen from the arthritis I had just been diagnosed with.) I remember my team leader telling me that I didn’t have to do anything I didn’t think I could handle. If I ever felt tired or hurt, I could just stop. The reality? I was made guilty for my weakness, so I responded out of fear and the need to be accepted. For instance, I played one of the soldiers that nailed Jesus to the cross. I had to pretend to beat his wrists and his feet so when I stooped down to hammer, my project director yelled, “ Get on your knees when you do that!” His voice was harsh and I was humiliated. The tone of his voice brought me to tears. During a different scene, the same man came up, without looking at me, and shoved my hands in the right position. It unsettled me, and when I began to question, out loud, whether this was right, I was shut up with answers like, “He is just really passionate about this.” “They just want you to be better.” “He knows best. Be respectful.” And, later that night, when I was crying from lack of sleep I was told that I wasn’t relying on Jesus. This was my second day at Teen Mania, and I already started to feel violated. I felt guilty, but I knew something was wrong. Yes, God wants me to work hard, but God doesn’t force me to my knees. He doesn’t hurt me or embarrass me. He doesn’t like depriving me of sleep. God doesn’t want me to deliberately hurt myself in order to trust in Him more. Doing that is like saying God wants me to slit my wrist for His glory. [I would later find out that what I just described was summed up in a program called ESOAL.] Wasn’t my body a temple of the most high God? (1 Corinthians 6:19) Yet my opinions were strangled with cookie cutter answers and more guilt.
And it only got worse overseas.
For the next month, I almost never got any sleep. After a long hard day of mission work, we ate dinner and went upstairs for a project meeting. At times it was messages, other times it was encouragement, and strangely, a lot of it was telling us that we needed to suck up and deal with it. A lot of what I heard was, “You are disrespectful. You don’t have enough faith. You aren’t doing good enough. The reason you are sleepy is because you don’t trust God enough.” Many of us fell asleep in our chairs from exhaustion. When we did, we were yelled to stand against the wall to keep awake. Many of us fell asleep standing up. I had never been so tired in my entire life. And somehow, this was Godly? People do the same thing when they question terrorists.
Other times, the attitude in ministry was wrong. When we were prayer walking around temples, it seemed like a lot of people had a hateful attitude. And strangely, I had a hard time concentrating on prayer because people kept snapping at me. “Stay in line! Be quiet! Walk faster!” I was in line, I was quiet, and I was doing my best at keeping up. My best. So why were they speaking to me like that? Somehow my best wasn’t good enough, and I accepted that. People said they were angry and sickened by the temples and Hinduism. And while I understand to be angry at the devil for his deception, I felt like a lot of it got turned on the people. The ignorant, lost people.
For instance, a couple of my friends and I were visiting with a Hindu priest’s wife. She was a widow and the pastor in that town frequently visited her and read her the Bible. The woman was so glad to see us, and very kind and intelligent and knew a lot about Scripture. We shared the gospel with her, and asked her questions about Hinduism. In the end, she didn’t accept Christ, and when asked why, she explained according to her faith in Hinduism. I beamed in pride for her, because somehow I knew that she would come to Christ. I felt it, and I still can’t explain it. I knew she would accept God soon, and I understood that it wasn’t going to be now. Then, out of nowhere, my team leader said [to the pastors with us], “Tell her that her husband is in hell.”
The pastors looked at him in shock. Had I just heard that? “We can’t say that,” they said, and even though it was the truth, such a saying would hurt more than help. Yes, hell needed to be discussed, [and a lot of churches in America neglect that issue] but we were here to be Jesus. Last time I checked, Jesus didn’t go around pointing out the sins of people. He said, “You are forgiven. Go out and sin no more.” Yet, much of our ministry was the exact opposite with project leader shouting, “Repent you sinners!” and yelling loudly at the top of his voice, often mocking them.
Before going on the trip, I had a picture in my head about witnessing to an old woman in front of her house, and I did! God spoke through me, giving me words that I would have never thought of. Then my team leader cut in, telling me all the points I missed, completely losing my train of thought. She was upset because I didn’t use the cookie-cutter, read from a script gospel she had given me.
And the sad thing is, I didn’t want to speak up. I was too afraid to stand up for myself, for the people, or for Jesus. Why? Because every time I even said anything remotely contrary to what Teen Mania said, I was shut down, sometimes even mid-sentence in front of everyone. [“Oh, nice thought. Next?”] I couldn’t share my testimony with people, because I was judged. I couldn’t tell people what I was feeling; tell people that I dealt with depression, or that I was in pain from my arthritis, because I was pounded for it.
Which brings me to the health issue. Not only did I have pretty weird conversations with people about my depression medication, but many people deemed it as my reliance on the world. “You are sick because you are doubting God,” they concluded. In fact, I only found one person who actually showed any sympathy, and the result was me being quiet, feeling guilty and alone and just wanting to disappear. When my ankles swelled up to the size of grapefruits, no one did anything. When my friend had a hot burning rash that covered her entire body and her face swelled up, no one took her to the doctor. When my friend was throwing up and I ran upstairs to tell an adult, I was sent back down with nothing, no one, and a couple of why-the-heck-did-you-do-that looks as well as a couple of disrespectful words.
Another time I came back to our settlement crying, my ankles hurting and my body about to collapse. I asked my team leader if I could go lay down and they told me to ask my core advisor. I asked him, and I burst into tears. “Why do you need to go lay down?” he asked unkindly. Then added, “What? Now you are going to cry because you didn’t get what you wanted?” He refused and told me to sit down in worship. It made it worse, and I ended up standing up anyways. I was scared someone would comment if I was sitting down.
And there were little things too. I couldn’t ever call my family. Any emotion that I showed what-so-ever was pretty much stomped on. I was constantly being told that I needed to step up and be better, but in reality, I was giving all of myself. I was giving every last inch of my body, my mind, and my soul. Looking back I realize that the only thing that got me through my Global Expeditions trip was Jesus. “Remember why you are here,” He told me when I was crying one night. “I sent you here for a reason.” And it was true. I saw the blind see, the deaf hear, and hundreds of people come to Christ. I saw God in work. I saw the persecution of the foreign church, and I met some of the most amazing people in the entire world. I fell in love with Jesus all over again, and God reassured me of my calling and so much more. He taught me that I can get through anything and that He would always be there. He taught me discernment in teaching and how to respond out of love in all situations.
Who taught me that? God. Not me, not my team leader, and not Teen Mania.
You may be wondering why I haven’t mentioned my name, or the country I went to. The truth? I don’t want the same people to judge me again. In fact, I am quite afraid of writing this, because someone will figure it out sooner or later and I will probably get an email in my Facebook inbox saying that I have been deceived and need to beat my body and my mind.
So in the end, I am still confused how to feel about Teen Mania. On one hand, I see God changing the hearts of people all around the world and on the other hand I see false doctrine that borders the line of absurdity. I see good and wonderful people from the Honor Academy, and I see people who make me want to run in the other direction. In all, I know they mean well. I know they don’t want to hurt me or other people, and I know they want to encourage growth toward God. But still, there are things that need to be changed. There are some things that I cannot bring myself to go through at the Honor Academy or at Global Expeditions. Because instead of feeling confident in the Lord, I feel almost guilty. I feel guilty that I have arthritis or that I have a chemical imbalance in my brain that I can’t control. I feel bad that I was looked on as, “not willing to take the challenge,” when in reality, I am taking the biggest challenge of my life. The one God gave me. The one He told me when I was fourteen, and the one he encourages me in every day instead of tearing me down…
If there is anything that I have learned in full it is that my God is not a God of fear, and He is not a God who tells me I am not good enough. He is my strength and salvation, and He is the reason I continue to live and breathe. So while I didn’t have such a good time with Global Expeditions, I can tear that part aside and still see the wonderful things that happened, the miracles that God did through me, as a person. I don’t think I need much else, and Teen Mania isn’t going to change that…ever. Because the judgment of Global Expeditions didn’t change the world that summer, the love of God did.