A few weeks ago, several alumni and I had the privilege of attending a cult recovery weekend led by internationally recognized cult experts Doug and Wendy Duncan. As former cult members, mental health professionals and Christians, the Duncans are uniquely poised to understand the dynamics of a Bible-based cult and offer assistance in recovery.
The Duncans are frequent speakers at the yearly conference for the International Cultic Studies Association. Doug Duncan MS, LPC is a licensed counselor and has worked in multiple capacities in the mental health field, including the prison system. Wendy Duncan, LBSW, MA has an undergraduate degree in Sociology and a master’s degree in Religious Education from one of the world’s foremost Protestant seminaries – Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary — and she has also worked in the mental health field for twenty years.
I’ve known Doug and Wendy in a casual capacity for a little over a year. I was motivated to begin this blog after attending one of their seminars nearly two years ago. They have been aware of my blog for some time but after spending 15-20 intense hours in conversation with alumni they received a new understanding of the extreme conditions at the Honor Academy.
A lot of great things happened that weekend and I had some new revelations both about myself and about Teen Mania that I will share in the weeks to come. For now though, I would like to point you to what the Duncans are saying about Teen Mania. (emphasis mine)
When we hear the word “cult,” we often think of aberrant Christian groups such as the Branch Davidians, or eastern mystical groups, such as the Hare Krishnas. Most Christians define a cult in theological or doctrinal terms as a religious group that denies one or more of the central tenets of Christian orthodoxy. This definition, however, fails to address the behavioral aspects of cults. Michael Langone, the current president of the International Cultic Studies Association and editor of Recovery from Cults, defines a cult as:
“a group or movement that, to a significant degree (a) exhibits great or excessive devotion to some person, idea, or thing, (b) uses a thought-reform program to persuade, control, or socialize member (i.e. to integrate them into the group’s unique pattern of relationships, beliefs, values, and practices), (c) systematically induces states of psychological dependence in members, (d) exploit’s members to advance the leadership’s goals, and (e) causes psychological harm to members, their families, and the community.”
As a mental health professional and a graduate of a conservative theological seminary who has studied cults and spiritually abusive groups, it is clear to us that Teen Mania meets both the doctrinal and behavioral definitions of a cult. Classic cult tactics of sleep and nutritional deprivation, as well as a stringent belief system that destroys individuality, are part of the structure of Teen Mania. Manipulation and fear tactics are used to keep young people doctrinally and emotionally entangled. Bizarre practices, such as putting roaches on someone’s head, pressuring a young person to crawl through a sewer pipe, or rolling down a hill with patches of vomit are strangely linked with genuine Christian commitment and true discipleship.
The fear of losing one’s status as “cream of the crop” or losing God’s favor is implicitly, if not explicitly, taught. Teen Mania’s leadership practices an oppressive authoritarianism that heaps guilt and shame on its young members. In studying the inner workings of this group and its leadership there is no question that this group represents one of the most cruelly abusive cults that we have encountered. The psychological and spiritual abuses and mind games of Teen Mania are horrifying.
Since 1986, Teen Mania has operated as an organized cult using its nonprofit, tax exempt status to suck millions of dollars from Christians who believe that they are supporting a trustworthy and spiritually sound ministry. Teen Mania has exploited thousands of young people who joined Teen Mania out of an intense desire to become authentic disciples of Christ. Many of the alumni of Teen Mania are left confused and disillusioned; questioning the very call of God that they thought led them to Teen Mania in the first place. The greatest tragedy is that many have been unable to continue in their Christian faith.
Our hearts go out to those who have survived the trauma of Teen Mania. Abusers like Ron Luce and Dave Hasz are able to operate as they do only because of a lack of accountability. One day they will stand before God and as Matthew writes, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:6, NRSV). Many alumni of Teen Mania have been instrumental in sounding the warning bell to expose the spiritual and psychological harm done by these false shepherds. The church and cult awareness groups must also take a stand and hold the heretical leadership of Teen Mania to account so that this abuse stops.
I Pet 4:17 – For the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God; if it begins with us, what will be the end for those who do not obey the gospel of God? NRSV