“There are three stages of every great work of God. First it’s impossible, then it’s difficult, then it’s done.” -Hudson Taylor
When I was 12 years old, I went to my first Acquire the Fire (ATF) youth conference and was lit up with passion for God. Over the next 15 years, Teen Mania Ministries had a profound impact on me as I attended and took groups to over 15 ATFs, traveled to Romania, New Orleans, and Mexico on mission trips with Global Expeditions and invested a year of my life serving at their leadership internship, The Honor Academy. A big part of who I am today is because of this ministry’s investment into my life. I am grateful for the leaders and friends from Teen Mania who poured into my life.
For me, there’s nostalgia, warm memories, and a feeling of kinship when I think about Teen Mania. Much like Star Wars fans feel right now with the birth of a new Star Wars era.
Knowing this, you can understand why i was grieved when I came across this article from Christianity Today outlining Teen Mania’s demise. How could a leading youth organization for over three decades rise and fall so dramatically? As Teen Mania captured headlines over the last few years in troubling and exciting ways, I’ve been thinking about what we can learn from their ministry legacy. I’ve narrowed it down to three leadership lessons.
1. CELEBRATE IMPACT
On Teen Mania’s website, a resume of sorts is posted, outlining the impact they have had on American youth culture over the last 30 years. Whatever our emotions are about a ministry, I think it’s important to look here first. Jesus said a disciple’s legacy is found in his fruit (John 15:8, Matthew 7:20). What is Teen Mania’s fruit? Here’s the highlight reel:
Global Expeditions: Beginning in 1986, the global outreach mission branch of Teen Mania has inspired and equipped 77,230 teenage missionaries and sent them worldwide to 67 countries helping 1,318,664 people become followers of Christ! Acquire The Fire: Beginning in 1991, potentially the largest annually and longest-running Christian youth conference in American history (24 years). Over 3,000,000 attendees. Over 100,000 youth pastors attended with their youth groups. Day One: A historic youth stadium event at the Pontiac Silverdome with 73,000 attendees. Honor Academy: Established in 1994, the Honor Academy Internship trained, equipped, and empowered young adults to lead their generation in ministry and the marketplace. 7,300 Interns graduated from this one-year leadership development experience. June issue 2014, Ministry Today named Teen Mania in the “21 Most Effective Ministries in the 21st Century”
The fruit of Teen Mania is obvious, millions of lives have been impacted for eternity because of this ministry’s commitment to the call of Christ.
This success came with some bruises along the way. Teen Mania had its shortfalls, as any ministry or person does, but despite the flaws, the fruit shows and should be celebrated for the glory of God. Lives that were aimed at hell are now pointed north because of an encounter with God through Teen Mania Ministries. Mine is one of them.
Here’s what we can learn from this: We need to look beyond the flaws in ourselves and our ministries and celebrate progress. I’m not saying we ignore the flaws (we will talk about those later) but I am saying they don’t have the final say about the impact of a movement. Progress is more realistic than perfection, so let’s stop expecting perfection and start celebrating the work that God does through flawed people. What impact has God caused through your life and the ministries and organizations you are involved in? How can you celebrate it?
2. RECOGNIZE RED FLAGS
Over the last few years, red flags started popping up around Teen Mania. Alumni of the Honor Academy who felt they were abused by their internship experience launched a website recounting their stories. Teen Mania’s financial nightmare became public when they were listed by Charity Navigator as the 5th most insolvent charity in America. Many staff from Teen Mania left the organization in a short period of time including David Hasz, Director of the Honor Academy, and one of the most respected leaders on staff.
Red flags leave us questioning credibility and integrity. As I watched these events unfold through news media outlets and participated in Honor Academy alumni phone calls with Ron Luce (President and Founder of Teen Mania), I kept seeing the red flags but felt like Teen Mania was blind to them, or at least not transparent about them. This left me feeling uneasy and uncertain about the current state of this ministry that God used to change my life.
What I longed to hear was an honest admission that the red flags were recognized and being worked through. Instead, there was silence and confusing rhetoric spouted to make Teen Mania appear in better footing than it actually was.
Here’s what we can learn from this: Honesty, transparency, and vulnerability are character traits of the best leaders. People are sharp. When we aren’t transparent with them, they smell something fishy. They know we are hiding something. We do both them and us a disservice when we hide the truth and deny reality. While trying to guard our reputation, we end up eroding trust and breaking bonds. Instead, when we recognize the red flags in our lives and are honest about our reality, transparent about our struggles, and vulnerable about our mistakes, people trust us and want to follow us.
3. SEE THE BIG PICTURE
I hope that when I die, people see the big picture of my life. I hope they appreciate my passion, integrity, character, and identity. I hope they notice the way I invested my life into other people and the way I loved my family. I hope they don’t judge my fate and my legacy based off my flaws. I hope all these things for Teen Mania as well.
I personally know people who have been burned by Teen Mania. Their pain is real and should not be minimized, but should be seen in perspective. Consumed by the call of Christ, Teen Mania was passionate about mobilizing young people to change the world for Christ. This goal has been reached. Millions of lives have been transformed. This is the big picture.
“Teen Mania has helped to reach, minister and influence for Christ millions of young people. Many have gone on to become leaders in business, start and serve in churches and ministries both here in America and worldwide. They have become leaders in business, authors, teachers, successful entrepreneurs and planted mission organizations. Having been birthed from dreams that started at Teen Mania, innumerable lives have been impacted by living and sharing the Gospel in places of business, homes and mission outreaches around the world.” -Statement from acquirethefire.com
While each of our stories matter, we cannot let our individual negative experiences taint our view of an entire ministry. There’s no question, there was something special about Teen Mania. There was a spark, a flame, a resilience, an excellence, and a relentless pursuit of Christ that was contagious.
That said, there is a brutal reality to face. Teen Mania did not burn out bright. Financial ruin, lawsuits, and lack of transparency are unfortunately a part of the final chapters of Teen Mania’s legacy. We would do well to take note. Fiery passion at the start will be tested by trials and the true colors of our integrity will show.
Here’s what we can learn from this: Legacy is the big picture. It is the way of life we pass on to others. It is the sum total of our identity, integrity, reputation, and accomplishments. We pass on the good and the bad. We leave our mark in negative and positive ways. The quality of our legacy is up to us. When we intentionally live our lives focused on leaving the brightest legacy we can, we stand with confidence knowing we’ve left our best on the table.
I remember when I was 12 years old sitting in my seat at the Breslin Center in Lansing, Michigan. It was my first Acquire the Fire experience and I was encountering the presence of God in a way I had never felt before. I was overwhelmed, weightless, and overflowing with joy and passion! I knew what I was encountering was not fabricated feelings, it was God Himself. This encounter set me on course to give God the best years of my life and decide to invest my life in ministry. For that, I am eternally grateful for the investment Teen Mania Ministries has had on my life.
Consumed by the call: A relentless pursuit of God and a relentless pursuit of the people He loves. Semper Honorablus!