Ashamed of the Gospel?
A Case Study of Teen Mania and Works-Based Doctrine

By Eric Pazdziora

Note: This post was written in 2011. Since then, in what one Christian magazine fairly described as “a stunning fall,” Teen Mania Ministries has closed its doors permanently, following a precipitous loss of support amidst allegations of abuse and financial mismanagement. In a discussion with Teen Mania’s communications director a few years prior, she admitted that “enrollment began to taper off in 2009″— the exact year bloggers including “Recovering Alumni” began speaking out about the abuse they experienced at Honor Academy and other Teen Mania ministries. Although Teen Mania itself is now gone for good, I’m leaving this case study the way I originally wrote it. It remains useful as an examination of the problematic way many similar Christian groups have approached the Gospel and spiritual growth. —EP 

A controversial youth ministry, Teen Mania’s Honor Academy, has made headlines lately with some alarming allegations of spiritual abuse. From print media (e.g. the Tyler Morning Telegraph) to MSNBC’s documentary Mind Over Mania, people seem to be giving a hard look to what this Teen Mania thing is really about.

Teen Mania presents itself as a positive Evangelical youth organization, but it has also been described as a “cruelly abusive cult”, both with documented spiritual abuse of teenage interns past and present, and, according to recognized cult experts, in fitting “the doctrinal and behavioral definitions of a cult” (Duncan, 2011). That’s a heavy charge. All Christians should take it very seriously, especially considering that Teen Mania aggressively markets their materials and events to thousands of churches, teens, and youth ministries. If there’s even a possibility that any young people are being hurt or deceived, we ought to find out clearly what’s going on.

Wherever we think Honor Academy falls on the cult spectrum (a loaded term at the best of times), it certainly gives every indication of being, at least to many of its members, a painful example of spiritual abuse. Although many report positive experiences, one blogger has collected scores of detailed true stories from Honor Academy alumni past and present– nearly 70 at last count– attesting to every kind of abuse.

When people hear that a reputedly Christian ministry is accused of spiritual abuse, their response is often incredulous. How can a group be off-base if they teach about Jesus? Don’t they have to teach, say, that our relationship with God is based on our moral good works rather than God’s grace?

They’re on exactly the right track. One of the best ways to evaluate a ministry is to look at what they teach about the Gospel. It’s not a foolproof test– anyone can say they believe in the Gospel– but when a Christian group goes bad, it often starts right there.

If a group genuinely teaches the Gospel — the good news that our relationship with God is based only on His grace saving us through faith in Jesus Christ — then, whatever their faults, we can at least be glad that “in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed” (Philippians 1:8).

If, on the other hand, a group teaches legalism — the false doctrine that our relationship with God is based in any way on our ability to follow moral standards and do good works — then we know that its problems are more than skin-deep. “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!” (Galatians 1:8).

The Bible describes both the Gospel and works-based righteousness like this:

He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior… (Titus 3:5-6, NIV)

[God] has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity. (2 Timothy 1:9, NASB)

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9, NASB)

This applies not just to becoming a Christian but for all of the Christian life:

“As you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him” (Colossians 2:6, NASB).

The Gospel and legalism are opposites. You can’t believe at the same time that your relationship with God is based on His grace alone and that your relationship with God is also based on your good works. As Paul wrote, “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (Romans 11:6, ESV).

So let’s look at the Honor Academy’s teachings with the eyes of the Gospel. I won’t try to prove here that it’s a cult or abusive; those are daunting questions that other people can sort for themselves. But I think anybody should be able to look at their beliefs and doctrines and make up their mind. Is Teen Mania’s doctrinal foundation really as messed up as we might think from news stories and accounts of abuse? Or are they just a bit misguided? What does the evidence show Teen Mania teaches: the Gospel or works-based righteousness?

Fortunately, the evidence is not too hard to come by. Apart from their own doctrinal statement, I received a copy of a presentation entitled “The Standard of the Honor Academy: Who We Are To Become!” It’s part of the introductory “Gauntlet [sic] Week” that presents the principles of Honor Academy life to new interns. This lecture was given to all the interns by Mr. David Hasz, Executive Vice President of Teen Mania and Director of the Honor Academy, in January 2011. To state the rather obvious, that’s this year, making this a current example of Teen Mania’s teaching. (The whole presentation, for those who want the context, is here.)

What does their doctrinal statement show? What message is being taught to the current interns? Let’s stack the Honor Academy’s words against the words of the Gospel, as found in the Bible, and see how well they match.


1. Doctrinal Foundations: Ashamed of the Gospel?

Teen Mania says:

(Click to enlarge)

The Bible says:

“I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile” (Romans 1:16)

Ironically for a group whose mission is “to take His life-giving message to the ends of the earth,” Teen Mania’s materials come up very short on specifics of what they believe the life-giving message includes. Their doctrinal statement conspicuously neglects to say whether or not they believe in salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone. In fact, the words “grace” and “faith” don’t even appear.

Nor is this problem limited to their statement of beliefs. In a review of Teen Mania founder Ron Luce’s book Battle Cry for a Generation and a subsequent Acquire the Fire event, pastor John Botkin made this observation:

You cannot find any explanation of the Christian gospel anywhere in this book. […] In Luce’s book, I see nothing of Christ’s atoning death for his people’s sins, nothing of Christ’s righteousness for his people, nothing of the need to trust God for something we cannot do on our own, nothing of the true gospel. Luce does talk about God’s forgiveness, but never of the basis of that forgiveness. […]

[At Acquire the Fire,] Luce said nothing of Jesus dying for sins. The only time he talked about the cross, he showed it to be an example to us to die to ourselves as Jesus did. Thus, choosing the cross was choosing our own cross to die upon. Though, rooted in Jesus’ own teaching (Mark 8:34), it is nothing less than a distortion of the true gospel. (Read the whole thing.)

Think about that for a minute. A doctrinal statement telling everyone what they believe, and the group doesn’t once say “We believe salvation is by God’s grace alone through faith in Christ.” Thousands of young people waiting to hear a life-giving message, and the preacher doesn’t once say “The Cross is where Jesus took away your sins to give you God’s grace.” If you really believe the Gospel is the life-giving message, how do you forget to mention it? That’s not the Great Commission; that’s a great omission.


2. The Basis of Moral Excellence: Your Faith, or God’s Gift?

So what Teen Mania neglects to say is worrisome enough. But what do they say instead? Now is a good time to look at Dave Hasz’s presentation introducing current interns to the Honor Academy. Here’s how it begins:

Teen Mania says:

II Peter 1:5b – 7 Then your faith will produce a life of moral excellence. What produces moral excellence? YOUR FAITH! (Slide 5)

The Bible says:

Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord; seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence. (2 Peter 1:2-3, NASB.)

“Your faith will produce a life of moral excellence”? Where does the Bible say that? It turns out that, as he’s done elsewhere, Hasz is appealing to an obsolete paraphrase of the Bible, the 1996 first edition of the New Living Translation (NLT). Many reviewers pointed out serious inaccuracies in that early edition, and even one of the translators who worked on it said, “I never recommend it to anyone except to supplement the reading of a more literal translation” (Blomberg, 2003). In 2004, the original edition was deprecated and replaced with a more accurate revision, essentially a complete rewrite, which of course is the only NLT that’s been in print since then. (A 2007 revision made light changes, but nothing major.)

The current edition of the NLT puts the verse back in line with every other translation: It says, “Supplement your faith with a generous provision of moral excellence, and moral excellence with knowledge” (2 Peter 1:5b, NLT).

The difference between the more accurate translation and Hasz’s quotation is profound. In Hasz’s version, we have faith as the cause and produce moral excellence as the result. In the Scripture’s actual words– “In your faith, supply moral excellence” (NASB)– we have faith, and we also have moral excellence to add to it. It’s not “Do A, then you’ll get B” but “You have A; add B to it.”

For Hasz to teach from an obsolete unrevised edition of this verse, which no other Bible translation or edition supports in the slightest, is such an irresponsible approach to God’s Word that it’s fair to say it counts as Scripture twisting. It’s kind of like preaching from the infamously misprinted “Wicked Bible” that the seventh commandment is, “Thou shalt commit adultery.” Yes, that old uncorrected edition of the Bible really says it, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a biblically accurate teaching!

Scripture twisting is a serious charge, but notice that Hasz’s reference starts with verse “5b.” Even in the obsolete 1996 NLT, the first half of verse 5 is a specific appeal to context. (The NASB makes it overt: “Now for this very reason also…” ) The context itself shows that Hasz’s interpretation is untenable.

According to the verses that immediately precede Hasz’s citation (they’re quoted above), the Lord’s “divine power has granted to us”—past tense! Or, more technically, perfect passive participle—“everything pertaining to life and godliness.” By definition, that includes moral excellence. We got it because God called us and saved us by His own moral excellence. It’s the same Greek word for “excellence” in both places, by the way (aretē, for those interested).

Moral excellence, according to the very passage of Scripture that the Honor Academy invokes to teach the opposite, does not come from you having enough faith. It comes from God, who gave it to you as a gift when He saved you, past tense. Because God has moral excellence, which He freely gave to us, we can add moral excellence to our faith.

The Bible says you get moral excellence as God’s free gift. The Honor Academy says you get it from yourself.


3. Your Relationship With God: Morality or Grace?

As mentioned, this presentation introduces new interns to the Honor Academy program. If there’s ever a place to stress what the Honor Academy believes about the basis of our relationship with God, surely this is it. Is the Honor Academy making it clear that our relationship with God depends solely on God’s grace through Jesus Christ? Or are they stepping around it, hinting that maybe our relationship with God is based more on our own ability to be morally excellent? You be the judge. Here are three consecutive slides from the introduction.

Your Faith produces good fruit—A life of moral excellence. A life of moral excellence leads to knowing God better! (Slide 6.) What leads to knowing God better? A life of moral excellence. (Slide 7.)  Thus we have a standard. A life of moral excellence helps you to know God better. (Slide 8.)

When I say that Dave Hasz teaches that your relationship with God is based on your moral excellence, that’s not twisting his words; those are his words. That’s not taking it out of context; that is the context. “A life of moral excellence helps you to know God better.” We could almost close the case right there. This is a forthright declaration of legalistic doctrine. When Teen Mania teaches this, there is simply no question that they teach a works-based relationship with God.

The fault lies partly with the obsolete 1996 NLT again, which had similar wording in the passage above (though, puzzlingly, not in the reference Hasz cites in these slides). The more accurate current editions, of course, say nothing of the sort. Again, Hasz’s approach to the Scripture is dubious at best.

Wherever the idea came from, the failure of the teaching should be obvious. The Gospel tells us that we don’t have any moral excellence: “There is none righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10). If that’s what we need to know God better, it’s not going to happen.

So how do we get to know God better? Here’s the good news:

Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. (Hebrews 10:19-22)

The blood of Jesus helps you to know God better. The incarnation of Jesus helps you to know God better. The priesthood of Jesus helps you to know God better. The fact that Jesus’s death cleansed your heart from your lack of moral excellence helps you to know God better. That’s the Gospel.

“Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:13).


4. Sanctification: Following a Standard or Following the Spirit?

Teen Mania says:

The standard is going to help. Don’t despise the standard – embrace it, that is why you are here! (Slide 13)

The Bible says:

So if, through your faith in Christ, you are dead to the principles of this world’s life, why, as if you were still part and parcel of this world-wide system, do you take the slightest notice of these purely human prohibitions—“Don’t touch this,” “Don’t taste that” and “Don’t handle the other”? “This”, “that” and “the other” will all pass away after use! I know that these regulations look wise with their self-inspired efforts at worship, their policy of self-humbling, and their studied neglect of the body. But in actual practice they do honour, not to God, but to man’s own pride. (Colossians 2:20-23, Phillips)

Hasz says “the standard… is why you are here.” The reason you go to the Honor Academy, according to the Honor Academy Director, is to embrace a standard. Specifically, the Honor Academy’s standard is mostly the banal platitudes of mid-century fundamentalism: “No profanity, secular music, or ‘R’ rated movies…. No drugs, alcohol, or tobacco…. No cross gender dancing…. Bad attitude…” and all the rest (Slides 36-44). You can’t find many of those moralisms in the Bible anywhere (go ahead, look up “secular music” or “tobacco” in your concordance). Jesus had stern words for those who “teach man-made ideas as commands from God” (Mark 7:7).

Colossians 2, quoted above, is a demolition of the idea that following man-made standards has any spiritual value whatever. Paul says that these kinds of rules and standards and severe treatment of the body– “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch”– may look wise and pious and holy, but actually are of no value at all in overcoming the flesh. In fact (as we’ll see in more detail), they’re counterproductive. If you can keep them, they foster a sense of pride in your ability– and pride is a sin. These Honor Academy standards result in honor only to your own fleshly, prideful sense of self-righteousness.

The problem isn’t with morality or even with moral standards. The problem is that, if you want to achieve moral excellence, having a standard is not the way to get it. Standards don’t do a thing to keep anyone from sin. Even the commandments against idolatry didn’t stop the Israelites from worshiping a golden calf. All standards do is sit there on the page and point out where you’ve failed. In fact, Paul says “the strength of sin is the law” (1 Corinthians 15:56).

The New Testament puts it bluntly:

“I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (Galatians 2:21, NIV)

If we could achieve moral excellence by keeping a standard…

  • Then what’s the point of God’s grace and mercy and forgiveness?
  • Why didn’t God send us a standard-setter instead of a sin-bearer?
  • Why did Jesus have to die for our sins?
  • Why would we need a Savior at all?

Again, this isn’t just for salvation (as though we’re saved by grace alone and then we have to work for it?) but for all of the Christian life. According to the New Testament, the way God saves us is the same way He sanctifies, justifies, and glorifies us. This leads to the rhetorical question once put to the Galatians:

You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish?After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? (Galatians 3:1-5 NIV)


5. The Basis of Love: A Standard or Salvation?

Teen Mania says:

THE END RESULT OF THE STANDARD You will have genuine love for everyone. Embracing the standard will result in you having genuine love for everyone. (Slide 11)

The Bible says:

If you love your neighbor, you will fulfill the requirements of God’s law. For the commandments say, “You must not commit adultery. You must not murder. You must not steal. You must not covet.”These—and other such commandments—are summed up in this one commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”Love does no wrong to others, so love fulfills the requirements of God’s law. (Romans 13:8-10)

You can’t get a more direct contradiction than that. Teen Mania says that keeping the standard results in love. The Bible says that love results in the ability to keep the standards.

Hasz has it the wrong way around. He’s saying that the tree grows downward from the fruit, that the cart pushes the horse, that first you grow up and then you come to life. In the Honor Academy’s view, love is an afterthought that comes along once you’ve worked hard enough at keeping the standard. In Scripture, love is the center of all things, the summary of all the rules, the very heart and identity of God.

This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. (1 John 4:10, NIV)

We love, because He first loved us. (1 John 4:19, NASB)

God is love. If you’re not starting with love, you’re not starting with God. If you’re not starting with God, you’ve missed the whole point of the Gospel.


6. Holiness: The Outward Appearance or the Heart?

Teen Mania Says:

THE CODE: “I will conduct myself honorably before God and man in word, thought, and deed” (Slide 16).

The Bible says:

“Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 6:1)

Another direct contradiction between the Honor Academy’s teaching and the Bible. If you ground your holiness on your ability to keep rules, sooner or later you’ll inevitably reap the sour fruit of spiritual pride. There’s a reason Paul correlates “not by works” with “so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

The Honor Academy “Code,” like the “standard” it summarizes, is built on your own works. Works make you want to show off your accomplishments. The very phrasing of the code betrays this: “I, myself, will do this. Look at me, God and man, aren’t I honorable?”

Conspicuously, the code mentions “word, thought, and deed,” but not “heart, soul, and spirit.” This was one of Jesus’ criticisms of the Pharisees: “Everything they do is done for men to see” (Matthew 23:5). He elaborated in the Sermon on the Mount:

“Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. […]
“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.” (Matthew 6:2-4, 16).

Just like the Pharisee in the parable, works make you wind up praying “God, I thank you that I am not like other people,” when you ought to be praying, “God be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:9-14). God couldn’t be less concerned about whether you appear honorable on the outside:

But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).

If you want to show off by your works before God and man that you’re honorable, you’re not.



Many people report positive experiences with Teen Mania’s ministries, even finding salvation through them. If you’re one of them, I’m happy for you. Nothing can take that away from you. If there’s one thing we know for sure about the Holy Spirit, it’s that He can use whatever He wants to bring people to Christ. To take one example, a good friend of mine found the Lord when some friendly Jehovah’s Witnesses gave her a copy of their Watchtower Bible. As Cowper said, “God moves in a mysterious way….”

But, as my friend would be the first to agree, just because God used that to bring about her salvation doesn’t mean that Christians should embrace it. Quite the opposite. The Jehovah’s Witnesses are considered a cult, and their translation of the Bible is an utter travesty, filled with spurious changes to make it appear to fit their Christ-less, works-based doctrine. Yes, the Lord used that misbegotten book to bring her to Himself, and she’s still a strong believer today. But once she understood what it really taught, she threw it away.

Works-based doctrine and all of its fruits belong in the trash. Any good qualities or results Teen Mania may have don’t change the fact that its doctrine directly contradicts the Bible and denies the Gospel. The Honor Academy Director’s own words leave no question at all: Teen Mania and the Honor Academy marginalize the Gospel in favor of works-based, legalistic self-righteousness.

If you believe in the Gospel, then you cannot endorse Teen Mania’s message. Since I believe in the Bible, I must reject it. Since I follow Jesus, I must condemn it. This teaching, which Dave Hasz describes as the reason current interns are at the Honor Academy, is nothing short of a legalist manifesto.

Other people describe experiences with Teen Mania that are far from positive, even abusive. Seeing this level of false teaching lends a lot of credence to their accounts. Where there’s a disease in the roots, there will certainly be rottenness somewhere in the fruit. The firsthand allegations of abuse and the dismissive ad hominem denials from the leadership both tell the same story. Even if it was only a few experiences of mistreatment, that’s a few too many, at least for those who follow the Good Shepherd who left the 99 to help the one.

I submit that this teaching itself is a form of abuse. It is abusive both in the sense of misuse (mishandling the Word of God and misrepresenting the Gospel) and in the sense of cruelty. It is cruel to make impressionable young people believe that their relationship with God is based on their efforts at keeping your standard. When they succeed, they will become self-righteous Pharisees who look down on everyone who didn’t do as well. When they fail, they will deal with the emotional and spiritual repercussions for years.

“I feel so unworthy and so broken,” writes Hannah, a 2010 Honor Academy intern. “I feel like if what I experienced at the HA is what God’s love is really like than I don’t want it. I went to the HA looking to draw closer to the Lord and now I find myself the farthest away from God than I ever been.” (Read her full story.)

Oh, Hannah, Hannah, and everyone who has ever felt this teaching anywhere, that is not what God’s love is really like. Anybody who told you otherwise is a liar.

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)

God’s love is the Gospel. God’s love is unilateral. God’s love is unconditional. God’s love is for messed-up people. God’s love is for prodigal children. God’s love is for moral failures. God’s love is for the broken. God’s love is for the lonely. God’s love is for the outcast and the oppressed and the abused. God’s love is for the imperfect. God’s love is for everyone who’s ever tried and found they don’t have enough. God’s love is for the druggies and the punks and the thugs and the whores and the gangsters and the bankers and the crooks and the preachers and the losers, for the rebels and for the sinners. God’s love is for the blessed beggars. God’s love is for those who need love. God’s love is for everybody. God’s love is Jesus. And God’s love is what Teen Mania has thrown under the bus so they can preach a false gospel of works without love.

This is the real Gospel: We don’t have any moral excellence. If our lives depended on us keeping a standard, we’d all be dead meat in a broiler. But Jesus didn’t come to preach a standard. He came to show God’s love. He came to show that God loves people who don’t have moral excellence. Jesus didn’t die on the Cross so we would have to keep rules like the Pharisees. He died so that we could live in His forgiveness, His grace, His love. In Jesus, we get to know the God who hangs out with sinners. The God who welcomes home the runaways. The God who loves you with an everlasting love.

One of the Pharisees invited Jesus to eat with him. After he entered the Pharisee’s home, he took his place at the table. Meanwhile, a woman from the city, a sinner, discovered that Jesus was dining in the Pharisee’s house. She brought perfumed oil in a vase made of alabaster. Standing behind him at his feet and crying, she began to wet his feet with her tears. She wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and poured the oil on them.

When the Pharisee who had invited Jesus saw what was happening, he said to himself, If this man were a prophet, he would know what kind of woman is touching him. He would know that she is a sinner.

Jesus replied, “Simon, I have something to say to you.”

“Teacher, speak,” he said.

“A certain lender had two debtors. One owed enough money to pay five hundred people for a day’s work. The other owed enough money for fifty. When they couldn’t pay, the lender forgave the debts of them both. Which of them will love him more?”

Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the largest debt canceled.”

Jesus said, “You have judged correctly.”

Jesus turned to the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? When I entered your home, you didn’t give me water for my feet, but she wet my feet with tears and wiped them with her hair. You didn’t greet me with a kiss, but she hasn’t stopped kissing my feet since I came in. You didn’t anoint my head with oil, but she has poured perfumed oil on my feet. This is why I tell you that her many sins have been forgiven; so she has shown great love. The one who is forgiven little loves little.”

(Luke 7:36-47, CEB)

Your moral excellence doesn’t lead to knowing God better. Your lack of moral excellence leads to knowing God better. That’s the Gospel.

Further reading on Teen Mania / Honor Academy:

  • Recovering Alumni – True stories and experiences from Teen Mania participants.
  • Concerned TM Alumni – Other TM alumni who support the Recovering Alumni site, addressed to those considering Teen Mania.
  • VM Life Resources – The appraisal of noted cult experts and counselors Wendy and Doug Duncan.
  • KLTV7 – Three-part local news story from Texas exposing HA’s much-reviled “Life Transforming Event” ESOAL (afterward renamed PEARL; eventually discontinued after continued media exposure).
  • Tyler Morning Telegraph – Newspaper article covering both sides of the TM controversy.
  • Mind Over Mania – MSNBC documentary traces former interns’ recovery and exposes some of Teen Mania’s problematic practices.
  • Commerce and Arts – A blogger addresses some criticisms of Teen Mania.
  • Ron Luce: Well-Meaning Wolf? – A pastor observes a striking absence of Gospel in the Teen Mania president’s message.
  • Teen Mania Watch – Bloggers expose some of TM’s unethical practices, including financial misinformation and lying to the media.
  • “Keith’s” Story –  Heath Stoner, Honor Academy’s Operational Director, revisits his own past hurtful experience with Teen Mania as a student; I analyze the patterns of authoritarian manipulation that continue to the present.
  • Ache and Love – A past intern’s honest reflections on the good and bad of her HA experience.
  • Teen Mania Revisited: A Mom’s Account – A long-time enthusiastic supporter of Teen Mania reconsiders her position.
  • Management ManiaWORLD Magazine documents Teen Mania’s financial troubles and allegations of mismanagement that led to a foreclosure on their campus.
  • Teen Mania Turmoil ContinuesWORLD provides further documentation of TM’s poor stewardship.

Other sites on Spiritual Abuse:

Related articles on Spiritual Abuse:

Commenters are asked to remember that, although all viewpoints are welcome, this site is a bully-free zone. I’ve seen some nasty comments from TM supporters on other sites, which frankly don’t do much to persuade anyone the group isn’t abusive. All first-time commenters will be moderated, and anyone who dismisses or belittles any other people or their experiences will be blocked. Let’s keep it kind.

AuthorEric Pazdziora

Composer, Author, Pianist

24 replies to Ashamed of the Gospel?
A Case Study of Teen Mania and Works-Based Doctrine

  1. Thank you for this incredibly thorough and thoughtful exploration of Teen Mania’s doctrinal failures. I will certainly send it along to friends who are going to be interested.

  2. Bravo! Bravo! Bravo! This should be handed out to every church thinking about attending an ATF.

  3. Excellent analysis Eric. I am so thankful for grace.

    I had to laugh at the specific prohibition of cross gender dancing. They don’t seem like the kind of organization that would condone same gender dancing either….

  4. EXCELLENT. Amazing how refreshing pure, unadulterated Scripture is… “the Truth shall set you free”. Thank you for this.

  5. Thank you for taking the time to so clearly lay out the truth.

    *sigh* My own local church has gone from teaching the gospel to legalism so gradually that, like the proverbial frog in the pot, I waited too long to jump out and got burned.

    The last sermon I heard? The parable of the wedding feast, where a guest is there without a wedding garment and is asked to leave. My pastor explained that since Jesus called him friend, he must have been “saved”. But since he didn’t “let Jesus clothe him” by conforming his life to Christian living (undefined by the pastor but I have a good idea what he means, for one thing not accepting homosexuals as brothers in Christ, i.e. conformity with pastor on all issues) the “saved” person will ultimately be rejected unless he conforms his thoughts and behavior properly after conversion.

    In other words, saved by grace but you better get with the program after that because you would lose your salvation.

    I thank God for my first pastor long ago, who preaching from the EXACT SAME TEXT shared the EXACT OPPOSITE MEANING. Putting on the robes of righteousness Jesus provides means resting in His grace and trusting in Him alone. Providing your own garment (your own acts of righteousness) rather than wearing His garment is what got the wedding guest excluded. Jesus calls him friend because Jesus loves us all, but only those who accept His generosity as a gift can enjoy it.

    We don’t earn a spot at the feast, but it is open to whosoever will.

    • Well said, Shadowspring!

  6. “I had to laugh at the specific prohibition of cross gender dancing. They don’t seem like the kind of organization that would condone same gender dancing either….”

    Well, homosexual acts were dismissable. However, they were vague on the term “act.” Which is probably a good thing because I probably broke that rule a few times. I even danced with a guy once. (In a completely platonic, instructional way. He was showing me a dance move in swing dancing. He’s married to a beautiful woman now, BTW)

  7. This was such an interesting read for me. I went on a couple of trips with Teen Mania when I was… well, a teen, and I have several friends who attended the Honor Academy. My personal experiences there were mostly positive (the teaching was very similar to what I had grown up hearing)… except for the HA interns who basically ran the Teen Mania compound. Legalistic doesn’t even begin to describe them. At the same time, I felt sorry for them; I specifically remember Dave Hasz telling us that whether or not we pressed snooze on our alarm clocks proved our integrity, and living under that for a significant period of time? I can’t imagine. And my friends who went through the Academy ranged from not wanting to talk about their experience to ranting furiously about it.

    I find it very, very dangerous any time an organization or leader tells impressionable people what to believe, and this is just one in a sad string of examples.

  8. Beautiful.

  9. Excellent analysis Eric. Thank you for your clear presentation of the gospel.

    I would like to add that one of the reasons many report positive experiences with Teen Mania is that they have embraced the gospel of works based sanctification. It is all they’ve ever known. It is re-enforced by their own churches. Most churches today, regardless of affiliation teach some form a works based righteousness. The true gospel of grace is rare today and probably always has been

    • Thanks, Steve. I’m sure that those who are predisposed to works-righteousness and legalism will find a lot to like about Teen Mania. Though, I do take a less bleak outlook on the overall prevalence of the Gospel– possibly in part because I’m currently in a very healthy church where it’s clearly taught every week. I guess it depends where you look. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  10. Sorry to disagree with those that want to put a works based label onto the Teen Mania issue. My son was in one of these abominations. It has nothing to do with “righteousness” of any sort. It’s simply yet another gimmick the Balaam crowd has figured out to profit by someone else’s labor and not having to work for it themselves. Not much different than those so called discernment “ministries” who point an accusing finger at churches for collecting tithes, while they hypocritcally set up shop online with a PayPal acct…and then tell people what to believe.

    • I think it is unmistakable from the presentation discussed above that the Teen Mania leadership does teach (and therefore presumably believe in) a works-based relationship with God. But you are quite correct that their business model of “Come pay us $8,000 to provide us free labor” also shows an ungodly love of money and willingness to exploit others. Sad to hear about your son’s experience; I hope he’s finding some recovery. Thanks for the comment!

      • Eric, Sorry….I should have taken the time to “try” & explain what I meant when saying I disagreed with those putting a “works based label” on Teen Mania and other parasitical groups like it. In regard to groups like this, saying they teach and believe in a “works based righteousness” would not be accurate,They are hyping the donating public, as well as those unfortunate enough to be caught in their tentacles, at least until the slaves get wise to what’s going on. But there is a difference between hyping, and actually believing in and practicing righteousness. No, Teen Mania and others like it are merely slave labor camps operating under a Christian front. Kind of like putting a sign up at Treblenka claiming it was a Vacation Bible Camp for kiddies. In other words, they lie. And righteousness is never built upon a lie. Woe to those calling evil good.
        Ever hear of ? These are springing up all over the place. Free slave labor, collecting donations under false pretenses, not having to pay taxes,abusing their slaves with overwork and threats… the list goes on. Nope…no righteousness involved.

        • Jean — Ah, OK; I can see where we were talking at cross-purposes before. I certainly agree with you that the term “righteousness” doesn’t technically apply to the fruits of these kinds of ministries. By “works-based righteousness” I just mean “the false doctrine that righteousness can be attained by good works.” (It’s a fairly common term if you search for it on Google, for instance.) Of course you’re quite right in pointing out that, since the doctrine is false, “righteousness” is not the word for what they attain!

          I’ve not heard about the group you link to (I’ll make a note to look into it), but it doesn’t surprise me a bit that other ministries follow the same destructive patterns. Sadly, it’s one of the the inevitable consequences of putting aside the real Gospel of Jesus for our own efforts.

  11. In general, western evangelicalism touts a warrior mentality and rejects humility and self denying. These types of Christian youth ministries rely heavily upon emotion and a subtle form of self righteousness. And men like Luce acquire idol status. They also present a heavy dose of nationalism. Their heavy handedness seem to replace the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers.

    Measuring a believer’s spiritual depth in an atmosphere of hype is unwise and is usually inaccurate. What we do in private without peer pressure or the knowledge that others are watching must be the plumbline.

    • Very well reasoned, Rick. Part of the reason I picked Teen Mania for this sort of case study is that in many ways it’s an exaggeratedly clear example of many unfortunate tendencies in American evangelicalism (and perhaps youth ministry in particular). Of course, you can certainly find these patterns in other ministries as well, just not always stated so blatantly. Thanks for your comment!

    • You’re welcome!

  12. This is not entirely connected, but it is involved with another.. shall we say, ‘outreach’ that I sometimes look at as legalistic. Its name in The Rebelution, and while I have had some good experiences on their website, sometimes…

    Well, anyway, I was wondering about your definition of self esteem vs. pride, if you believe they are one and the same or if you think there is a difference. I understand this is a difficult question, but I would like to hear what you have to say. Thank you.

  13. Let’s face it, being around self-righteous Christians really does take away our God-given talents especially when they don’t approve of them.

  14. For me as a swede with little insight in the organization other than his books witch had led many to the lord Jesus. Offcaus its not works that saves but when reading this, I was shooked should we as christians live unholy, smoke, have sex outside of marridge etc? offcause your good or bad behavior doesnt save you, but when saved you should try to live holy, what is the options?

    • James – Paul says in Colossians 2:6, “Just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, so walk in Him.” Since as you correctly say it is not works that saves, then walking in Christ cannot be based on works either. Rather, Jesus compared our good works to fruit that grows on a tree; he said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5). So a genuinely holy life is the result, not the cause, of trusting and living in Jesus. I write a bit more about this in some of my other articles: See Just As You Received Christ and The Galatian Road Out Of Legalism.

      Thanks for your comment; nice to hear from a Swede!

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