A widely respected Christian researcher and radio host is defending Teen Mania Ministries after an MSNBC documentary portrayed the group as a cult.
Hank Hanegraaff, president of the Christian Research Institute and host of the radio program “Bible Answer Man,” has released his critique of the documentary, which aired on Sunday night. In the critique, he describes the documentary as “a case study in sophistry, sloppy journalism, and sensationalism.”
MSNBC's documentary “Mind Over Mania” is disturbing at first glance. Young people are shown at a Teen Mania Ministries event crawling through mud, eating worms and pushing themselves to their physical and emotional limits. The experts featured in the film suggest the ministry operates like a cult and uses mind control tactics on young people. TMM, however, says the film's claims against the ministry are “outrageous” and inaccurate.
In support of Teen Mania, Hanegraaff first addresses the film's allegations that the ministry brainwashes interns who enroll at its Honor Academy. The film features mind control recovery experts Doug and Wendy Duncan, who use Robert Jay Lifton's Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of Brainwashing in China to try to show TMM as a cult.
The problem, Hanegraaff says, is their evidence falls short of their accusations, and “many of the arguments proffered against TMM could just as easily be used to establish historic Christianity as a thought reform cult.” He says the model the Duncans used to attempt to prove their point has been “utterly discredited.”
Kelly Schwalbert, a former Honor Academy attendee, wrote in a blog post that she never experienced abuse or mind-control tactics as an intern.
“I would not classify myself, while at Teen Mania, as under mind-control,” she wrote. “I was not brainwashed. I knew enough about God and myself to read the Bible and follow the Bible. The leadership I was under did not make me 'conform' to anything.”
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Schwalbert later showed sympathy for those who had bad experiences with TMM, but emphasized that “it is not a cult.”
Later, Hanegraaff's critique moves on to accuse MSNBC of showing images of interns “gagging” on worms in order to stir up an emotional response, but he says NBC's “Fear Factor” show was popular at the time the video footage was taken. He also said TMM no longer does that particular activity during its camp.
“Mind Over Mania” also never acknowledges that ESOAL (Emotionally Stretching Opportunity of A Lifetime) campers knew how challenging the event would be going into it, and they could have stopped participating at any time. The ESOAL camp has been changed drastically since the shooting of those video clips, Teen Mania founder Ron Luce told The Christian Post, and its name has also been changed to PEARL, an acronym for Physical, Emotional, And Relational Learning.
Kimberly Warne, another blogger who says she spent two years at the Honor Academy, is critical of both TMM's ministry and financial practices.
“Over the last couple decades, Ron has grown this organization into a multimillion dollar machine by convincing thousands of young people to pay to work,” wrote Warne. “Sometimes he succeeds in molding these youth into his cookie cutter version of modern Christianity ... Sometimes he breaks them down into depression, faithlessness, and a lost sense of self.”
The beginning of Warne's post refers to accusations made in the documentary which suggest TMM's interns essentially pay the ministry in order to work long days in uncomfortable, even unsafe, conditions.
Hanegraaff also addresses these financial accusations, noting that the ministry is in “good standing” with the Evangelical Council of Financial Accountability, a financial accountability agency for Christian ministries.
“Finally, on a personal note, I have been acquainted with Ron Luce and TMM for over twenty years. I have found Ron to be a passionate father, husband, and ministry leader ... I have recognized him to be thoughtful, teachable, and thoroughly committed to the essentials of historic Christianity,” Hanegraaff wrote in his conclusion. “While I strongly disagree with Ron on various secondary matters, I stand shoulder to shoulder with him on the doctrines that form the line of demarcation between the kingdom of Christ and the kingdom of the cults.”
MSNBC denies claims that the film inaccurately portrays the ministry and says it has spoken with TMM's founder and president, Luce, about the disagreement.