MSNBC aired a documentary Sunday night featuring former interns from Teen Mania Ministries who say the group did them more harm than good and may even be a cult. The founder of the group, however, says the documentary is a case of irresponsible journalism and casts the ministry in a “very inaccurate and negative light.”
Teen Mania, the focus of the documentary titled “Mind Over Mania,” is the umbrella organization over Acquire The Fire and other popular youth-focused events. Ron Luce, president and founder of TMM, told The Christian Post on Monday he was tricked into allowing filmmakers to visit TMM to conduct interviews with its leaders and interns.
“MSNBC came to us several months ago stating their intentions of writing a story on religion in America, and they asked us if Teen Mania could be covered as the youth component in their story,” Luce wrote in an email in which he asks Christians to pray for TMM.
“We now realize they were dishonest and came to us on false pretenses. Because we have nothing to hide, we allowed them to come on campus and interview interns and senior leaders.”
Luce said the film was created by freelancers who sold the documentary to MSNBC, but not before adding “sensationalistic value” to it by portraying the ministry as a cult.
“The fact is it's not journalism. It's a story that they're telling that's way out of context,” Luce said. He later added that TMM leaders have been interviewed by reporters from CNN, “Nightline” and other news programs that “don't like Christians," but the ministry has never before been accused of being a cult.
“I think it is of note that we've been interviewed by the harshest and cruelest real journalists and never was an accusation made, because they know what a real cult is,” Luce said. He also called “Mind Over Mania” a “mockumentary” instead of a documentary.
During the film, video clips are shown of teens enduring extreme physical activities – like crawling through mud and preparing to eat worms – but Luce says the video is over 10 years old and is never fully explained.
The video footage, which features TMM's Hope Academy interns doing extreme activities, was shot during a three-day camp known as ESOAL, an acronym for Emotionally Stretching Opportunity of A Lifetime. The camp was completely voluntary, and was designed to help interns realize they shouldn't make major life decisions based purely on emotion.
But Luce says filmmakers didn't put the video clips in context. The worms that were eaten, for example, were “organically grown, made for human consumption” and were only a part of the camp because the reality television series “Fear Factor” was popular at the time.
The filmmakers are also accused of taking audio clips out of context. In one clip, Honor Academy Executive Director David Hasz is heard saying, “We are not going to show compassion to you.” In context, Luce says that was part of a broader message in which Hasz was explaining that the event was designed to be difficult for a reason.
The ESOAL camp has been changed drastically since the shooting of those video clips, Luce says, and its name has also been changed to PEARL, an acronym for Physical, Emotional, And Relational Learning.
Luce is also critical of the eight different criteria used in the film to determine whether or not TMM is a cult. According to many of these standards, he says, orthodox Christian churches everywhere would be considered cults. For example, the film seems to criticize TMM for expecting interns to maintain a certain level of purity, but Luce says biblical Christianity demands the same thing and his ministry isn't an unusual case.
“We've had literally millions of young people come to our events ... and out of all these years – this is our 25th anniversary – they have four people that are saying, 'This is really a bad thing,'” Luce said.
He also said TMM has tried to reconcile for any problems the girls in the film may have had during their experiences with the ministry.
"We feel genuine compassion for any young person experiencing the challenges demonstrated by the women in this MSNBC program or any other alumnus who leaves without gaining what was intended," Teen Mania said in its official statement Monday.
"It is with them in mind that we take issue with MSNBC for framing their stories in such a way as to not only distort the context of Teen Mania’s internship program, but, on a much larger level, to insinuate that tenets of scripture which are accepted and celebrated by the Christian church as a whole are detrimental to a life of joy and healthy balance."
"Teen Mania welcomes any question of our motives and our methods in communicating the gospel of Jesus Christ and are dedicated to using feedback to create a better experience for the young people we serve, but MSNBC’s Mind Over Mania segment ultimately takes issue with the fact that many of the Biblical tenets celebrated in Christianity are at odds with our current culture. We understand that the Gospel, taken upon faith, is an unusual concept in our modern world. As a result, the themes of Acquire the Fire and Honor Academy will never be popular for the mass media."
Luce hopes that Christians will see the documentary as deceptive, and that they will continue to support TMM ministries like Acquire The Fire because of their benefit to young people.
Teen Mania is known for its BattleCry events where tens of thousands of teens commit to stand up for their Christian beliefs and reject the influences of pop culture.
MSNBC could not be reached for comment on this issue.