‘There are three stages of every great work of God,” Hudson Taylor, the well-known British missionary to China, once said. “First it’s impossible, then it’s difficult, then it’s done.”
Teen Mania founder Ron Luce quoted Taylor when explaining to CT why the nearly 30-year-old ministry announced today that it would cease operations.
“Honestly, the hardest part about our closure is for people to misinterpret what the closing of a chapter means,” Luce said in an hour-long, exclusive interview. “Scripture talks about old and new wineskins. Sometimes old wineskins don’t need to be used anymore."
It’s not necessarily a bad thing, he said. "There are plenty of Christian organizations that become institutions, that are dead and dry, and they’re old wineskins.
"We don’t want to become that," he said. "Teen Mania has completed this assignment."
An Army of Young People
Luce became a Christian at the age of 16 and immediately devoted his life to youth ministry. An Oral Roberts University graduate, Luce participated in Young Life and Youth for Christ. But at age 25, Luce was hungry for something larger. So he consulted with God about his next move.
“I felt God whisper in my heart, ‘Build an army of young people who will change the world,’” Luce said.
In its nearly three decades of ministry, Teen Mania used an array of strategies to reach millions of young people.
Its most popular event began in 1991: Acquire the Fire, a 27-hour youth gathering filled with music and teaching. Over two decades, more than 500 Acquire the Fire events were held in 33 cities nationwide, drawing more than 3 million attendees. Earlier this year, Teen Mania organized its first international Acquire the Fire in Yangon, Myanmar. More than 13,000 attended.
Global Expeditions, Teen Mania’s short-term missions program, sent more than 75,000 young people abroad to 67 countries. According to the ministry, more than 1.3 million people made professions of faith as a result.
But Teen Mania’s most intensive offering was the Honor Academy, a full-time internship program for high school graduates; more than 7,000 young people passed through since 1994. For years, the academy took place at a 472-acre campus in Garden Valley, Texas, purchased when the land was a “great deal.”
It also may have been the program that ran the organization into the ground.
In the beginning, Acquire the Fire was meant to be a “new and edgy” event with affordable ticket prices. (Luce himself played in the worship team.) “The question was, how do we fund that passion? How do we make it work financially?” said Luce.
Teen Mania relied on donors to make up the difference. But as the event outgrew typical church sanctuaries, then later megachurches, auditoriums, arenas, and even stadiums, “costs exploded.” To keep their events popular with teenagers, Teen Mania threw money into production costs, including lights, sound, technology, state-of-the-art facilities such as AT&T Park, and booking popular Christian speakers and bands.
“We didn’t buy ostentatious things for our ministry,” said Luce. “Our money was usually going back to reaching more kids.”
One of Luce’s highlights came in 1999 when 71,000 young people attended an Acquire the Fire event in the Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan. Jack Hayward and John Maxwell were among the speakers for Teen Mania’s first stadium event.
“From that point on we did a lot of stadiums,” said Luce. “We were in Indianapolis, Tampa, and San Francisco.”
Teen Mania employees studied and shadowed Promise Keepers and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
“We tried not just to have a great event each weekend,” said Luce. “We wanted to train and empower youth pastors, so that we might leave a city, but there might be 300 churches that had vibrant youth ministries.” To that end, Teen Mania developed curriculum and leadership training to support the local church.
In 1988, Teen Mania began offering internships to college graduates, meant to be an intense year of spiritual growth, “like Red Bull for your spiritual life.” In 1998, the program was renamed the Honor Academy.
Financial Ups and Downs
“I don’t think people realize the difficulty and complexity of running a multimillion-dollar organization,” said Luce. “All they know is that they brought their group to this event, and it changed their lives and it was awesome.”
But the organization’s finances began to sour in 2008. Revenue was just $20.1 million after a dissatisfied donor canceled a $6 million pledge. Teen Mania's IRS Form 990 also revealed that the ministry had lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in the Creation Festival, an annual Christian music festival it had purchased a 50-percent interest in a few years earlier. A 2014 audit reported that the $4.5 million investment resulted in a $2.5 million write down in 2008.
Teen Mania’s total revenue decreased every year since then. Its 2013 Form 990—the most recent available to the public—lists total revenue as $13.8 million.
Teen Mania was also losing money on the Honor Academy—or more specifically, on the physical campus needed to house the program. Their bookkeeping system prevented the organization from seeing that, Luce said.
“The Honor Academy was losing a significant amount of money every single year,” said Luce, “and it was eating into the whole rest of the organization.” Teen Mania was a member of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) and had some of the “brightest business people on its board,” said Luce. But he said the organization’s accounting practices—while "perfectly legal"—did them in.
“Anytime a ministry gets into financial trouble, people conclude that there’s someone who did something financially wrong,” Luce said. “Well, I guess we’re guilty of reaching as many kids as we could, thinking that our business model was sound. And it was for 30 years. My heart is so full of gratitude to the Lord.”
In addition, some alumni accused the program of spiritual abuse. “The Honor Academy was built to produce character and … ‘put fight’ in a younger generation. That never changed,” said Luce. “What changed was what was deemed acceptable by the younger generation.”
Luce said coaches and military leadership used to be able to motivate young people by verbally threatening them. “Don’t you dare demand something hard out of me,” gets construed as “you’re abusing me,” he said.
“These things happened in culture without us fully appreciating and understanding that maybe we should change our programs,” he admitted. For all the alumni that loved their Honor Academy experience, he said, social media over-amplified the voices of the “few dozen that complained.”
Things began to unravel publically in 2014. When World magazine reported on Teen Mania’s financial difficulties, Luce publicly refuted the charges. Then Teen Mania shut down its Honor Academy. And Compassion International sued Teen Mania for more than $160,000, saying it didn’t receive a refund after paying for child sponsorship promotion at canceled Acquire the Fire events. Luce said that he was “reluctant to comment” on the lawsuit, as the situation was still pending.
“We are still doing our best to resolve everything with them,” he said. “We worked with Compassion for more than 10 years. We think they are a fine organization. We’re very saddened that the turn of events became what it is, and we hope that we can resolve that amicably.”
Earlier this fall, Teen Mania canceled many of its events for the rest of this year, leaving many frustrated about the difficulties in obtaining a refund.
“We are working with churches to make [a refund] happen,” said Luce. “We have refunded or partially refunded hundreds of them. We’re doing everything we can to make it right with youth groups and churches.”
Teen Mania, which was founded in Oklahoma, will proceed with liquidation through the state’s bankruptcy court.
"After receiving counsel from pastoral leaders, Teen Mania board and legal counsel, it has been determined the best way to draw a close to this season is by liquidating all assets of the ministry in an attempt to satisfy vendors,” it stated on its website.
Luce did not discount plans to return to ministry, and said that he and his wife would like to serve young people overseas.
But he plans to devote his immediate future to spending time with his wife. “When we started Teen Mania, Katie and I realized that if we don’t have a strong marriage, we have no center of strength to give from,” said Luce. “If you want to have a high impact ministry, you’ve got to have a family that is strong and together as well.”
Luce said he always took Mondays off and cleared everything on his trip schedule with his wife, who homeschooled their children. He also regularly traveled with his wife or one of their children on weekend trips and tried to “sneak away” from events to take them out to do something fun.
“I didn’t want ministry to ‘take Dad away.’ Rather, we were doing ministry together,” said Luce. “I can honestly say that ministry didn’t take a toll on our family.”
Luce acknowledges that his schedule did affect him personally. He enrolled in Harvard Business School, read dozens of leadership books, and attended business seminars. But they only increased his stress level because they highlighted everything he wasn’t doing, he said.
“In the last 10 years of the organization, I found myself getting increasingly tired, and tiredness takes a toll on you in a strange way,” said Luce. “When you’re tired, you don’t give as much, you don’t love as much or as deeply, you don’t listen as carefully. All of those things start to add up.”
Teen Mania’s shutdown comes with few regrets for Luce, who pointed to the organization’s move to Texas and decision to do stadium events as the “zest of life and zest of ministry.” He hopes that when those who interacted with Teen Mania think of the ministry, they “remember a highlight of when they really encountered God.”
“The problem is that we get nostalgic,” said Luce. “But nostalgia doesn’t help us unless it points us to a moment where God really intersected our life. Don’t let the sadness of an organization overshadow the moment that God intersected your life.”
The question he asks: “Am I in love with the memory or I am in love with Jesus who created a lot of great moments for me?”