During my freshman year of high school, the leader of our youth group told us about something happening that year, called Acquire the Fire, ATF for short. It was a Christian youth conference put on by Teen Mania Ministries. President Ron Luce was touring the country with ATF trying to start a revolution in the hearts of teenagers everywhere, inspiring and equipping them to go out and take over the world for God. Teen Mania in general was focused on missions trips for teenagers, spreading the gospel to mostly third-world countries – ATF was focused on evangelism here in the US. It was coming to Worcestor in October of that year, and the Dwight Chapel youth group was going to go.

ATF was a trip, man. We walked into the Audi in Worcestor, MA at about 5:00 Friday night, and it was like a rock concert. All sorts of ministries were there in the lobby recruiting, like a trade show. We all took our seats among what must have been about 6,000 teenagers, youth leaders and chaperones. There had to of been over 100 youth groups there. Then the lights dimmed and the show started with a loud burst of intro music, epic and bombastic. Ron came out to thunderous applause wearing jeans, a button-up shirt and a microphone headset. He gave a welcome, and then led the whole crowd in a few energetic worship choruses. Then he got down to brass tacks and started taking us through a program. The book he was peddling that year, which he wrote, was called 10 Challenges of a World-Changer. He peddled a different one each year, all written by him. According to him, we could all change the world – every one of us. Among other things, we were told to “live holy lives,” which apparently means to break all of our CDs by secular artists and sign something that says we’re going to wait until we’re married to have sex.

Ron Luce

Ron Luce

Ron Luce is an incredibly charismatic figure. When he comes out on the stage, he commands a power and sway like a religious leader – because actually, he is one, small potatoes though he may be. But the power Ron had, if in less scrupulous hands, could have been incredibly destructive. I fear that to some, it was. After the spiritual high of ATF (I use “high” as a drug reference, because that’s what it was), I was talking on the phone to a Teen Mania Ministries rep because I had filled out something while there, a little postcard, saying I was interested in doing a Teen Mania discipleship. Things are different in the haze and smoke of a teen conference than in the cold light of day. I said a lot of things and made a lot of promises I might not have made under normal circumstances, and some of them were foolish – this was one of those.

This rep tried to convince me to go through with the discipleship, even to abandon my dreams of college and a writing career to devote myself to Teen Mania (“the service of God through Teen Mania,” he called it). Don’t mistake: this wasn’t a putting off of my college plans for a few years – what he was saying was not going to college – at all.

The Teen Mania strategy seemed to be to put on a conference that temporarily puts impressionable teens into a different state of mind, hook them then while they’re in that slightly weakened state, and then seal the deal later. It kinda made me sick.

Luckily, this guy that I was talking to was not anywhere near as charismatic as Ron Luce was at ATF. I ultimately decided on college, and I’m where I am today partly because of that decision. There wasn’t even any danger of me going with Teen Mania instead of college. It’s just that the huge and overwhelming experience of ATF put me in a different, confused and spinning-about state of mind.

All this is not to say Teen Mania doesn’t do good work through ATF. It changes the lives of many a teen, and sets them on a more positive path than the one they were going down. I just find the strategy of weakening people into agreeing with you to be a pretty rotten tactic. Teen Mania’s aim is probably not to nefariously snatch people into their cause when they’re teenagers because they’re more pliable… but that’s what happens.

When I watched the movie version of The Wall in college, I had a physical reaction to the scene when Pink holds the rally at the rock concert. The epic music, the lights, the fawning and cheering crowd, the thunderous applause when Pink makes his appearance… My God, it’s Acquire the Fire all over again!

Pink in full-on Hitler mode

Pink in full-on Hitler mode

The disc 2 appearance of “In the Flesh” details Pink’s fascist, racist, homophobic plan to rid the world of degenerates and weaklings, or “riff-raff” as he calls them. And he’s gonna use the crowd gathered at his rock concert to carry out this plan, like a totalitarian puppet master. And immediately after in “Run Like Hell” and “Waiting For the Worms,” the world is in the thick of Pink’s reign of terror. “Run Like Hell,” another high-highlight of The Wall, features a driving, relentless rhythm that literally makes you feel like you’re running for your life. The lyrics speak of not only totalitarian control, but of the squashing of very human impulses and the attitude of “put even a toe out of line and so help me God…” And “Waiting For the Worms” shows Pink at his Nazi-like worst.

Ron Luce and ATF’s message was obviously different from that of Pink and his fascist regime, most notably that ATF’s is one of spreading light and Pink’s is of crushing it. But whatever the message, they both start with a rock concert. A rock concert is not at all dissimilar to a huge worship rally – turn the sound off, and they look exactly the same. Same thing with a Nazi rally – just the decorations are a little different. At modern Christian worship rallies, you get a lot of people raising both arms. At Nazi rallies of times past, they were raising just one.

Food for thought.

Next: Worm, Your Honor.

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