Last week I was talking about the dangers of legalism, and I launched that series by telling a personal story of a missions trip I took with Teen Missions International back in 1986.

I talked about how the emphasis was skewed, how the head leaders showed little grace, how the goal seemed to be to break our spirits.

I told that story because I thought it was a good introduction to what I was going to write about for the rest of the week on legalism, but then something happened. Because I wrote that, I started receiving emails and stories from other people who had had horrible experiences with Teen Missions International. Most were just “me too!” letters, but a few told their own stories. To be fair, many commented on Facebook that they had enjoyed their teams (and I genuinely believe that my friend who went at the same time as me, but on a different team, had a great time), but they also acknowledged those weird punishments and harshness of bootcamp.

I started wondering what to do with these letters. I didn’t want to launch a full-on assault on Teen Missions International!

But then another thought occurred to me. Think of the kinds of teenagers who sign up to go on a missions trip. They’re giving up their entire summer holidays with their friends. They’re giving up the chance to make any money to save for college. They’re giving up family vacations. Why would they do that?

I know in my case the reason was quite simple: I loved Jesus, I felt so blessed to have the life I did, and I desperately wanted to go help those who lived in much more dire circumstances. I desperately wanted to do something that mattered, to be Jesus’ hands and feet. And pretty much everyone on my team felt the same way.

They had this seed, to use a biblical metaphor, of a desire to serve. And yet instead of watering that seed, it felt as if Teen Missions saw it as their job to crush it underfoot, because it was suspect. Teen Missions didn’t seem to trust us or believe our faith was genuine. Their teaching gave the impression that we were corrupt in some way, and so we needed to be refined in the fire. And I don’t believe that’s biblical.

Right now there are parents and teenagers wondering if they should go with Teen Missions, and I wanted these stories told, in case they ever Googled it to research the organization. And so I hope you will all forgive me, but I want these three stories to stand. I have no way of knowing if they’re representative of all teen missions teams, although given the feedback I got, it seems many people did question their methods. And these are personal stories; not everybody on the team will have interpreted it the same way or have had the same experience. Even on my team, I think there were some team members who quite enjoyed our team leaders. And because these are memories from some time ago, we may have some details wrong. But I want parents to have a chance to read these and decide for themselves.

Regular programming will resume tomorrow, but today I’ll share three people’s stories from Teen Missions International.

Teen Missions International: Three stories of spiritual abuse from missions trips

The first is my own–How I labelled rebellious on a missions trip

The second was sent in by a mom whose son was on a team about fifteen years ago. She writes:

We thought Teen Missions International was a great opportunity to get mobilized in missions at a young age.

However, he faced the same nonsensical “hardships” for hardship sake and legalistic authoritarianism (and was also labeled a trouble maker.) His leaders seemed insecure and needing to constantly express their authority. I could tell his letters were in “code” and he wasn’t happy. He received many extra “spiritual blessing” points, which meant extra work detail, which he didn’t mind because then he was “punished” by actually doing useful work (like building a walkway) instead of digging useless holes etc.

But he found the authoritarian structure overbearing and spiritually manipulative and abusive. He “escaped” through the swamp one night and called me from a payphone and then slipped back in to camp. He said later the leaders couldn’t figure out how they received a call from his family the next morning to please send him home immediately due to a family “emergency”…… They tried to talk me into leaving him, but I insisted he be taken to the airport where his flight was booked and waiting for him.

NOPE! Our boy was NOT leaving the country with that leadership! While a bit of a financial loss, it ended up being a great foundation block of trust built in our relationship. Our boy’s heart was so affirmed that his parents would trust and back his discernment. It was a cornerstone in his somewhat “rocky” teen years. He never doubted our love for him after that episode of backing him up and getting him out of a bad situation. So it ended up being a parenting win. However, like you, I have never ever ever again considered sending one our kids on a trip without fully vetting the leadership. So a parenting fail/win on Teen Missions.

(Yes it took a brave and bold “character” to “escape camp” in the middle of the night to get to a pay phone. And yes he would have survived the trip but I am glad he didn’t need to because it was exactly as abusive as you describe.) Although I know the experience varies some by the team leaderships. Even our son said that he he wouldn’t have minded some of the other team leaders. The work mindset and some of the theology was just plain stupid, but his personal trip leaders seemed insecure and definitely ready to punish any questioners. It did not represent the truth of Christ well, in my opinion. I am grateful he was able to discern between legalism and truth and walk away with his faith in Christ intact.

The third is a very detailed description of a Teen Missions International trip to Australia:

I begged my mom to go to Teen Missions International 20 years ago. I saw the advertisement in the Brio magazine. I really wanted to go serve the Lord.

She agreed I could go to Australia because she thought it was a safer country. I remember bootcamp being something that I had never experienced before and it was nothing like what I expected. I hated it. I would make up songs about how horrible it was and sing them to myself as we marched. I remember thinking there was was a clear lack of grace, empathy and love. I was floored that these leaders and staff were expecting me to be like Jesus but no one was acting like Him themselves. While I was there, I knew there was something wrong with the place, but I didn’t know why it was like that.

At Bootcamp, whenever a team or individual did not live up to their standards, they would get an ‘SB’ which stood for a ‘Special Blessing.’ This could be digging holes, cleaning sheds, moving wood and junk around,etc. I remember being furious that they would attach the word ‘blessing’ to a punishment that was so undeserved.

The main obstacle course had a time limit established to it. If a team did not finish within a certain time or made a mistake during the course (i.e. did not call out the numbers in appropriate order or not fast enough, or missed a step, etc.) that team would miss their free time and have to do a SB. It took us a bit of time to get the obstacle course done correctly, so we got a lot of SBs. Plus, we had a couple of people on our team that had great difficulty doing the course because of physical reasons which meant we could not finish the course in time. So we got SBs for that.

During the summer I went, it was during the time in Florida when they had a breakout of forest fires. They were close to us so we did everything in smoke. There was one point during the day that we had to make it from one part of the camp to another part of the camp that took us awhile to run to it. In the middle of our trek were the portapotties and water fill ups. If we stopped for them, we would be late for our destination. But if you gotta go pee, then you gotta go pee. And we needed the water to keep us hydrated with the higher than normal heat temperatures and smoke. So we stopped and we were late. So we got SB’s.

We got so many SBs that they said they were running out of things for us to do. I don’t remember having any free time during Bootcamp.

Another thing they did at Bootcamp was judge who had the dirtiest campground. If it was yours, you had to wear a sign around your neck that said, “I live like a pig”, take care of piglets and clean that bathrooms. We were always on the low end for this. I did everything possible to do what they wanted. I folded my sleeping bag the right way, put my  bag in the right place, cleaned up my garbage, and closed my tent the right way but we were always low. I still don’t know why. Apparently someone was doing something wrong. Our head leader was so embarrassed that he told us if we stayed low, we’d get an SB. And big surprise – we got an SB. We did get the pig signs only once though. We wore our signs and looked after the piglets. And then we were told to clean the bathrooms during our free time. I didn’t even know the place had bathrooms!!! Our leaders only ever took us to the portapotties. I thought other campers were not allowed to use them. That idea was squashed when other campers came in to use them while we were cleaning them. I was not impressed. Why we specifically weren’t allowed to use those washrooms I’ll never know.

I remember one time we were lining up at our campsite to go to breakfast. I had just put on pants from the clothesline and I felt sharp shooting pains. So I ran into the girl’s camping area and pulled down my pants. It was a wasp stinging me over and over again. I heard them yelling at me and knew that I could get into big trouble for this. A couple other girls came to see where I was and started helping me. The leader came, gave me a quick look over and rushed me back to line. I was thanking God I didn’t get an SB.

Near the end of the bootcamp, the preacher challenged everyone to give half of their spending money to one of their needs. I remember that I gave half of my spending money to whatever they needed it for because I had such a desire to help people. I remember calling my mom with the one phone call we had at the end of bootcamp and telling her that I did that. Her response was of shock and then to tell me that I shouldn’t be giving my money away because it was for me. I just thought she didn’t understand. Now looking back, I realized how absurd it was that we just paid thousands of dollars to go on this trip and then they asked for the little spending money that we had too.

[Sheila says: I remember the same sermon on how we should give up our spending money. I donated much of mine, too. They also wanted us to buy these leather bound NKJV study Bibles, which they sold for $60 each (and this was in 1986!). I bought one because we were told it was really the only way to read the Bible.]

During that bootcamp, I learned to cling to God. I learned about His love and rest. I appreciated God’s strength and grace so much more. I learned these things not because they were shown to me there, but rather because the place was void of them.

After camp was over, I learned that each night, one of our leaders would go sleep in an air conditioned place because the forest fires were so close. They had to be ready to warn us in a moment’s notice of evacuation. But they weren’t allowed to tell us that. They didn’t tell my parents either.

On the way to Australia, we had three layovers and it took over 24 hours to get there. They overpacked our carryon bags with canned food and were worried we’d get caught by the airline. So they told us to pack nothing else in them. So I had nothing to read or do on the plane and they wouldn’t let us watch the movies. One of the boys on my team laid his head on the arm rest (which was up). Our head leader was furious at him. He said it looked as though his head was on the girl’s shoulder beside him (even though it wasn’t). He got an SB.

While bootcamp was horrible, I had some really great experiences in Australia.

I think that had to do with a number of things. We were staying at a Christian conference grounds and the leaders of the conference grounds were very nice. They hosted events for us. For example, we had a Scottish dancing night (which our leaders didn’t want to have but the conference leaders sprung it on us a surprise). They took us on a kangaroo hunt (and didn’t tell our leaders so they super mad at us when we came back). The biggest thing: We weren’t supervised by our leaders 24:7. When we went to Australia, we were supposed to renovate their church building. The building was more like one big room. And they already had men working on it. So they only needed a handful of people to help. The rest of us had to do odd jobs.

I remember doing a lot of weeding. Other jobs included helping in the conference kitchen, painting, peeling paint off of buildings, raking, and packaging up the Christian newspaper they printed there. When I was in a work group with a leader in it, it was the same as usual – no talking, get to work, memorize scripture and do not stop working even if you need a break. I felt like we got scolded a lot.

When I was in a group without a leader it was wonderful.

We would get our work done, but we would talk and laugh and have fun doing it. And when we had one of the conference workers with us, it was also fun because they would talk to us and give us breaks. I would try my hardest to avoid certain jobs that had a leader because I knew it would be stressful. I even chose the least wanted job –weeding–because it was very rarely supervised. The whole atmosphere would change with the leaders not being around.

When we were in Australia, we finally stopped getting so many SBs, though we did get occasional ones even though our team tried sooooo hard. Our SB was to pick up garbage on the side of the road. At first it didn’t sound like the greatest thing, but I quickly realized it was a good thing. We formed groups of 2. They took us in the bus and dropped us off on the side of the road, by ourselves, with a great distance between each of us (I couldn’t see the people in front or behind me). We just walked down the road picking up garbage in the the ditch. It was quiet. My back hurt, but we were alone. (Which in hindsight doesn’t seem very safe. We didn’t have cell phones and we were in a foreign country in the middle of nowhere). Eventually the bus went down the road again and picked us all up again.

One of the rules was that we had to say our memory verses to a leader before we could eat dinner. I was horrible at memorizing verses.

One night I just couldn’t get it right. I was outside with my leader, a super tall Texas man. And he couldn’t go eat either until I said them. I do believe I made this man crack because he told me not to tell anyone and let me go in without saying the verses correctly. (Although I think he really just wanted to go eat himself) Our head leader was going off on how important it was that those verses be memorized before dinner. I remember sitting there praying that I wouldn’t get myself and the other leader in trouble for eating before I said my verses. After I ate, I said the verses to my leader after only two tries. I praised the Lord and thought, “How does starving people help them remember verses?”

God was with me, encouraging me in that trip. What really helped a lot were my friends. They gave me a lot of good memories and I missed them so much when I left. Also, a lot of people from home wrote to me. My grandpa wrote me everyday. I knew that I would go home to people who loved me and showed God’s love. And I would never go back to Teen Missions International. So while I don’t enjoy thinking about bootcamp, I really did have some great experiences with my teammates in Australia and with the people there. And I really do think God used your article to show me that I have some healing to do about this experience.

What I find interesting about legalism is how ingrained it is in people, so much so that they aren’t aware it’s there. I see it in my family and my friends. I see it in some of the comments under your articles (and I love the comments that support you). God has opened my eyes to how much legalism is not from Him and how it keeps us from truly knowing God. And this is why I love reading your articles, because they keep showing me what a non legalistic faith looks like amongst a lot of legalism.

I want to let the stories stand on their own, except for three observations.

First, we had six leaders on our team. Three were full-time Teen Missions International Missionaries; three were adults who just volunteered that summer. I loved the volunteers. I think they were teachers. They were there because they loved teens and they wanted to encourage us. The three that were on permanent staff were the ones who felt compelled to crush and criticize. It sounds like this was the thread throughout our experiences. It was those who were with Teen Missions permanently who tended to be the problem. And that makes me worry about the organizational structure and mindset.

Second, the fact that they would call punishments “special blessings” is emblematic of everything that is wrong. God does not enjoy crushing us. God does not punish us harshly for no reason. God does not take pleasure in our misery. God made everything for our enjoyment! (1 Timothy 6:17).

Third, as a teen I was exposed to other Christian organizations–Pioneer Camp with IVCF; Capernwray Bible colleges; Operation Mobilization missions trips. I never experienced ANYTHING like I did with Teen Missions. While I often chafed at rules at other organizations, too, I felt the Spirit of God there and I felt like their focus was on growing my faith and using my gifts, not on crushing me. This truly was a unique experience.

I fully support missions teams in general. We are going on our fourth missions trip as a family this summer. I believe in missions, especially for teenagers, because I think seeing what God is doing in the world and seeing real poverty can be life changing. It will change how  you think about what you should do with your life, and it will change how you see money.

I just don’t believe in Teen Missions International.

I don’t want to write another post about this, so here’s what I’m going to do. If you have a story you want to share, please leave it in the comments. If they are long ones, I may amend this post and post them here, too. This can be an “ongoing” post, if it were.

Our teens are precious. Teenagers can have the Holy Spirit in them just as much as adults can. Let’s nurture and encourage their faith, rather than crush it.

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