What if legalism is keeping us from knowing and experiencing the resurrected Christ?
Yesterday we celebrated Easter, when Jesus rose from the dead, defeated sin, and sent the Holy Spirit to be with us so that we could live in His power.
But I’m worried that many of us aren’t experiencing that because we’re living with a false gospel, a false sense of what the Christian life should look like. So I want to dedicate this week to looking at warning signs that you may be following a legalistic view of Christianity–whether it’s in your marriage, your parenting philosophy, or your church.
I want to start just by sharing a personal story.
When I was 16, I went on a missions trip to the Philippines with Teen Missions International.
It’s an organization run out of Merritt Island, Florida, which takes groups of teenagers all over the world for missions projects every summer. Usually the teams are about 6-8 weeks in duration, and they start with a brutal one week book camp in Florida (in a swamp with snakes and alligators) where you supposedly learn team-building, and then end with a debriefing trip (ours was in China).
There were many good things about that summer. I met some great friends. I saw the world. I learned to have a consistent quiet time with God. I memorized a lot of Scripture.
But there were other things that were not so great, and over the years as I’ve tried to process it I’ve come to realize more and more what didn’t feel right at the time and why it didn’t feel right.
The team had 6 leaders–3 men and 3 women. The head leaders were a couple, who brought their two children, who were likely 5 and 7, along the trip with us. The other leaders were subordinate to them.
The head male leader could be charming, but he was very, very strict.
We had rules about everything–when we got up, went to bed, did our devotions, who we talked to, when we were allowed free time.
But it was the overall emphasis that rubbed me wrong. It started with the theme of the summer–“The Way Up is Down”. We learned about Joseph, and how he was exalted, but first he had to be sold into slavery and thrown unjustly into prison. We learned about other Bible characters who endured tremendous hardships, but then were blessed by God.
The motto? We had to abase ourselves and be humble and be treated badly if we wanted God to bless us. And then they proceeded to live that out all summer, putting us through hard work and telling us that “the way up is down”. That was the point of boot camp, too. It was absolutely brutal, with hardly any sleep, living in mud, and having to do super hard work. That may work well for the military, who need to be prepared to live in harsh conditions. It was totally unnecessary for us. And treating us kindly and teaching us about Jesus would have been a much better route, in my opinion. Instead, they wanted us to endure horrible food, a mosquito and snake infested swamp, not have showers, dig holes that had no purpose, etc.
I’ve found that people don’t mind enduring hardship when there really isn’t an option and you just have to get through it. But creating intense hardship for its own sake just feels wrong. And that’s what much of the summer was about.
Besides, the whole concept of “the way up is down” isn’t even biblical.
It is not that suffering makes you godly. It is that God can use suffering to grow our characters, and in our suffering God is there. But there is nothing inherently good about suffering, and we should not pursue suffering for suffering’s sake. We should only ever pursue God’s best. At times that will lead to our suffering, but suffering is not, in and of itself, a goal of the Christian life.
I wrote more about this in a post a few years ago on how we see domestic abuse. Too many women are taught that God will use their suffering, and thus they should endure for a time. I told more of the story of the missions trip there, too.
I was only 16 at the time of that missions trip, and I wasn’t a theologian by any means. But this view that God wanted us to suffer and that God rejoiced when we endured hardship seemed very off to me. If I tried to talk about it, though, I was told that I needed to repent for not believing the Bible.
They had a chest of books that we were allowed to read for half an hour before bed. I’ve always been a really fast reader, so I read through most of them that summer. But they were all focused on how to completely and utterly submit to God even if it kills you. Most were Christian biographies; they were about people who had suffered when they went against authority and did well when they surrendered to authority. It was really monotonous.
In general, though, that summer we didn’t have much time to talk or read our Bibles because we were doing construction work.
Our job was to build a kindergarten for a church so that they could minister to more kids. So we poured concrete and laid rebar and did all kinds of things like that.
We worked about 10 hours a day, and it was absolutely and utterly exhausting. I am not cut out for that!
Not just that, but looking back it seemed so silly. We did no evangelism. We didn’t really talk to any of the local people at all. We went to a school once and sang some songs, but that was it. Instead, we spent five weeks putting up a building. And we all paid an awful lot of money to be there. It strikes me that it would have been much better to pay local people to build the building (thus feeding the local economy), and then, if we wanted an intense team building time, we could have done that in North America much more cheaply. Or if we really wanted to see the world, we could have done 4 weeks of team building in North America and two weeks of travelling. It would have cost so little to pay local people to build that building, and it would have blessed them with work, and we really didn’t see much of the Philippines or anything. We drove through some slums; we had dinner at a really rich person’s house in the congregation who roasted a pig for us (which was amazing), but we didn’t have a chance to talk to any of the kids really or make any real friends there.
I did enjoy the three of the four “junior” leaders. They were all in their twenties or early thirties and single. Most were teachers (which was why they had the summer off). They related to us well and you could talk to them easily.
The youngest female leader, though, was very strict and hard to talk to, even though she was only in her early twenties (and we had people on our team who were 19). She demanded respect, and it was very awkward.
But the worst were this head couple.
I believe he was 29 and she was 31, and they had been married for 10 years at this point. She rarely said boo, and worked a ton in the kitchen. But boy was she harsh to her kids! They were constantly yelled at. The thing that stands out to me most was the frequent spanking sessions in the bedroom beside the large room where the girls slept. It seemed as if they were being disciplined for the sake of being disciplined, since we could never figure out what the infractions were. In retrospect I think the female head leader was just very overworked, having to cook for 35 people 3 meals a day, plus supervise two young boys. I think she was just exhausted.
UPDATE: Since writing this, I have learned that the head leader on my 1986 Philippines team has now become the director of Teen Missions (as of fall 2018). His brand of legalism and authoritarianism are now at the top of the organization, which makes my experience more relevant than ever.
I also found that the junior leaders who were actually very wise counsellors, and who got along well with the kids, would clam up as soon as this couple came into the room. Quite frankly, I experienced them as tyrants, and I don’t think I was the only one.
We had several girls that summer who disclosed sexual abuse at home to some of the junior leaders.
When they did, I remember them being forced to stay in their room all day, and not allowed to socialize or work. The reason given was that they needed time on their own to pray. My memories on this are a little fuzzy, but it seemed like every time anyone was upset about anything, instead of being encouraged to talk it out, they were just confined to their room. Perhaps something was also done to protect them when they got home or to notify authorities, but I have no knowledge of that.
We were required to write letters home quite frequently (which was no problem; I wanted to do that), but all of our letters were read before they were sent and we were reprimanded if we complained about anything. The letters to us were read as well. I remember writing to my mom in code, hoping they wouldn’t figure it out.
I had a friend who was on another team with Team Missions that year. He went to Europe, and did mostly evangelism. His experience was nothing like mine. And so I don’t think that what I felt was necessarily true in all cases. And I have no idea if that letter reading thing was just our team or was for all teams at Teen Missions.
I did feel, however, that the theme “The Way Up is Down”, the “punishment” if you revealed any emotional hurt, the authoritarian nature of the leaders left a distinct impression of their version of Christianity: absolute obedience to authority, without rocking the boat, was the only acceptable behaviour. If you veered from that at all you were ostracized.
For our debriefing, we joined two other teams in Manila and later in China.
The head of Teen Missions at the time, Bob Bland, actually was at our debriefing session.
Part of the session was a memory verse competition. Over the summer we’d been encouraged to memorize 40 verses, and then we had a “quiz” on different aspects of the verses, team against team. I knew those verses backwards and forwards. I’m super good at memorizing (and my girls inherited that, both being on the international team for Bible quizzing. Katie actually memorized 9 whole books of the New Testament; Rebecca, who didn’t quiz for quite as long, memorized 6). So, by outward appearances, I should have been praised for doing so well.
Instead, I remember thinking that a lot of the rules for quizzing were silly, and I spoke up. So Bob Bland singled me out and took a walk with me and told me that I had a rebellious spirit, and that God was not happy with me. I remember being very surprised because I hadn’t gotten in trouble or been punished for anything (I had never been punished all summer, just given “the look” and told not to ask questions). I wasn’t the model construction worker by any means, but I never refused to work. I simply spoke up during devotions when I didn’t agree, and if there were rules that seemed ridiculous (like confining sad people to their room) I would say something.
At the time I didn’t really care what he thought; by then I had lost all respect for these leaders who didn’t seem to act like Jesus whatsoever (and the spanking thing had really gotten to me). But that memory came back to me last week when I was reading an article that talked about those who had grown up like the Duggars, believing a very legalistic view of the family (as promoted by Bill Gothard). These survivor stories are so sad. We simply must speak up against this!
As I look back, I remember that I was not the only one upset at the time. I was likely the most upset, but I was not the only one. I was, however, the only girl who regularly challenged authority. I think that’s why I was therefore the one singled out for chastisement.
Admittedly this all happened thirty years ago, and my memories are hazy. I may have misinterpreted some things because I was not used to legalism or to authoritarianism, and so it was super jarring to me. Perhaps others would not have found it so bleak. And I don’t know what Teen Missions is like now. I do know that I would never send one of my children there. But as I was reading about the ramifications of the Gothard theology it hit me that I had actually been part of that culture for a summer. We didn’t know that before we joined, and I’ve never been in the middle of anything like it since. But I can’t tell you how completely WRONG it felt, and how I chafed all summer at it. My heart goes out to children who are raised in it.
I have been back on five missions trips since, and none have been remotely like that.
My husband and mom will be leading one we’re taking to a children’s home in Kenya this summer (and hopefully our kids and their husbands will be part of that). I’m a huge fan of missions trips. But what I would say is, before you ever send your child to a camp or to a missions organization or to a college or anything like that, investigate it well. Make sure there isn’t some authoritarian, legalistic theology going on. Make sure it’s life giving, rather than life sapping. And make sure it’s not abusive. Too many things in the Christian world sound great on the outside, but when you see the up close and personal, you realize that they don’t reflect Jesus at all.
Tomorrow I want to give you 10 warning signs that a philosophy, group, or church may be legalistic rather than Spirit filled. Those signs were all present with Teen Missions, and I see them in all too many other places, too. Then later this week we’ll look at how to free our marriages and our parenting from these rules so that we get back to a true life-giving relationship with Christ.
Were you ever involved in a legalistic group that made you miserable? How did you find freedom again? Let’s talk in the comments!
UPDATE: I received many emails and messages after writing this post. Two of them were longer-type stories of other people’s experiences with the organization. I got their permission to tell their stories, and you can read it here: Stories of spiritual abuse at Teen Missions International.
I have also been sent many other stories of abuse at Teen Missions, and I list them all at the bottom of the second post about Teen Missions and abuse.
Oh Sheila- my heart aches for you and the others on that trip, not to mention those poor kids! Having been raised in legalism and having left a spiritually abusive church just two years ago- wow did I relate to so much of this post! Thank you for writing it and exposing spiritual abuse. It is not God’s way- His way is the truth that sets us free, the kindness that leads us to repentance, and the grace that is sufficient. For anyone trapped in legalism and spiritual abuse- there is hope. God is delighted in you and wants to heal those deep hurts and fears.
You know, one of the things that really struck me now looking back was how many of the kids on that team were really messed up–mostly from abuse at home. And most of the kids also didn’t see the rules as being as unfair as I did. So I think most of the other kids were likely raised in much more legalistic environments than I was, and many were seriously troubled.
I think one of the biggest red flags for me now would be that I would never send my kids to other people who had control over them, when I had no say in how that organization was run. Like camps, boarding schools, missions organizations like this. I think a missions trip run by your own church is an EXCELLENT experience for kids, and helps them see what the rest of the world is like. But when it’s with your church, you know the leaders. You can talk to them.
When it’s something separate from you, parents are seen as interfering. They’re a hindrance to what we’re trying to accomplish. And I don’t think that’s safe.
(None of this is meant to criticize my mom, by the way! I BEGGED to go on that trip, and she initially wasn’t crazy about it at all. And seriously, back then more people did things like this. It’s only now I think that we’re starting to get suspicious of outside places having control of our kids for a period of time).
Shiela I am sorry about your awful experiences on your trip. Such a shame. Not what God intended for sure. What I pulled out of the article was the” must go down to go up”. I swear sometimes I think you are following me around with a little recorder. Don’t worry my Pastor apparently does this as well ☺ What spoke to me was the concept of Redemptive Suffering. If anyone would like to talk about that today in light of the article I am very interested. I was just talking about this very thing last week. I read this book by Francis Chan called Crazy Love a while back. Good book. But I struggled with one concept. Essentially he put his family in “tough” conditions purposefully. The comparison he used for his reasoning of doing this was folks in India suffering just for being Christian vrs many North Americans who go to Church on Sundays and don’t really think about Jesus the rest of the week and how happy the people in India where just to be praising Jesus. (my summary from memory) What was experienced on Shiela’s mission is just this concept seems to me. Must go down to go up. I don’t agree with it. HOWEVER – Here is what I am struggling with right now. No one will probably want to touch my struggle with a 10 ft pole which is fine but here me out. So I have shared here that since December last year I have been struggling with Bipolar. I have tried their drugs and while sometimes they work my experience is that at the end of the day overall I am not the person I believe God wants me to be when I am on those drugs. I lost 4 months of giving hope to people. And they have noticed. So I got off their drugs and I am forming a new plan with my therapist. However I had this insight. The drugs could help me if I stick it out and go through all the struggles of trying to find the right combination. It would make my life “easy”. I have experienced it. However, what if my struggle is what takes me to God? That’s the insight. I have struggled with sex addiction for 37 years. God has removed that from me. I have come to believe I needed that struggle to find HIM. He used that struggle – that I never signed up for. Now I have a new struggle that I didn’t sign up for. I have even less choice now with Bipolar than I had with addiction. It is SO HARD TO FIND GOD when I am in manic state. REALY HARD. Somehow I have done the math that seems to add up to the fact that my struggle will bring me closer to HIM. So while I certainly don’t agree with purposefully sticking yourself in a struggle AKA Must go down to go Up. That is kind of what I am feeling like I am doing. I could take drugs to combat my issue. But when I do and they work it’s too easy for me. I don’t want to go down to go up. But I am willing to struggle through what is in front of me to get to HIM. I fully believe that God wasn’t us to be Happy, Joyous and Free. I don’t know how all this all fits in….there has to be a fine line somewhere. This is is just where I am and the article watered it . Thanks all have a good day.
I’m so sorry that you’re going through this! Seriously, mental illness is such a struggle, and drugs have so many side effects and it is NOT easy.
I think here’s how I’d summarize how I see the theology of suffering:
We know that God can ALWAYS use our suffering for good (even if suffering is not good in and of itself)
We know that God sometimes SENDS suffering our way in order to further refine us.
We know that God sometimes TRUSTS us with trials because of a bigger purpose that He is trying to accomplish (Joseph in Egypt, for instance.)
All of these things can comfort us.
But none of this means that we should necessarily pursue suffering, or that suffering, in and of itself, is good.
God does not glory in us being miserable, and does not get upset when we are happy. God simply wants us pursuing Him and Him alone.
Does that make sense?
Yeah it does Sheila – Thanks that helps and I will have to further process….Where more confusion lies is the concept of suffering in Joy for Jesus. I mean thats what we are supposed to do when we suffer right? So it kind of makes sense that if I suffer be it my choice or not then I can do so for Jesus. Yet – signing myself up for suffering seems like a really STUPID IDEA that obviously to me is not what God wants. Paul over at Generous Husband was talking about living more simplistic for your marriage today. Essentially having less so you can focus on your marriage. You could do that with God too obviously. But I don’t consider that suffering yet …hmmm…in doing so we are living more “out of this world” than in it???? Did I just go down a different path??? Is this maybe the pursuing him and him alone concept you write of? Is this the cross over/fine line as I call it?
I would define suffering as when some legitimate needs that you have are not being met. Suffering is NOT when our wants are not satisfied; it is only when a legitimate need is not met. So illness is suffering; grief is suffering (love and connection are needs); being fired or persecuted is suffering; but choosing to live frugally so you can pay off debt is not suffering. And, indeed, it’s likely very wise!
I see now – I think I have been too focused on the redemptive part of the term rather than putting effort into understanding suffering more. You gave me a bunch to chew on for a while – thanks
Phil: Just my $0.02, but maybe reframe this as a question of “how can I do my best and serve God in light of the particular set of challenges that I am facing?”
My belief is that as mere mortals, the big question of “why?” will often be unknown to us.
Some people will function better with meds. Some won’t, and some will need to try many different types. You can learn from a medical journey – about being grateful for health, compassionate toward others with health struggles, and can support patient services and medical research.
If you find medication that allows you to function better, to be your best self and to avoid harmful symptoms – that’s great! You can use that opportunity to be more productive and honor God that way. If medication is not working for you despite your best efforts, then that is another challenge and knowing that God is with you may help, as you trying to show what living your best life and honoring God looks like in the face of a serious challenge.
Sheila, I was involved in two teen camps (as a teen camper) about the same time that you were on that missions trip. (1975, 1977) The first was awful!! The leaders were very laissez-faire, there were no rules, and what I saw and experienced is seared into my mind forever. The second, two years later, was wonderful. There was structure, spiritual emphasis, and Bible studies based on (gasp) some of Gothard’s principles. Both of these teen camps were for Missionary kids. In the first there was actually sexual harassment that was ignored. The second had many of the same teens as the first but the atmosphere was totally different. I think that during the later 70s the North American church reacted to the “anything goes” atmosphere of the 60s and early 70s. The result, at times, was an overreaction into legalism. I want to applaud your courage in attempting to tackle this subject. Legalism is one of the most difficult subjects to truly understand and especially to avoid in real life. I think it’s inherent in our sin natures. Almost all religions of the world are legalistic in nature. But in practice, when legalism is combated, so often the result is license! (What I experienced in that first teen camp!)
With regards to “The way up is down”, hmmm. I see your point. We cannot flagellate ourselves into holiness – a type of legalism. But it seems to me there is a nugget of truth in there. How about fasting? Exercising for the health of our bodies? These are things where we deliberately create a type of hardship and they are beneficial. The principle that it doesn’t hurt to go without life’s amenities for a time in order to be able to relate to other people’s realities is valid, it seems to me.
Well, that’s my two cents worth. Each era has it’s challenges. There was lots of reaction to the no-rules rebellious me-me-me atmosphere that immediately preceded my teen years and I can understand that.
That’s a great point about fasting, Keith. I may need to change my definition!
Okay, let me take another stab at it. What I’ve seen in the church is that often those in power will make rules or regulations that make people miserable, and then they’ll say, “suffering is good for you!” So in other words, you’re not allowed to complain or say, “this is really needless and doesn’t glorify God at all.”
The example I used in the article I wrote a few years ago is when women are told to stay in abusive marriages because suffering is good. Or when a leader is very authoritarian and yells a lot and insults others, and they’re told it’s for their own good because God likes it when we’re miserable, or something like that. I have found that often people justify mistreatment of others, or try to hold on to power relationships, by using the excuse, “You can’t complain about this because you’d be going against the will of God, since God teaches us through suffering so you should be happy.”
That’s certainly the vibe I got that summer. It was less about how to learn to lean into God and hear His voice and more about how God makes those He loves miserable for our own good. And coincidentally the way that God wants us to suffer lines up pretty well with what is best for those in power.
By the way, my kids were involved with a more “laissez faire” camp, where the approach to salvation was very cheap grace. They didn’t appreciate that very much, either! It is hard to find the balance, isn’t it?
Isn’t there a difference between someone deciding to fast on their own with no coercion as an act of self discipline and worship rather than legalistic rules someone places on you with coercion and “can’t talk or dissent” attitudes? One is chosen, the other is forced. One is spiritually beneficial, the other is spiritual abuse. One is out of love, the other out of fear, etc. You get the idea.
I consider some of the things described here as discipline. Discipline is a struggle, but that isn’t the same as suffering, exactly. I guess I’m not entirely sure how to explain the difference; I just know there is one!
The pain of discipline is God not letting us off the hook. It is not some arbitrary pain inflicted on us that is unnecessary or unrelated to the cause or purpose of the suffering. It is Him being Holiness and Love, both at the same time. Him wanting to be in complete unity with us but our sin preventing it until we surrender at the cross. Often the hardest part in the suffering is to trust God and just do the next thing he shows us to do. It‘s clinging to the unconditional love He has for us despite our shortcomings. We endure this struggle so we grow closer to being like Him, denying our sinful nature. We can‘t actually make this up ourselves as a program. We are not to lead others by putting them down, we are to show them by humbling ourselves. We teach children to be respectful by being respectful to them, we teach them to be kind, by being kind to them. God requires us to love well, because He first loved us well, when we didn‘t deserve it. The way up is down, but it has nothing to do with some person yielding power over you, it has all to do with surrendering to God and loving well those he put in our way!
Very well put, Lydia! Thank you.
Sheila- you completely misconstrue the “God’s Way Up is Down” theme as you call it. I went on 8 teams and my grandfather happens to be Bob Bland. I am appalled by your vicious attack of him and your attack on his Biblical teaching. The story of Joseph and the theme you keep referencing does not mean you have to suffer. It simply states that sometimes God’s plans for us aren’t going to be easy and you may experience hardship, but ultimately the Lord is on your side. I think you heard what you wanted to so you could find something to write for your blog post. I am deeply offended that you would write something so disparaging about my grandfather. Rebellion is something I struggled with and have been called out for in the past. I wish I had a godly person like Bob Bland to talk to. He singled you out? It sounds like he tried to give you some spiritual wisdom. I know you won’t post this or comment back because you only respond to people who agree with you.
Cat, I am glad that you saw “The Way Up is Down” differently than me, but I can tell you that, as a 16-year-old, this is how I heard it. I also recounted my story with your grandfather the best that I remembered it, and the stories with my leaders as I remember them, too. I also have had so many emails from people who don’t want to comment publicly, but who are currently with TMI and who are saying that all the recent changes, which they hoped would improve things, have not.
I am glad that you are no longer rebelling and have found God. That’s wonderful. But I would ask that you would have some compassion on those of us for whom Teen Missions did not help our spiritual formation, but instead left some wounds from which we are still healing.
Lydia – this is great. I can’t quite wrap my head around it all just yet but I will be re-reading this and studying it. Thanks for the insight.
I would like to exchange emails with you. Do you have it listed somewhere on your blog? I also do not discredit or deny that people have had bad experiences. I find some of the stories very upsetting. I know my grandpa is the director (until recently) but to blame him for every bad experience doesn’t really seem fair. (Even if that’s not the case, it’s just how I interpreted it at first.
Sheila, one thing I have struggled to understand, coming from a developing country, is the whole idea of bringing unskilled laborers to replace local skilled laborers. Some of the work that some missionaries do (e.g painting a class, building a orphanage etc) can be done by locals who are actually more skilled in that regard.
I know most missionaries do MORE than just build a school or paint a class and that’s great. But if more time could be allocated to relationship building, evangelism, teaching, prayer etc, that would be more helpful, I believe. Otherwise some of the general missions trips end up looking like “vacations with a cause” 🙂
Great insights in this post.
Ngina, I totally agree! I just think it steals money from the local economy. Plus does anybody really believe that little 16-year-old me would do a better job building a kindergarten than skilled Filipino labourers?
I do think missions trips can be so useful for teenagers in terms of understanding real poverty and seeing how much of the world lives. But I think the trips should focus on that. Maybe supporting missionaries who are already there, partnering with groups that are already doing the work, even just blending into the background and just observing.
I do even think that there may be a role for “vacations with a cause”, just because I have know how going overseas has changed my own giving and charity practices over the years, and how it impacted my daughters, too. But I do think there’s something very wrong with doing construction type work! 🙂
I completely agree with you about vacations with a cause! Actually my husband and I are hoping to organize such tours eventually! There’s a lot of interest and good in enjoying a good authentic vacation while doing something meaningful. I just think it’s great to have a clear understanding, from the get-go to avoid confusion, at least to those who are on the ground.
And what you’ve said about partnering and learning and supporting is so crucial, particularly for the teens/young adults. Plus they (younger people) are usually a hit when there’s less stressful work involved and a little more fun involved!
By the way, I would have loved to join y’all in August! 🙂 Maybe next time!
I am writing this comment from my bunk in a small compound outside of Tijuana, Mexico. A trip I have made for 5 spring breaks now with our church’s youth group. I must say I am surprised at the notion that it would be better to simply hire, local laborers to build the homes and observe, or perhaps lead a Bible study. I feel that the whole point of the mission isn’t just that a family or two would receive shelter, but that they would get a need met by young people who wanted to come serve them and get to know them in the name of Jesus. Secondly, but more importantly, our youth get to experience sacrifically giving of their time, energy and money to love those less fortunate and experience how good it feels to help others. My own sons have been changed by the experience and recall their memories of it often. Was there suffering? Yes, in that they gave up their spring break, rode a 50 year old school bus for 11-12 hours each way, slept in old bunk rooms, shared primitive showers (with mostly cold water) worked 8 plus hours a day doing physical labor and had to fund raise for two months prior to the trip to make it affordable. It is worth it to see the families overjoyed and tearful when we pray with them and give them the keys. The kids also feel a sense of pride knowing they contributed with their own hands. As we have returned to the same valley for many years in a row, we have gotten to know some of the families and are able to share some of the joys and sorrows of life together.
The stark contrast of life 30 minutes south of the US border is shocking to American youth . The homes we build are approximately 500 sf and do not have inside plumbing or a kitchen, yet it has electricity and a locking door which is an upgrade for the families who receive them. This experience to share God’s love with others and see what life in Mexico is really like for so many who live here. They get to see Mexico outside the gates of an resort and put their faith in action.
That sounds like a wonderful experience for your sons!
Michele, what a wonderful experience you have had. There’s a place for this type of traditional missions because the need is there in many places. And its amazing what God does when we are exposed to other cultures and ways of life and get to serve “in hardship”.
I do think though along side these type of missionary work, we need to think of other ways to serve the communities we seek to serve. And one of those ways is seeking to offer people “hand ups” not just “hand outs”. Where we think about how to make lasting impact for the locals BY the locals. Because that’s how you change a people and their life, not just through showing up once in a while, but by enabling them to help themselves.
Instead of replacing the local workforce eg doing the painting yourselves for example, think about hiring a local painter or two (and work alongside them too) – I believe that speaks the love of Jesus in great ways too when you can dignify them with work as a way of sharing the gospel. I know you can’t locally source for every type of work due to expenses or lack of availability but whenever possible, involve locals in more ways than we’ve thought traditionally. That was my point 🙂
Oh, Ngina, I’ve got a story for you!
So on our last medical trip to Kenya, to the Mulli Children’s Family, we brought 4 doctors from Canada. But the home also employs a Kenyan doctor. Usually what happens is the North American or European medical teams come in and sideline the Kenyan doctors. Instead, Keith, who led the medical side of our trip, set it up so that the Kenyan didn’t see patients initially; instead, he was the “consultant” that they called upon when they needed second opinions. And they needed a LOT of second opinions! (I mean seriously, how much typhoid and cholera and malaria has any doctor from Canada seen? He really was much more the expert!)
He was a young guy, maybe 30? But it was so affirming for him. And we heard afterwards that it really increased his standing in the community to have these Canadian doctors (several even had white hair, so they were elder statesmen) deferring to the Kenyan doctor’s expertise.
And honestly–he DID have expertise. Way more than they did. So by partnering we were able to see about 250 patients from the community each day, and also everybody learned a lot.
It was just a really cool relationship we built up! I hope the same doctor is there when we go back in August, but often they move on. But I’d love to see him again!
As someone who lives in a ‘developing’ country this really irks me as well.Unskilled labour coming in to perform tasks that local skilled labourers can do.I imagine back home the teenagers wouldn’t go around building houses due to not being licensed or trained contractors but yet they can come build them here?I even know of a place where the locals had to pull down and rebuild the structures that the missionaries had put up due to poor workmanship.The issue of medical missions also comes to mind and there was recently a government directive that incoming medical aid or camps should first get clearance from the government or something of the sort.My husband is a doctor and he wouldn’t be let within ten feet of a patient in the West without rigorous training and exams and yet here foreign doctors come in all the time with apparently no scrutiny and as Sheila rightly put it.dealing with diseases they aren’t really familiar with.Not bashing all missions but there needs to be a rethinking IMO.
Yes, I have grave concerns there, too. For medical teams, we do have to give licenses and I believe that they only accept them from certain countries where the training can be verified. But I do think it’s important to rely on local doctors as well because they’re the only ones who really understand tropical diseases.
But for construction, often they send teenagers in! Our kindergarten building didn’t even get finished, so I don’t know what they ever did with it. We were supposed to finish but we didn’t. Skilled local labourers would be far superior.
I know this is directed to Shiela but I agree wholeheartedly. Thank you for saying this. It confirms what I’ve thought about this for years now.
Hi, we’ve talked about our involvement in legalism on the mission field and how it sapped the joy of serving Jesus, but this topic about authoritarianism brought something else to mind. Before we went to work with the legalistic missionaries our first mentors in Spain actually told my Husband that you can’t be too harsh on your children! I have always wished he had never told him that. We looked up to this man and he surely couldn’t have meant what he said. It however added to my husbands strict rearing of our boys. Not all bad, boys needs firm hands but I often wonder if our boys would have not hidden things from us if they felt they could come to us. 😭 We did our best with the knowledge we had. I’m glad you’re addressing these topics!
Yes, missions organizations really can be the most legalistic. I’ve read some heartbreaking biographies of missionaries, and what they went through with their mission organization, and we have to find a way to deal appropriately with that.
And I’m sorry that that man said that to your husband, too. What a terrible thing to say to a father! Can you imagine God ever saying that about us? I think there’s this belief in many Christian circles that children are inherently bad and need to be broken. But that’s not how God sees us. So sad.
Love this post! Thanks Sheila! My husband went to one of those academys that ATI started that is very military like with the pushups in the mud and no sleeping, etc. He says that the point is to show you what you are capable of so in the future when you’re faced with rough stuff you know you can keep going. However his mindset as a person has been opposite that… I think it’s a problem. I am 27 years old a mother of 2 and separated from my husband for the second time in our four year abusive, porn ridden marriage. And I’m JUST this year realizing how much my legalistic mindset has had to do with all the mess in my life. Because it has taught me to never use my own brain. To always do what I’m told no matter what abusive person is doing the telling, and to always look for someone to tell me what to do next. We have both gotten into a church that is grace based and I am learning that while community and spiritual authority does have a place, I have the Holy Spirit within me and I have the mind of Christ and I don’t have to depend on anyone else to tell me what God has for me, he will tell me himself. Which is what he has been trying to do all my life when I feel in my spirit that things are wrong. But then I was brought up never to listen to my spirit because I was a “wicked, sinful, girl” and nothing good would come from inside me. I know a ton of people are struggling with this very thing and I really appreciate you getting the message out there! Your blog and books have been so instrumental in opening my eyes.
Oh, I’m so glad God could use me as part of your journey!
I think you’ve brought up a great point about legalism–it teaches you not to trust yourself and not to think for yourself, which essentially teaches you not to listen to the Holy Spirit, the exact opposite of what Romans 8 is teaching us.
I just find that whole “wicked, sinful, girl” especially sad. Can anyone picture Jesus saying that to a child? And yet how often do we raise our kids with that idea–that they are just dirty rotten sinners who can’t be trusted? Something really needs to change!
What you lived through in that summer, I lived through for ten months in a church “internship”. The attitude was very much “we are going to tear you down so God can build you back up” and it took me many years to realize and acknowledge how absolutely abusive that was. No other human being on this planet has the right to “tear you down” in the name of God “building you back up”. I could write a book-length comment on the details of everything I experienced but I won’t. I will say two things, though. One, going through that gave me a greater sense of understanding for women who stay in abusive relationships. People ask my why I didn’t just leave. The psychology has a lot of similarities. Two, I only found true forgiveness for the people who hurt me in that situation when I realized how broken they were as well. There came a day that I felt compassion for them instead of anger, and I thank God for that because it lifted a huge weight off of me. It took time, it took counseling, it took me reading some books and personal stories that really impacted me. I do still deal with a couple of issues from that time in my life but I am working to address them through therapy. There is hope for healing and freedom.
Oh, Melissa, I wish I could go out for coffee with you (well, tea, I only drink tea) and talk to you for hours! That would be so interesting to know.
I do think you’re right that a lot of these people who are so harsh and legalistic were broken as well. I always experienced the head female team leader as being very harsh, but she also seemed to me to be so sad. And I think many people in that environment just grew up in it and didn’t realize it didn’t have to be that way. I was very angry at them for a long time and really nursed that anger, but I don’t at all any more. I just worry about how their boys turned out growing up like that!
Oh I got enough stories to keep the conversation going for hours! 😉 Next time you visit Colorado I will have to come see you!
I would love that, Melissa! 🙂
i agree: i was on a one year scholarship course at a Baptist Independent Bible school in France (2007-2008). The director(French and his American wife) were very legalistic and harsh. He was an agnostic before becoming a Christian ( where are the fruits ?? ) and still full of pride. He and his wife were totally abusive to their Portuguee daughter-in-law who knew 4 languages. After 8 years of being married to their spoiled son (oldest son) she divorced him. During that year they were very prejudiced and hated the modest and feminine way that i dressed ( his wife had a tom boyish way of dressing). The church there was awesome: they showed me true Christian felowship by inviting me to their homes after Sunday service to practice my French wth them …..they were FAMILY for me in France ! ! 🙂
i also went to a Baptist Indepenent school in northen Mexico for one semester (Fall 2005) : well… what happened there was that one of the students, who was on his final year before graduating as a pastor was ROUGHLY treated. He was from Vera Cruz (southern Mexico) and had a bit of a health problem. The school rules were very strict to the minor details ( for example : turning off the lights or arriving late for meal times) and he was punished for it (several times he was given the same punishment): when i was there it was the third time he fainted in the kitchen during supper meal (he was obligated to carry a very heavy load on the wheelbarrel under the hot desert sun during the peak hours of the day). And i witnessed each time that that happened to him he was sent on an emergency trip to the hospital ( it happedned at night each of those 3 times that he fainted throughout the semester. On the second emergency trip, the doctor gave him the WRONG medication which DID NOT help his health). i also remembered that on the third time he was sent to the hospital, one of the teachers or the director said out loud NOT TO TELL the president of the institute (he was an American missionary there at the time: he and his wife lived several blocks away from the school). As a result when it was time for the the president of the institute to arrive to the school to teach there i had to tell him what had happened. At first i asked him if he knew about it and he told me that he didn’t. At the end of the semester i was not allowed to go back to that school after the Christmas holiday was over.
I DIDN’T FEEL LIKE GOING BACK ANYWAY……………… 🙂
Another issue is that my “church” is ANTI-SEMETIC :/
Wow! What a horrible time you’ve had!
And it does sound like your church is quite horrible. May I ask why you would ever go to a church that is Anti-Semitic? Why would you associate with such evil and racism?
I just want to encourage you–it is your CHOICE what church you go to. You do not have to listen to your family. Jesus said that we should love Him BEFORE our families. If the religious community you’re in is not properly loving Jesus, then we simply must leave it.
i AGREE and i PRAY, PRAY AND KEEP PRAYING to find the opportunity to go back to the USA (which is my home country) and find a loving Christian church that is NOT anti- Semetic…..
Shalom and God Bless
Your sister in Christ 🙂
PS: Please view BEHOLD ISRAEL on Youtube with Amir Tsarfati ( great videos to UPDATE the Christian community on Bible prophecies: MARANATHA 🙂 SEE YOU ON RAPTURE! )
( i was born in the united states LEGALLY and been away for a while)
Are you saying that TMI is actually connected to Gothard, or that it’s a similar theology?
Also, do you know of any other teen missions organizations that you can recommend?
I find it a very similar theology. I’d most recommend going with your church or a local church so you know the leaders!
My one and only prior gf was in a youth missionary group 7 years ago, and on the outside it looked ok, but inside I had a sense of some emotional manipulation and control over the participants. They had some ground rule age requirements etc. Can’t be engaged while in the program. Thought that was a little weird..but ok. I guess I wouldn’t want to plan my wedding over seas but ok. Restricted physical contact between anyone you were dating. I wasn’t going with her so no big deal right? Oh wait. Not even while back home. (I find this out once she comes back from training after being gone a few months) No pda of the lips. at all. Come again? “We want them to keep their focus on God and not let them be distracted” says the /married/ leaders here. Who I’m sure go home and kiss their spouses, among other things. -_- the hypocrisy reeked here. You can’t control young people like that. If they didn’t give me red flags before, they did now. It was a 2 yearish program to boot. She didn’t have a problem with any of this. She respected them too much. I regrettably pushed her/the issue and then end up calling them a brainwashing cult. Not quite in those terms, but you get the idea..And then later while in the program she broke up with because she “needed to focus on God more and that I was a distraction”. So after that, some bad depression, bad coping mechanisms here I am now. A lot better after 8 years, but still irritates me still some.
I am a fellow TMI veteran but from the Australia base. I went as a teen in Dec-Jan 2005-6 And then joined their Bible school in 2010 and went as a leader in Dec-Jan 2010-11.
I totally understand how hard it is to deal with all the rules etc., but as you can see I didn’t just stop with one trip. Our director in Australia was pretty great – hard on the surface but a lot softer underneath. He explained a number of the rules at different times and both of my experiences were overall good. Little time evangelizing too but their were often teams dedicated to that each year in different parts of the world. I do recommend people continue to go on TMI but I do give ample warning that there are many rules and that it is better to just follow them. Mind you, I am a rule follower by nature, so to me, no big deal.
And like you said – it always depends on the team you go on – some are good and some are really quite bad – even in my times going there were issues!!
Finally, I also heard about US bootcamp – and I never want to go! Australia wasn’t too bad, a little bit hot, mosquitoes, the obstacle course at 5.45am etc., but never as horrible as US sounded!!
I went on a Teen Missions trip in 1991 to Nepal and my experience was a lot like yours. It took me YEARS to get over some of the nonsense that was drilled into my head that summer.
Highlights for me included:
– having our male leader scream “drive the body, drive the body” over and over again during the torturous boot camp sessions and then later during our dusk ’til dawn construction work all summer. Oh. And he also told me if I had enough faith I could overcome my asthma. I failed.
– the “grubby to grace” daily brainwashing session where us girls were told how submissive and quiet we needed to be to please God and how only by losing ourselves entirely we could be acceptable.
– sleeping on a concrete floor squashed sardine-like between 9 other girls. 3 of us sharing one blanket
-“bathing” with a bucket of cold water once per week where all the girls had to stand naked together in another concrete room ending in a 3 second rinse with the cold water shower. When I got home my mother cried at how dirty I was.
– eating rice with visible bugs in it daily. Part of the chores for the girls was trying to sift the bugs out of the dry rice before cooking it.
– doing construction work so far above my 14 year old capabilities that I came home with permanent back problems.
– and yes, regularly having my questions squashed with the “you just need more faith” line.
And the biggest thing? Telling a female leader about the sexual abuse I was experiencing from an abusive boyfriend back home and being assured it was all my fault and that I just needed to be more modest/submissive/better.
As you said there was a lot of good stuff that summer too – good friends, seeing a tiny bit of the world, having my world expanded. But overall I think it could have been done without the psychological and physical trauma.
Oh, Tara, I’m so, so sorry!
And we had the EXACT same experience with the showers. And they couldn’t really make them private, so while the girls were standing naked, throwing buckets of cold water over ourselves, Filipino children were at the fence, trying to look in. It was terrible.
I didn’t know that others had the same problems when disclosing sexual abuse. I thought it might just have been our team. That’s terrible! Have you written a review on the Facebook Page? I think if more of us did and shared this stuff, we’d help parents see that this isn’t a safe place for our kids.
And I think a lot of the good things that came out of the summer were in SPITE of the organization, not because of it. Those things could have been had by going on healthy missions trips with healthy organizations!
I hope you’re on the other side now, beyond the trauma. And I’m so sorry that you were sexually abused, too.
I’m so sorry about that experience. But I have to say. I went on a trip with teen missions international last year (2017) and one this past summer (2018) and the first one was hard because the leaders weren’t that experienced but we got through it. And the second one was absolutely amazing. I don’t know what year you went but judging from the pictures if was a while ago, and I want you to know TMI has changed so much. For the better. They are even still working on changes. One thing that stuck out to me was the “God’s way up is down” lesson you spoke about. We still get that lesson at boot camp. But I never saw it that way. It was always just about not focusing on ourself and being able to focus on God. To see how God can use our struggles. I never saw it the way you described. The material they use now is updated and changed. We were never punished for confiding in people it sent to our tents or rooms for prayers. I hope you know TMI has changed.
Thank you Kalina! I went on a team this last summer as well, and I agree that they have changed for the better. The new director has made some major changes too to make it less and less legalistic, but I think that amount of strictness always depends on the team leaders. God really used my hard summer (as in we were called the worst team of 2019) to grow in him a lot, and because of it I am considering becoming a missionary.
That’s wonderful, Abby. I’m glad that you had a good experience. I do want to point out, though, that the new director was my original team leader (I didn’t realize this when I wrote the posts).
I went on a team in 2017, and then yet again, on the same team as Abby S.Being under both directors I do agree that Mr. Barber has made BC less Legalistic, but it is all about the leaders. On both teams, I had really bad leaders who did not want to be there or started drama within the team, due to the fact they were too young and not experienced enough.( Both teams leaders being staff or former BMW student teams). I have found that Teen Missions tends to make cookie-cutter people, either you fit in the mold or you do not make a “good Christian” I know people who have had a great time, and people who have had an awful time. I think it is really all about leaders. Leaders make or break a team.
Was part of the TMI experience in 1987. Our team went to Trinidad. Sheila – your explanation of what you went through brought back a lot of similar memories. I am still haunted by those 8 weeks I spent between Florida and Trinidad. I distinctly remembering one of the leaders telling us to “leave our families” if they do not accept Jesus as their savior. That was 30+ years ago and I have yet to return to church regularly. I only go with my parents on Christmas when we visit them. TMI made me lose faith altogether. Years ago I went to a money making pyramid scheme event that my wife dragged me to. I broke down and cried in the middle of it, ran to the lobby, because it was reminiscent of TMI. No teenager should be subjected to the trauma they drag you through. Hearing similar stories to mine is scary, but it’s validating. You are not alone.
For any parents who want to send their kids through this: Don’t.
I went on a Teen Missions trip in the early 1980s, and I had a very positive experience. I’m sorry to hear your experience was negative. My team (an evangelistic team) had great leaders. They were in their 60s, as I recall, and they had led many teams.
My Teen Missions experience is a highlight of my life. I actually went back to visit the country of my missions trip a couple of years ago after almost 40 years! I don’t know how TMI is today, but I am so thankful that the Lord prompted me to go on that trip so many years ago. It had a major positive impact on my life.
I had a similar experience to yours with Teen Missions. I was raised in a Christian home and was a pretty solid believer when I went on the trip. The leadership constantly questioned my faith – told me I wasn’t really a Christian. Really negative experience. There was a no dating policy between for the leaders and yet 2 of my leaders who didn’t know each other prior to the trip were engaged at the end. It was painfully legalistic and a really sad missed opportunity to encourage kids in their faith!
As someone who was raised in legalism, with corporal punishment being not only socially acceptable, but expected, and remembers friends who went on missions trips that required “boot camp”, this experience would have likely felt totally normal and acceptable to me, as a child and young adult. I am just now unraveling the lies, these last couple of years, since having my girl at the age of 35 and having “the scales fall off my eyes”.
It began while starting to date, my junior year of college, perhaps, when I realized that many “good little evangelical boys” were actually quite selfish and aggressive. I didn’t understand where the lines of “respecting the authority of men” and “respecting the authority of your husband” fit in with “respecting the authority of your boyfriend”. I gave in to much more than I wanted and felt “ruined” when that first boyfriend suddenly went from planning our future together to dumping me for his ex (who he had apparently been hanging out with a lot, while I worked my butt off and attended an intensive summer class). After 4 years, and getting out of my parents’ house, when I began my new career, I felt ready to date again and went to online dating, searching specifically for “good little evangelical boys”, because I did not want to be “unequally yoked” (which I now understand quite differently). I was in more than one abusive relationship and stayed in each until I couldn’t take the rejection from being cheated on. After all, infidelity was the only reason for divorce, if we were to be married. (Also a farce I thankfully have realized only after being married for over 5 years to a thankfully wonderful person.) During that time, I was treated with more respect by two agnostics I “gave in to date”. Then, I was given even more respect (to the point I felt embarrassed and left the relationship abruptly) by an atheist I dated. At that point, I felt so destroyed and conflicted, I agreed to date a friend’s friend, who was Catholic. Oof, Catholics had been demonized by my churches, by my Christian college, and by my dad – I suppose I thought it would be appropriately rebellious! He was so beyond what I could have hoped for and I felt so unworthy, I eventually shared with him my past and shame over it, and he sat there more shocked that I felt like I needed to “confess” that I had dated these other people and had been physical with them. We were both about 29 at the time! Well, a year later, we were married, and that triggered even more junk from stuff I saw in my parents’ marriage and roles I assumed were expected. I pushed him so hard to be my “spiritual head”, when I was the one who had been through literal years of AWANA, intensive Bible studies, and Sunday School classes and loved to study and share what I was learning. When I let go of that notion, a couple years in, a lot of tension went away. I remember feeling incredibly inadequate, when a vaccine caused my arthritis to come out of remission and I was almost always either exhausted, in pain, or both. I felt like I was letting him down, not performing household duties constantly (including “giving him sex”). We never spoke much about it, because I felt ashamed and he felt bad complaining about anything. The disease was mostly under control, about four years later, and I still felt guilty for him doing any of the past housework. When our miracle girl came along, I remember holding her and thinking, “I can’t spank this child…,” and immediately panicked, because I had no idea how to parent without corporal punishment! She has taught me so much – especially, like Rebecca has pointed out, that she is not inherently evil. It seems to me that much of what is taught about our humanity being so depraved, from birth, comes from people who look at a baby crying as a sign of sinfulness, rather than communicating a need, or a toddler throwing a toy as a sign of rebellion, rather than showing curiosity. Methinks they dost project too much!
I am so grateful for ministries such as yours, which help me heal and rewrite the awful theology I grew up with, and like Flourishing Homes and Families, which help me with parenting skills that I am not accustomed to, but feel so much more right. Thank you for helping fight the good fight and spreading Jesus’s message of love!
Oh, Jess, what a story! And I’m so glad you found me! I hope your arthritis stays under control. That must be really rough. And, yes, our kids teach us so much!