I was a teenage evangelical missionary

Read an excerpt from Jon Ward’s new memoir, "Testimony: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Failed a Generation."

Jon Ward at age 13, in Mexico City during a 1990 trip to visit Christian churches there.
The author at age 13 in Mexico City during a 1990 trip to visit Christian churches there. Around the same age, he traveled to Chile with an organization called Teen Mania to perform street drama and seek converts to Christianity. (Jon Ward)
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In this excerpt from his new memoir, “Testimony: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Failed a Generation,” Yahoo News reporter Jon Ward recounts his involvement with a Christian youth organization that sent him abroad.

An early morning mist lay low on the ground as I climbed up into a clutch of rocks about 6 feet high. I sat down, opened my Bible, and began to read in the Psalms: “Keep me safe, my God, for in you I take refuge. I say to the Lord, ‘You are my Lord; apart from you I have no good thing’” (16:1–2).

I sat silent, pondering these words, praying them silently in my mind. Birdsong echoed in the distance, from the direction of the lake a few hundred yards to my right. Over my left shoulder stood a mountain cloaked in fog and cloud. It was 1992. I was 15 years old, in a foreign country, with a bunch of strangers, and far from home, without any friends or family. As I read the Psalms, I felt a nearness, a realness. Was this God? It must be. I worked the words over in my mind, and I felt comforted, strengthened, reassured.

I walked back to the low-slung buildings in the compound where I was staying, an hour outside Santiago, the capital of Chile. I went to my bunk and began to change into a clown costume, made out of nylon and all the colors of the rainbow. Then I applied white makeup to my face, drawing a red circle around one eye and more colorful makeup around my mouth. I didn’t have much time to eat, so I grabbed some bread and scrambled eggs, then hopped on a charter bus filled with teenagers who were dressed up as pirates, sailors, and mimes.

I’d been raised the son of a pastor in an influential megachurch in the D.C. suburbs, and I wouldn’t fully embrace my faith until college. But my trip to South America was memorable in part because of the way it transported me physically to another continent, while keeping me locked tight inside the cultural bubble of conservative evangelicalism. It was a closed system that it would later take me years to emerge from and understand.

We were in Chile because of a guy named Ron Luce, whose most distinguishing characteristic was his aggressive mullet. Luce was a thirty-year-old hype man who had founded an organization named Teen Mania. He would travel the country, holding events called Acquire the Fire, at which he told teens that they could join the epic battle against evil by traveling to foreign countries to spread the Christian faith. Luce talked a lot about Christians’ call to wage war against the enemy. Maybe he meant demons. Maybe he meant real people. It was never quite clear.

“We are ready to take back what the enemy has stolen. I want to know, is there anyone here who is ready to run to the battle?!” Luce once yelled out to thousands of teenagers. He promised “a real encounter with God,” which teens would experience with the help of “bands, pyrotechnics, media, and drama.”

Luce had a simple growth plan, which explains how I came to be involved. He promoted his conferences to youth pastors at churches in each city where he was traveling, asking them to promote Acquire the Fire to other churches so that their teens would get “fired up” for Christ. Musicians led the audience in loud worship music before Luce came on stage and told us how we were at war with darkness and with demons. We could fight that darkness by winning converts but also by resisting the corruption of popular culture. He encouraged us to go on what Christians call “mission trips”—which was why I was in Chile for a full month. I’d typed up a fundraising letter asking for donations from friends and relatives and had raised a few thousand dollars to pay my way.

In Chile, every weekday morning we would drive somewhere different, get out of the bus, set up some speakers, and do street drama. We had a few smaller skits with one or two characters designed to build a crowd, and then we’d do our main event. The sailors were the good guys, the pirates were the bad guys. I guess my character the clown was there for comedic filler. And then there were a Jesus character and a Satan character. It was a gospel presentation featuring predictably bad teenage acting, with narration prerecorded in Spanish. After we were done, we were supposed to go out into the audience and pray with any onlookers who hadn’t moved on quickly. The goal was to get them to recite a prayer. Then they would be saved from damnation, and we’d be on to the next location.

I can’t say I enjoyed proselytizing much. It seemed rather transactional and superficial. But the opportunity to see another part of the world was hard to pass up. When I was getting ready to board the plane for Chile, my dad hugged me and said goodbye, and when I turned to depart, he was tearing up. It was the first time I’d seen him cry. We headed to Miami first to get organized and trained. The vans took us from the airport to the Doral Resort, full of manicured lawns and palm trees. I’m still not sure how Luce justified that kind of expense, but maybe it helps explain why Teen Mania would later go bankrupt. We had revival meetings and met the folks we’d be traveling with. There were teenagers from all over the country. Most of the people leading the groups to each country were quite young themselves, usually couples in their early twenties.

Luce’s worldview centered on the idea that America had been a Christian nation and could be once again. We traveled overseas believing that because we lived in the most dominant superpower on earth, we had spiritual resources that people in other countries didn’t have. These trips weren’t intended for learning about other cultures or for gaining understanding about the world. They were intended to export our particular brand of American Christianity.

When we got back from our trips, the “battle” for our own country was still raging. There was nothing that got leaders like Luce more worked up than the idea that America needed to turn back to God. He didn’t mean that we needed to renew our commitments to serving the poor and working toward healing and wellness in our neighborhoods and communities. He meant mostly that teens should stop having sex and watching R-rated movies, that abortion should be illegal, and that gay people should not be accepted members of society. Sex was a big deal in this world, and everything was always an emergency. Gay marriage was seen by many as the tip of the spear for those who wanted to destroy Christianity and America.

Several years after my trip, Luce began holding Battle Cry events, which were like Acquire the Fire, only more overtly political and apocalyptic. “Christianity may not survive,” read his promotional materials. He bought the east Texas compound that had been owned by Keith Green’s ministry and started a training school called Honor Academy. In 2008, he got involved in the political battle over Proposition 8 in California, which banned gay marriage in the state and was overturned in court. And his events became more militant. He told the teenagers at the Battle Cry events that they were in a war, he brought members of the military to speak, he incorporated red flags as a major motif, and he mixed that all up with the stuff he’d done in the past: rock music, fireworks, and lots of hype.

Christians were embattled, put upon, even persecuted, and the answer was to “fight” a culture war for a religion based on a God-man who had in his own life on earth taught his followers to turn the other cheek and to be “poor in spirit” (Matt. 5:3). Teens were whipped up into a frenzy. After the culture war rhetoric came the personal appeals for individuals to repent of their own sins and turn back to God themselves. Luce urged teens to stand, one by one, and scream out performatively, “I want the cross!”

One pastor who attended said Luce and his followers “mistake adrenaline for the Holy Spirit” and were “looking for an emotional high.” Jeff Sharlet, a journalist who wrote about Luce for Rolling Stone, saw something darker: “Ron Luce isn’t a fascist, but it is the aesthetic of fascism. It is designed to draw very stark lines and to dehumanize those who are on the other side.” He had a different opinion of the kids he’d met at Luce’s rallies. “These are some of the gentler and kinder kids I’ve met. They don’t want to be in a war, but that’s all they’re being offered.”

Luce was similar to another leader at the church where I grew up — Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Md. — in its early days: Lou Engle. Engle’s voice was perpetually hoarse because whenever he got up in front of people, he would shout himself silly: praying, exhorting, praising, and preaching. He also had the odd and unnerving habit of rocking back and forth when he prayed, front to back, back to front. He didn’t sway. There was nothing relaxed about him. He was like a metronome on speed.

Engle and another pastor named Ché Ahn were big Holy Spirit guys, or charismatics. This was different from the head pastor, C. J. Mahaney, who over time became more of a theology guy. Maybe the most important contrast between C. J. and Engle was in how they engaged with the world outside the church bubble. C. J. was more of a quietist and a retreatist. He didn’t want anything to do with politics. C. J. wanted to talk about the Bible in his sermons, and anything that wasn’t explicitly in the Bible he mostly left alone. The only exception was sports, which he did love to talk about. So this was the direction he took Covenant Life Church in, along with the organization he and others founded to oversee all the other churches they were starting around the country. The name of that group changed a few times. At first it was People of Destiny International, and that was kind of in line with how Engle and Ahn thought of themselves.

These leaders wanted a muscular faith that didn’t shrink back from a fight. They wanted a dramatic faith too, full of spectacle. They were all big personalities, which they used to compensate for their lack of training, expertise, and experience. Faith, for them, was not the act of extending one’s self beyond the realm of what could be known to trust in what one hoped could be true. They had more certainty than anything. Christianity was true, no questions asked.

For them, faith was a belief that they could call down miracles from heaven to heal the sick or predict the future or change world events. Leaders like Engle and Ahn didn’t come across as charlatans. They were very sincere. But early on in their lives, they got locked into a particular type of faith ministry, and they built audiences and followings based on that brand and that kind of faith. At that point, their livelihoods and incomes became dependent on catering to those same types of Christians. Personal evolution or growth became constrained by their business model.

Critical thought, to these charismatic leaders, was an unhealthy questioning of God, and that got in the way of impact. So they sometimes implied that too many questions were a sinful reflex, or Satan’s handiwork, which could keep a Christian from claiming their rightful place in God’s army. My dad wasn’t like that. He didn’t emphasize Bible verses about how to overcome any problem with a powerful faith. Instead, Dad’s instruction was a lot of wisdom in the Proverbs, pouring out one’s soul to God in the Psalms, and a focus on being slow to speak, slow to become angry, and quick to listen — like the apostle James said.

Dad had been working on his master’s thesis, an extended meditation on C. S. Lewis, when he took the job as a pastor. He never finished the degree. But that was way more schooling than pretty much anyone else in the leadership ranks had. C. J. was a college dropout. Nobody came in with substantial theological or pastoral training. They were all making things up on the fly. At the time, they thought this was a good thing, because it helped them think creatively and outside the box. By the mid-1980s, Ahn and Engle had left Covenant Life Church to start a church in California. C. J. was firmly in control in Maryland.

None of the charismatic guys were as involved in the abortion issue as my dad, who led protests outside abortion clinics. But over time, they would become much more political, while C. J. retreated further into the church bubble.

Talk of demons seemed normal to anyone who had read one of the most popular evangelical books of that time. Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness came out in 1986, and I read it around the time I went to Chile with Teen Mania. It’s the fictional story of a small American town that becomes the battleground for a showdown between angels and demons. The forces of darkness work their wiles in the community through a New Age group called the Universal Consciousness Society.

This Present Darkness, which sold around 2.5 million copies, contains many archetypes that continue to shape the consciousness of many American evangelicals to this day. Millions of Christians came to believe, based almost solely on one guy’s imagination, that every action they took was part of a cosmic battle with life-or-death consequences.

In the story, there is a web of conspiracies between the New Age group, a corporation, professors at the local college, and law enforcement. And all of them are being influenced or controlled by demons. Transcendental meditation is portrayed as a gateway to demonic influence, building on the distrust of that practice among many evangelicals, which extended to yoga and psychology. The resistance to this conspiracy is led by the pastor of a tiny church. (If the idea of a satanic cult threatening Christians sounds familiar, that’s because the QAnon conspiracy theory contains a similar story line.) Peretti’s books riveted me and shaped my view of the spirit world for a long time.

A few years later, in 1995, the first of the Left Behind books was released. Ultimately, there were sixteen, with more for children, all of them set in a post-apocalyptic world. Then the movies came out, starting in 2000. All of them told the story of what some believe will happen: faithful Christians will disappear suddenly from the earth in a rapture event, and those “left behind” will have to live through a tribulation period that will culminate in an epic battle between the forces of light and darkness, followed by the return of King Jesus. In theological circles, this is known as premillennialism, premillennial eschatology, or premillennial dispensationalism.

I never read the Left Behind books or watched the movies. I didn’t need to because I’d seen older films that followed the same plot. In 1993, my parents sent me to a Baptist-run high school for tenth grade. I spent the next three years at Montrose Christian School in Rockville, Maryland. We had a regular Bible class in which I was treated to the end-of-the-world films A Thief in the Night and its follow up, A Distant Thunder. The story follows a woman who finds her husband gone, “raptured” into heaven, while she has been left behind. She must survive the tribulation and avoid being given the “mark of the beast,” which is a term found in the book of Revelation (16:2). The mark is being distributed by a one-world government set up by the United Nations. Those who resist are killed. Most memorable by far, they are executed by guillotine. I watched tearful Christians being hauled to their deaths by UN soldiers in blue helmets. The production values were low, but the message was clear: follow Jesus now, because if you get left behind, you’ll be hunted by the one-world government and the forces of the antichrist.

Revelation is recognized by most Bible scholars to be a book of metaphorical imagery, not a literal description of future events. Nonetheless, millions of Christians have chosen to read it as a road map for the future. Many saw the books and movies as one of the producers did: as a “true story” that “just hasn’t happened yet.” The books sold as many copies as the Hunger Games series.

My teenage brain was of two minds about all this. I thought much of it was silly, but I also was surrounded by people who believed it and so these ideas were swimming around in my brain when I left for South America. The ideas functioned more as archetypes and myths, shaping the imaginations of many evangelicals like myself. The metanarrative about the evils of a one-world government is a long-standing trope among conspiracy theorists that goes back over a century and overlaps with some of the most dominant strains of anti-Semitism. But this fear of a “New World Order” — to use one particular label that’s often bandied about — is seeded through evangelical culture and then makes millions of religious Americans suspicious of any efforts by its government to cooperate with other nations. It is a powerful force for isolationism and antimodernism. It’s why such seemingly innocuous labels like “globalist” can be wielded with such potency among many on the political right.

Growing up, I was so ensconced in my church bubble that I didn’t see the connections between our private beliefs and the real-world impacts that resulted from them. I was actively, aggressively encouraged to stay in my bubble and not to question anything about it.

Photo of Jon Ward.
Jon Ward. (Lawrence Jackson)

This excerpt is from Jon Ward's "Testimony: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Failed a Generation," published by Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group. Used by permission. April 19, 2023.