“What is one of your greatest ambitions in life?”
My church small group recently began a study on the dangers of comparison that featured this question. Most of us answered with career aspirations, a dream house, or a lasting relationship. My answer felt rather unexciting.
“I just want to be normal.”
I’ve always felt awkward sharing my story. Maybe it has something to do with just how ashamed I’ve been toward it, or because most of my friends have lived much less strange lives or have had different struggles. But over the last few years, the pieces of the puzzle have finally come together. I’ve had to come to grips with the reality that my gifts and calling in life are inextricably tied to my story, no matter how tempting it may be to sweep it under the rug. So, here’s a quick look at my background, why it’s inspired me to kickstart this blog, and the sorts of topics you might expect to see covered in the days to come (and the glue that ties it together!).
My childhood was primarily defined by my family’s involvement in a cult-like organization called The Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP). For those unfamiliar, IBLP was launched in the ’60s as “Campus Teams” and later became the Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts (IBYC) under a man named Bill Gothard, a minister who had attempted to reach the gangs of Chicago. While he had found “success” in the form of conversion moments, it grew increasingly apparent that there was no genuine conversion taking place. The gang members fell back into their old lifestyles over time. So, he came to the conclusion that the problem wasn’t really with the kids themselves – their parents must have failed them. His organization was essentially founded on the idea that if parents followed a set of supposedly Biblical principles and established the importance of authority, there would be no way their children would fail. Initially, the program began with seminars. Throughout the years that followed, particularly in the ’80s, the organization became known as IBLP, and thousands would attend the seminars in packed-out arenas to hear Gothard’s insights.
My parents were among them.
My mom and dad are wonderful people. They came from broken families and had just begun their journey as adult Christians, hoping to one day bring a child into the world who would never have to suffer through the emotional trauma they experienced. And in an uncertain time when the countercultural forces of rebellion began to erode society’s prevailing (primarily) faith-based school of thought, the red binder provided at the seminars seemed to have all the answers. The picture-perfect families presented on stage to showcase God’s blessing toward those who followed the principles of the seminar were certainly enticing. A step-by-step method to ensure ideal kids like that in the midst of societal upheaval? Who’d want to turn that down?
Calling IBLP a “cult” isn’t something I can do easily after a childhood steeped in the program. But it effectively functioned as one. There was a leader who claimed special revelation and whose teachings we all “followed” – one who would draw minutes-long streams of applause and standing ovations from crowds whenever he entered the room. There was a call to seek “a ‘new’ approach to life” and create a wall of separation between ourselves and others – not just those outside the Christian faith, but also other Christians as well. And most unfortunate was the abuse. Mental, emotional, sexual, and spiritual abuse were rampant in the inner circles of the organization and swept under the rug for the sake of saving face.
What set IBLP apart from other cult organizations was that it was so innocuous at first glance, and that was what made it so subtly insidious. There was no compound in which we all had to live, no single church under whose authority we had to operate, no crazy-sounding weird name we collectively carried. On top of that, the program encouraged its adherents to make IBLP’s supposedly Biblical beliefs their own instead of simply Gothard’s. Any challenge wasn’t a slight against our fearless leader. It was much more personal, an attack on one’s own belief system.
I could spend a lot of time writing about the details of what makes IBLP’s belief system what it is and how it’s shattered so many people, but only a few words are really needed to sum it up: results-oriented thinking. It’s basically an underhanded prosperity gospel: if you input A (follow the principles), you’ll get an output of B (God will bless you). There are plenty of issues with that mindset as is, but it’s even more damaging when the input is flawed to begin with. Much of the practical application of the “non-optional principles” IBLP advocated were not even Biblical. They were simply Gothard’s own personal tastes and preferences turned into law, with Bible verses scotch-taped over them to give them some proof-texting heft. Even more, there was actual truth often sprinkled in with the lies, and it was quite tough to distinguish between the two.
In case anyone’s wondering, no – I don’t harbor any ill will toward my parents for being a part of IBLP back in the day. I love my parents. In fact, I can’t really blame them. We weren’t really all that involved with the program, and they even recognized its shortcomings. They were only doing what they thought was right. And I’m thankful that we were shielded from the worst of it. But I can’t deny that IBLP affected them differently as discerning adults than it did a little kid who soaked it all up like a sponge with hardly any other reference points. The mindset and methodology that defined IBLP played a key role in defining my own – much of it warped for a long time. I’m just thankful that over the past several years, God has brought people into my life who have walked alongside me as I’ve begun to break free of the chains of perfectionism, narcissism, and people-pleasing built up over all that time.
The reason why I’m bringing all of this up is not to throw blame around or fish for sympathy, but rather to establish context for many of the topics I’ll be writing about in this blog. It’s actually difficult for me to talk about this part of my story, mainly because it’s so far from the norm with respect to childhood experiences that it’s been rather tough for others to understand what it’s been like. It’s also very easy and tempting for me to want to forget about my time in IBLP – to sweep it under the rug, encase it in the museum of my childhood experiences, or treat it only as a radical organization whose issues I’ve long left behind. But that wouldn’t be even close to the truth. I still struggle with those aforementioned tendencies from time to time. I still struggle with being normal. And I also suspect that the issues that have plagued organizations like IBLP – such as focusing on external appearances, correcting imbalance with additional imbalance, and thinking linearly toward strict results – are issues that exist throughout our culture, albeit in less concentrated doses.
In the days to come, I’d like to start some discussions on these mindset-oriented issues and lend what perspective I can to them. As part of that, I’ll most likely be referencing personal experiences in IBLP, what was often taught there, why it’s ultimately damaging at its core, how it’s sometimes manifested in the world at large outside IBLP, and what I’ve learned through studying the Bible, personal experience, and other people who are far wiser than this silly fellow.
Here’s to growing up well!