John Cornish

My childhood in the ATI/IFB world

In General, Life, Spiritual Issues on April 13, 2011 at 2:41 pm

For a pdf of this article, click here:


What I share in this story is something that I have never shared with anyone in its entirety except my wife. Some of you will know bits and pieces of this story, and some of you will recognize yourselves in it. I am not going to share names of friends and associates in the ATI/IFB world because it is not my intention to hurt anyone. I’m not angry with anyone, and I only desire to share a little of my spiritual journey. Also, my mother and father know that I am sharing this, and that I have no animosity or anger towards them because of choices that they made. All things do indeed work together for good.

The writing of this story is triggered by a series of events that have taken place in the past week of my life. The ATI/IFB world is something that I have thought very little about in the past 5 years or so. I have moved on with my life and career as a professional musician and minister, and I have put the past behind me. For those of you that don’t know, ABC news ran a story on 20/20 last Friday (4/8/2011) about a branch of the Baptist denomination called the Independent Fundamental Baptists. It stirred up a great deal of emotion for me, and brought back a lot of emotions that I hadn’t dealt with in years.

I initially shared the broadcast on my Facebook page with the intention of stimulating conversation…which it definitely did. However, much of the discussion was about the actual cases of abuse mentioned on the program, which wasn’t my goal at all. Abuse happens in many churches in different ways. My goal rather, was to provoke discussion about the mindsets that could lead to such behavior. After thinking it through, I realized that the sharing of my story would probably be the most effective way of communicating my concerns.


I was raised in a Southern Baptist Church (my father was a minister), but was homeschooled from Kindergarten through 12th grade using curriculum written entirely by members of the Independent Fundamental Baptist (IFB) church. Our basic curriculum (math, English) came mostly from institutions such as Bob Jones University and Pensacola Christian College (A Beka books), which are two IFB colleges. The other major portion of our curriculum came from a man named Bill Gothard, who led a homeschooling organization called ATI, which stands for the Advanced Training Institute. While not an official IFB organization, a lot of ATI members were IFB members as well, and there are entire IFB churches which consist primarily of ATI members. In the years I spent officially working with ATI, we were bused to IFB churches on Sundays. Many of the books we were told to read were written by key IFB leaders, and numerous IFB leaders came to speak at ATI events. To be in ATI usually meant that you were in IFB, however most IFB members are not in ATI. The typical non-ATI IFB education consists of attendance at private Christian schools, usually associated with whatever church one attends, followed by attendance at one of the major IFB institutions.

Our family joined ATI in the mid-1980s. I was 5 or 6 I believe. I remember vividly when we joined, as my parents went off to their “initiation” conference and left my brother and I with another ATI family. I actually remember a lot of details about that week for it being so long ago. I remember that the family had a lot of rules that I didn’t understand, and that I got in trouble a lot. When my parents came back, I remember that a lot of things changed. A lot of these same rules that the other family had made became rules in our house. I lived with these rules to some degree or another for a long time. As an example, here are just a few of the rules:

  • No TV or movies (had to keep the world out of our home)
  • No cabbage patch dolls (they were demonic)
  • No blue jeans (that’s what the world wears)
  • Ladies can’t wear pants (gotta be modest)
  • No music with a “rock” beat in it (it’s the devil’s beat)
  • No pork (hey, it’s in the OT for a reason)
  • No dating…ever (courtship and betrothal were ok, though)
  • No college (college corrupts children…but if you have to go, go to Bob Jones or Pensacola CC)

There are many more, but you get the point.


These rules stemmed from something that ATI and the IFB hold to called the “doctrine of separation.” This doctrine is comprised of two degrees of separation. The first degree is the idea of a total separation from the world. From a parenting standpoint, it means keeping any influence of the “world” out of your home at any cost. Parents are to build a hedge of protection keeping sin out of the home, and if you did that, your kids will turn out fine.

This is why I believe my parents got into ATI. They were fairly young believers at the time, and had no real parental role models. So when certain influential people came along and shared with them this amazing program that would make their kids grow up to be godly young men and women, they bought into it.

In theory, many aspects of this doctrine of separation make sense. Of course we want our kids to be holy, and to walk in the ways of the Lord. But this is not something that can be taught by a bunch of rules and regulations. It has to be taught through nurturing their personal walk with the Lord. Of course we discipline our children. Of course we teach them principles of Godly living. But the emphasis has to be the internals, not the externals. This is the major fallacy of ATI/IFB thinking.

The second degree of separation is even more radical, and it was the concept of separating from those WITHIN the church who didn’t follow the first degree of separation the same way that you did. Thankfully, we weren’t as radical in this area, as we were members of a SBC church. However, the vast majority of my ATI/IFB friends believed in both degrees of separation, and the IFB also has a long standing history of isolation and disassociation from mainstream evangelicalism.


Within ATI, Gothard was viewed as a sort of demigod. I remember attending the annual conferences where he was lauded with 10 minute standing ovations. We awaited every word that he said with baited breath, and took it all as gospel truth. We didn’t ask questions, we just accepted it. And that was the norm in ATI. Gothard was all about controlling people’s minds through anecdotes that would strike fear, and using scriptures out of context to say things that he wanted them to say.

I remember one particular story that illustrates how the ATI and IFB worlds seek to control people. A friend of mine’s sister-in-law had died tragically in a car accident. It so happens that she had recently been listening to some form of contemporary music. Well, her father wrote a letter to Gothard basically saying that God had killed her for her rebellion. Gothard was on the brink of publishing it (thousands would have read it), and only stopped it when a number of her friends flooded him with calls and letters. This was typical of Gothard. Fear and guilt are a powerful method of control. When one’s view of God is so skewed that you fear retribution if you take one wrong step, it is very easy to be controlled.

So, how did all of this thinking affect me as a child? Well, I began to see God as someone who existed to judge me for my failures. I had to live my life in just the right way so that He wouldn’t take His hand of blessing off of me. I learned to obey my mom and dad not because they loved me, but because God would shorten my life if I didn’t. I actually made three public professions of faith in Christ because each time, I wasn’t sure if I had done things the right way.

This mindset led to several character and personality flaws that began to manifest themselves in my early teenage years. These issues are battles that I still face even today. While I must confess that these issues are the result of sin within my own heart, they were heightened by the culture in which I was raised. And I can honestly say that these first two flaws are prevalent within the ATI/IFB world.

First and foremost was a prideful and arrogant attitude about people around me, in and out of church. I followed the rules and they didn’t, so obviously I was a better Christian. As such, I didn’t associate with them.

Secondly, I developed an incredible ability to lie and deceive others about who I was. I knew I wasn’t perfect on the inside, but it wouldn’t matter as much if people, including my parents, didn’t know. Some of my offenses included cheating in school and watching things on TV that my parents didn’t approve of (TV made its way back into the house for only the most strictly approved viewing, mostly of Gothard and IFB videos). Still today, I have a strong tendency to cover up failures and avoid transparency, even within my own family.

The third personality flaw, which I don’t think is as prevalent in the ATI/IFB world, started when I was around 14 or 15, and continues to be a struggle until this day. I developed a form of obsessive compulsive disorder which was completely debilitating for around a year or two of my life. The best way I can describe it was a constant overwhelming fear of messing up, whether it be forgetting to pray before I ate, or accidentally offending someone. I remember nights where I would spend 30 minutes doing something as simple as locking the doors before I went to bed, because I was afraid I wasn’t doing it right. Bizarre, I know. At the root of it all was this oppressive fear of failure. As an aside, my parents took me out of piano lessons at this point, thinking that the pressure of competition was the cause. We also burned a few piano pieces that I was playing at the time, because we were taught that certain music carried demonic powers.

Those of you who know me now won’t really see this side of me, because it’s not debilitating the same way that it was. But it still manifests itself as extreme perfectionism and an inability to accept any kind of failure. My wife can attest to this. Schoolwork, for example, has been known to cause me great emotional stress, as I simply can’t deal with the prospect of failure.


As a budding musician, many of the writings of the ATI/IFB leaders were prevalent in my life during my teenage years. Some of the authors I read and believed included Frank Garlock, Tim Fischer, and Gothard himself. I won’t go into all of the details of their belief system, but suffice it to say that any music with a “rock” beat or pop sound was considered sinful. One particular gem was Gothard’s booklet entitled “Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing,” which named people like Steve Green and Sandi Patti as being “of the world.” Even today, any type of contemporary Christian music is strictly forbidden in ATI/IFB circles. It was in this area that I became particularly legalistic. I wrote letters to my pastors, disdained my music ministers, and judged other teens over their music.

Between the ages of 15 and 18, I spent around two years of my life in ATI training centers, both in Oklahoma City and Indianapolis. I’m not quite sure how to describe training center life to someone who hasn’t experienced it first hand, but the best description I can think of would be a monastery. The majority of my time was spent in Oklahoma City, working with a branch of ATI called Character First. It was an organization that produced and taught character education curriculum in the public schools, which in and of itself wasn’t a bad thing. The life itself wasn’t really so bad either, but the rules and legalism were oppressive. I personally got in trouble for engaging a girl in casual conversation, but that was pretty much the extent of my “misbehavior.” I however, saw several others sent home or assigned extra workloads because they didn’t follow the rules to perfection. I still remember with horror as one young man was forced to confess pornography use to the entire training center. I felt humiliated for him. I remember when the entire group of students was almost denied a field trip because they failed a random pop quiz on the book of Jonah. However, they were allowed to go if they wrote out the entire book by hand. My memories of those days aren’t all bad, but I wouldn’t go back in a million years.


God really began to do a miracle in our family when I was around 18 years old. Somehow through all of this indoctrination, I began to ask questions. Something about what I was experiencing didn’t line up with what I was seeing and reading in God’s Word. Gothard defined grace as “the desire and power to do God’s will (i.e. follow the rules).” But I couldn’t find that concept of grace in the scriptures. It took a long time for me to figure out what it really was, but I knew something just wasn’t right.

I can think of two major influences that really helped things to start clicking for me. One was a Bible study entitled “The Search for Significance” that my dad got for me when I was in the midst of my OCD crisis. The concepts I learned there, though they didn’t catch on right away, stuck with me. Concepts such as the fact that my identity is not in what I do, but who I am in Christ. The other influence, believe it or not, was a speaker at an ATI conference. I to this day don’t know if this man was intending to help students escape from the bondage of legalism, but he spoke on the topic of Christian liberty. He basically talked about how not everything is black and white, and that it is in those “gray areas” that we must seek God’s face.

It was under these influences that the walls began to crumble. Both of those concepts were antithetical to what was ingrained in me. I always thought that everything was black and white and that my personal value was based on how well I followed the rules. The process of change was slow, but things began happening.

The only problem was that my parents hadn’t yet seen the light, and this began a very rough patch in our lives. I actually did become very angry and verbally hateful. They viewed me as a rebel and forced me to attend more of Gothard’s seminars. There were arguments and threats, and I didn’t know what to do. I tried to tell them what I was seeing in my training center experiences, but they didn’t understand.

About that time, a ministry called Midwest Christian Outreach released a book (A Matter of Basic Principles) exposing corruption and heresy in Gothard’s teachings. My mother read it, and I don’t know why this particular book did the trick, but it did. My parents began to independently verify certain accounts and events laid out in the book, and when they did, we pulled out of ATI completely. We lost a number of friends, but thankfully we already attended an SBC church, so we didn’t have to leave everything behind.

It was then that I started college (an ATI taboo), and began ministry at a new church. There was a lot of debugging that I had to do. It was very difficult to undo 15 years of thinking, especially when those 15 years were the formative years. I to this day struggle with legalism, pride, dogmatism, and feeling insecure in my relationship with God. Each year gets better, but these things run deep and I’ve had to do a lot of forgiving and forgetting.

One huge issue that came up in the “debugging stage” was my relationship with my wife Rashel. Some of you know that my wife Rashel was divorced out of an abusive marriage prior to our relationship. Within ATI circles, the fact that I pursued a relationship with her was considered sin. I was told by those within that circle that were I to marry her, God would take His hand of blessing off of my life. I remember to this day nights when all hell was breaking loose in my mind. I struggled with fear of God’s abandonment. Unfortunately, for a while my fears prevailed. I broke off our relationship for several months, something that honestly took us a long time (even into our marriage) to fully deal with. Thankfully, I was able to work through these issues spending a lot of time in scripture, and Rashel and I did get married. And yes, I lost some relationships because of it. And no, God has not taken His hand of blessing off of my life. If anything, the opposite is true.


So…why do I share all of this? I guess there are two reasons: as a word of warning and as a word of pleading.

To those who are unfamiliar with this world, I share these things with you so that you are aware. No, abuse does not take place in all or even most of the IFB churches. Many of them are good churches that are reaching many for Christ. There are God-fearing people who truly have a passion for holiness and a love for the lost.

However, the doctrine of separation has resulted in many casualties as well. The problem with believing that you can keep sin out of your children’s lives is the truth that sin already dwells within their hearts. And when a child doesn’t experience personally the love of Jesus Christ and the transforming power of the gospel, then the rules mean nothing except captivity and oppression. I know personally of numerous young people that have completely abandoned their walk with Christ, and I have heard that there are hundreds more. I know of broken families, addictions, rapes, abuse, and even murders that can be linked to a culture of legalism. This is NOT to say that these things don’t happen in non ATI/IFB churches. They do. But these problems really hit home to me because they are so deeply personal.

To those of you within the ATI/IFB world, I would begin by plead with you to ask yourself these questions:

  1. On what do I base my relationship with Christ? What I do, or who I am in Him?
  2. Concerning my beliefs about music, dress, KJV, dating, etc: do I believe what I believe because somebody told me to believe it, or do I believe it because God showed me through His word?
  3. What is Christian liberty, and what is its impact on the doctrine of separation? (Romans 14 is powerful in this area)
  4. What does the Bible say about grace?

Concerning ATI, I fear that there is little hope for change as long as Bill Gothard is still at the helm. Because of his continuous misuse of scripture and heretical teachings, I see no way to live within that world and remain true to the word of God. The dangers are simply too great. I believe that the scariest part of ATI is the fact that those within those groups have no clue as to the danger of their situation. They are simply brain-washed to believe that the world outside is evil, and that the only safe place is within the group. It literally takes an act of God for them to be freed.

I believe that this is also true for a certain segment of the IFB world. Some in those circles still preach a lifestyle of legalism, which breeds behaviors like those exposed on the 20/20 news report. These churches are extremely dangerous.

However, I honestly do not believe this is true of the IFB world as a whole. While I believe that there are strains of legalism running through the IFB world, I believe that there are many changes happening, and that there is hope for deep Spiritual renewal. I pray that the 20/20 broadcast will simply serve as impetus for more transparency and more brotherhood with the broader evangelical church. Mainstream evangelicals need those in the IFB to help keep us faithful to the foundations of the Christian faith, and they need us to hold them accountable for living and walking within the freedom and grace of the Lord Jesus.

In conclusion, let me just say that I hope my story is of value to someone out there. I’m not really sure why I felt lead to share it, but I hope it makes a difference somewhere. If this story resonates with you in any way, I’d love to hear from you about it. I can be reached via e-mail at

(Update 4-27-11: It’s been exciting to see how God has used this story. As of this morning, I have had over 3,000 hits on it. Numerous e-mails have come in with lots of stories. Due to the overwhelming response, I’m thinking about writing so more on this issue over the coming months. Probably dealing with specific issues such as Bill Gothard’s definition of grace, the concept of Christian liberty, and possibly other ATI specific issues such as courtship, authority, music, etc. If you would like to recieve such future entries from this blog, there is an e-mail subscription link on the bottom right hand corner of this page.)

  1. I was primarily emotionally abused and secondarily sexually abused in an IFB church growing up. Now a pastor also. The truth will set you free, thanks for sharing.

  2. Most IFB’s I know reject Gothard and the most active Gothardites in my region are Charismatics. However, I realize Gothard has had a broad influence. Missionary David Cloud has written extensively in refuting Gothardism.

  3. I’m glad that you have taken the time to post your personal story even though it brings up some awful memories of things that you had to endure which are still painful to think about and that I’d much rather suppress and not think about. It’s times like these that I am so thankful for God’s mercies and His promises to forgive a repentant sinner. I pray God will use your story to continue bringing healing to our family and grow us in our personal relationship with Jesus Christ as well as hope and freedom to someone who may be chained in this lifestye of bondage.
    I love you.

  4. Thanks for sharing John. As you well know now you aren’t alone in those feelings of how being “raised ATI” was like. You just better phrased it then I’ve ever been able to. And explaining what it is like to someone who has never been around it just makes them look at us like we are nuts for having ever been a part of it – as if as kids we really had a choice and as young adults we were of the mindset to make any changes aganst our parents (in the beginning). The good Lord knows I was labled rebellious and demon possessed (yeah I liked that label – it was amusingly eye-opening). But at the the same time while I would give anything to change things that happened, it a round about way it gave each of us another block in the foundation that makes us who we are and how we have our eyes opened and have been able to look that much closer at our own relationships with the Lord thanks to taking that second look and learning to question what we were taught and WHY we believe.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Danielle. Part of me was afraid to post this because I wasn’t sure many people (within or without ATI) would sympathize and/or agree. Not that it matters, really. I haven’t been involved with them in anyway for over 7 years. It’s been a good seven years, too. 🙂

      • LOL – oh we’re out here and the number who would agree is larger than most would think. I haven’t been involved in 10 years – and it has been a wonderful, eye-opening, growing 10 years. I found the part of me that I had felt was constantly missing while I was with IBLP. I had always felt in the later years that a part of me was missing, that I was looking for something. Leaving IBLP I found what it was that I had been missing – joy of life, happiness, and not looking over my shoulder being concerned about what “authorities” were around or which “spies” were going to twist my activities and conversations around. I still struggle with people-pleasing, but married a guy who has a “people be damned” opinion so its a work in progress.

  5. Thank you for sharing your story. In some ways it hits home and really makes me think about my walk with Christ and who I am in him.

  6. That was me, right? You got in trouble for talking to me? Btw, sorry about that. No one got onto me about it and I was just as much a part of the conversation. That’s another problem with ATI – they’re pretty chauvinistic.
    I’d have to agree with you on your assessment for the most part. God protected me and my family during our ATI experience by placing us in a Presbyterian church (guess they didn’t check up on what denomination you belong to or I’m guessing the “ministry” would have had issues with that) where no other family homeschooled, let alone were in ATI. Though we did become legalistic and judgmental to some extent, God began teach my family about His grace when I was in high school. So my experience was less extreme than yours. By the time you and I met at the OKC training center, God had already taught us a lot about tempering Mr. Gothard’s teachings with grace. (We later began distancing ourselves more and more as we came to realize the heresy of some of his teachings.)
    It sounds like you have more to forgive, but when I think of my experience, I try to be grateful for the good things that came out of it. Like the many passages of Scripture I memorized, the character qualities and the truth in the basic life principles (again, tempered with grace), the many hymns I learned, and the many missionary stories I read. Those things still have value, even when learned in a legalistic environment.
    And, as an encouragement to you, when I went to “the homeschool college” (Patrick Henry), most of the good friends I made had at one time been in ATI and are now not only still some of my best friends, but also some of the most Godly people I know.
    So, yes, Mr. Gothard’s teachings can be destructive, but there are people who have “survived” and did so with little scarring. I’m not saying this as a defense of his teachings or to take away from your warning (because it is so necessary), but I guess just to let you know there are other survivors who are now healthy Christians. 🙂

    • Wow, yes…it was you. I still remember it vividly. We were chatting about Adventures in Odyssey, I think. There were even other gals there. Anyway, we were chatting and you know who walked up behind me and called me out over it. He really wasn’t ugly or anything, but I was mortified.

      Yeah, I definitely don’t think everything that happened in ATI was bad, and there are some things I’m grateful for. I just hope my kids can have the same positives in their lives without the negatives.

      And yes, there are healthy ATI survivors. I count several of them as friends, and there are even some in my church were I’m on staff.

    • Well said. Our family learned much from Scripture while in ATI. We didn’t agree with everything said or done and that is where having due diligence in truly examining the Scripture comes into play.

      John, this is perhaps the best, balanced article I’ve read about ATI as I didn’t realize there were so many in IFB churches. Perhaps that was the music component that drew that, I’m not sure.

      Would love to talk about it some time.

      • Unfortunately, a lot of people come into ATI without really knowing how to examine the scriptures. My parents, for example, were both new believers who came from relatively broken homes. They were looking for hope, and ATI offered it. Most of what they learned about examining scripture came from Gothard. However, we would all say that it was the power of the scripture (and I can’t fail BG’s emphasis on memorization at all) that ultimately led to us coming to a more balanced understanding of the Christian faith.

  7. John, I appreciate your honesty. I have attended 4 IFB churches since being saved. I cannot say any of them was in any way like what you are describing. I learned to see what grace is, and grew up on Christian liberty (which is a Baptist distinctive). The way the term “IFB” is bandied about makes it sound like a denomination which it is not. I had an abusive home, but found the love of family in my church. No, the churches I have attended have not been perfect, but they mostly were always skeptical of Gothard and ATI, not embracing that movement with open arms. Most of the churches used the KJV, but were NOT KJV only and the IFB church I go to now uses the NKJV and tries to be relevant to the culture while still living holy lives. I am sorry that you and many others have had bad experiences, but I got much good and little bad in mine. Yes, I have known some people who were arrogant and prideful, but most are humble and loving.

    • So…how would you define grace and Christian liberty? The ATI/IFB world uses those terms freely, but typically has a different interpretation than most evangelicals.

      I agree that IFB is not literally a denomination, but in practice it is as much a denomination as any other. In face, the only structural differences between the IFB and the SBC is that the SBC has a cooperative missions program and local, state, and national teams which provide resources and assistance to churches. The IBF has, to cite a few examples, (1) institutions to which all pastoral leaders must go, (2) systems of publications, (3) camps, and (4) a network of sharing pastors. So, while there is no denomination structure, there is most definitely a strong network.

      I definitely wrote in my article that there are a lot of good churches in the IFB world. It sounds like you’ve been fortunate to be in those.

      • John, I think Gothard’s definition of grace comes from his Reformed and Calvinistic perspective, not necessarily from a legalistic perspective (although it sure gets applied that way).

      • Yes, that is a possibility, however I think even reformed theologians would disagree with him. For example, John Piper teaches that one manifestation of grace is the desire to be holy. However, he would argue the idea that grace is something God gives us more of as we obey Him. Piper would teach that grace is a freely given manifestation of God’s love and mercy. As a response to God’s grace, we then desire to be more like Him. Again, it’s all about driving motivations for holiness: reponse to God’s love vs. desire to gain God’s approval.

  8. “I definitely don’t think everything that happened in ATI was bad, and there are some things I’m grateful for. I just hope my kids can have the same positives in their lives without the negatives.”

    Exactly. There is so much available for Christians: materials, organizations, training, etc. Surely the same good found in IBLP can be found elsewhere. If ATIA/IBLP were the only purveyors of these ‘good’ things, It would still never enter my head to expose my children to Gothard.

    I am convinced that even with only a basic understanding of the biblical concept of Grace, some basic Bible interp. training, and a foundational understanding of the Christian life as love-based and Christ centered, my kids will have a chance at a more satisfying and sincere Christian experience than I or many other ATI’ers had.

    (sorry about the run-on paragraph.) =)

    Thanks for putting this online, John. The more people sharing their experiences the better.

    Thank you for actually saying ‘ATIA’, ‘IBLP’, and ‘Bill Gothard’, instead of ‘a certain organization’, ‘there was this ministry’, etc.

  9. Excellent post. I found myself identifying with each step. I’m still in the debugging stage at nearly age 30 – a good 7 years out of ATI.
    Reading some of this again for the first time since leaving, especially the false definition of Grace, really makes my stomach turn. Your post is helpful and the questions at the end will really help me figure some things out.

    • I’m glad it was helpful. It’s definitely a journey, especially since there is truth mixed in among the “thorns.” Going through and determining what is biblical vs what is not is a challenge for all of us.

  10. Wow, I just wrote a long reply on my phone and then lost it all. Bah humbug!

    Thank you for sharing this, John. I got a double dose – I was raised in the Conservative Mennonite church AND we used the ATI curriculum! I never knew about the 2 degrees of separation, probably because as Mennonites we already practiced both and so didn’t need to reiterate it. I remember some of the other teachings very well, though.

    Fortunately, we didn’t use the ATI curriculum exclusively, and by the time I was old enough to go to OKC or IN, my parents were being introduced to Chuck Swindoll’s series on grace and later, the Boundaries series. Still, I know it impacted me, and I’ll be thinking about this article for a while. I still deal with a huge fear of man/ fear of failure in certain situations, and have been praying about what the root of it is. I think your article may shed some light on that.

    Thanks again for sharing, John. I’ve posted the link on Twitter and Facebook.

    • I’ve found that the “doctrine of separation” is a term primarily used by “outsiders” to describe more organic lines of thought within these circles. Bill G doesn’t refer to that line of thinking in such literal terms, but in practice.

      At the end of the day, it’s helpful to remember that fear of man/fear of failure isn’t in and of itself an ATI/IFB problem, but rather a sin problem. It’s just an area that I’ve found x-fundamentalists deal with in a heightened manner. And as with any sin, God’s grace (the real kind) is sufficient to carry us.

  11. John, a lot of what you said really resonated with me. I have had many spiritual struggles to work through post ATI, and I thank God each day for a new understanding of his grace and mercy. Thank you for sharing your story and some of the dangers of Gothard’s theology so graciously and articulately.

    As an side note. . .having spent much time at conferences and training centers, I do not remember a time where I heard the gospel preached. That alone should be concerning.

    • You’re welcome.

      Me neither on the gospel comment. All I ever heard was do’s and don’ts. Certainly this was all in the name of sanctification, so I don’t think he was preaching justification by works. But as I stated, sanctification is a work of grace within our hearts, not our own efforts to reach sanctification.

      There wasn’t much emphasis on evangelism either. If anything, we were taught to isolate.

  12. I totally identify. Very well written.

  13. I enjoyed reading your intesting article. I appreciate your emphasis on the root cause of all our struggles being our sinful hearts, and our need of the redemptive work of our loving Heavenly Father; and not the result of our background/outward circumstances. I was raised in a conservative Mennonite home, and grew up in ATI- spent several years at the ITC, participated in EQUIP and EXCEL, and spent time volunteering at both Big Sandy and the Northwoods facilities. I can identify much with much of what you shared. :)I also echo the last several paragraphs of Lauren’s post, which talked about the benefits, the good healthy Christians, etc -she said it well so I will not re-post.

    God had mercy on me several years ago by bringing me into contact with a Christian counseling center ( and their teaching, that shed a clearer light on God’s word. I also began reading the Bible in a parallel addition, which had 4 translations instead of KJV only as I’d been taught.

    My walk with God has grown significantly in the last 5 yrs,but I have many areas to grow in. I see the love God has for me, and the Joy He takes in leading us to a greater likeness of Himself in a way that I never did before. However, I think that there has to be a balance in everything- erring too far on the right or left side of an issure brings extremes as you were describing.

    The Bible and ATI both taught about the heart being wicked- I have distint memories of that being drilled into my mind in ATI centers!- however, the key difference is God invites us to a redemptive cleansing through the power of Jesus’s work on our behalf, while my experience with ATI was a list of rules to keep that heart from expressing itself. The fruit of both ways will be evident as times goes on; for me it’s crystal clear already 🙂

  14. PS: A book that I found very helpful is Crosstalk, by Michael Emlet. Also the writings of Joseph Webb on Marriage, Divorce, and ReMarriage may be helpful for you. God continue His work in you!

  15. Thank you for sharing this John. I didn’t grow up with ATI. I was born and raise in Soviet Union. I was an atheist and never heard of the Lord Jesus Christ until I was 14 years old. I think I was fortuned in a way of not being raised in ATI with all those rules. God used Bill Gothard as a spring board to get to Russia, back in 1992. They did share the Gospel back then. The definition of grace was diferent back then. To make it short, I became a devoted Christian in December of 1992 after one of ATI Saturday seminars that were held in Moscow, Russia. No one judged me for wearing mini skirts, torn leather jackets and flurting with American guys:)LOL. The homeschooled students accepted me and loved me as I was and just shared the love of Jesus. It reached my heart. They gave me my very first Bible. The Lord was doing changes in my life through the Holy Scripture and the Holy Spirit. It truly happened. ATI students and staff was along side to encourage me to read the Bible. No one introduced to me some kind of legalistic rules. That’s all I had that time: my Bible, relationship with Christ, and Christian American ATIA missionaries. I could tell back then those students who were sincere belivers and those who just obeyed the rules with fear. It’s all the issue of your heart. It has to be from inside out and not another way.
    You know, John, it was back then. Things had changed so much in ATI programm. By the way Moscow Training Center was into sharing the Gospel big times. Many Russian people came to know the Lord, myself and including my Mom and my gradnmother. We used to be faithful communists. Another way how God used Bill Gothard is I met my husband through this programm. We are no in ATI and are diffinetely planning to join. We have three children and we don’t do rules, but trying to reach their hearts with the love of the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s not rules, but relationship with our Friend, Lord and Creator of the universe. Thank you for sharing again, it’s a good reminder to make a diference of how we raise our children!

    • Maria, Thanks for your comments. I definitely agree that there were all kinds of people in ATI, and the vast majority strived to truly follow Christ. I honestly do believe that pretty much everyone in ATI has an accurate understanding of salvation by faith, but it’s in the area of sanctification that there is a lot of variation.

      I’m glad God has used ATI in such a powerful way in your life. I think there is still hope for the future of ATI, if God will grant the leadership wisdom to refocus on the essentials of the faith.

  16. I see my little sis, Lauren, commented here. Didn’t realize ya’ll went to school together. Thanks for sharing and Bravo for being brave enough to do so. The teachings I was taught during our time in ATI and while servinging in Dallas are some things that I continue to deal with. I am most thankful, though, that I did get a glimpse into this world – all the good and bad. It is very easy as a parent to want to teach and shield our children from all the awful things of this world-but if there is one thing I have learned, it isn’t possible.
    The most humbling thing to me has been that I, according to Gothard’s teachings, did a lot of things the “right way.” I thought this would mean that my outcomes would be positive because I was a good Christian. What I have found is that in life and with God 2+2 doesn’t always equal 4 – and it is all due to our sin. I have struggled in relationships, with my self identity, my relationship with God and my spouse. I have found myself in places in life I never dreamed. Courtship, Bible reading, prayer, fasting, and listening to “Godly” music didn’t keep me from those things.
    The wonderful thing I have learned in my relationship with God is that His ultimate goal is my heart. He loves me so that He won’t allow me to stay where I am. I also cannot control other’s actions – and this, too, significantly impacts my life regardless of how I am living it.
    So… all this to say that I totally identify with where you have been and have come. And I am so grateful that God brought me to a place where I found his grace and can relish in His everlasting love!

  17. I enjoyed reading your article. I just want to say that I think Alison hit the the nail on the head. Right on, sister 🙂 I too found myself in places I never imagined; I too have found that 2+2 doesn’t always equal 4, I too have been affected by the sin of others beyond my control. Praise God for His grace and never ending pursuit of our hearts! I’m so glad He wasn’t/isn’t willing to leave me where I was/am!!

  18. As I have gotten older I have seen and become more aware of some of the falts within ATI. But, even with that said I am very greatful that my family was and is still kinda part of ATI. First, off God used ATI as part of the stepping stones the lead my parents to change their minds about having more children and thanks to that I am alive today. Also God used a couple speaking at a Indy Conf. to start me on a road that has been painful at times but, very healing. All to bring me to where I am today. He has opened so many doors for me and I have seen him in a new and real way.

    I must say that of all the anti-ati things I have read yours is by far the best….Coming from someone who has lived it and is still seeking God.

    The thing that really bothers me is when people use ATI as the reason they choose to live ungodly lives. God made us to have a free will(choice) and we can’t only blame others for our bad choices.

    Ever Being Humbled,

  19. John,

    I am encouraged that you had the honesty to open up about your experiences. A lot of people out there had similar experiences and I can only imagine that it helps to have someone willing to open themselves up and discuss to some what would be a dark room in their life that has long since been locked up and stowed away.

    I agree with some of the other posters above and with you that not all bad came from my extensive time in ATI/IBLP, etc. If nothing else, there are countless friendships that I made that I would not enjoy otherwise. I think the temptation of some to assign only negative feelings towards similar chapters in life are unfortunate. I think true (self-type) healing and recovery comes from embracing our past experiences, learning from them and truly moving on.

    I am glad to see that you have overcome this long and arduous journey and are in such a better place.

    So, anyways… Thanks for sharing!

    God Bless.

  20. WOW! I didn’t even realize that my youth was similar to what you wrote – with a bit of international culture thrown in the mix for a better measure of legalism and separation. I just thought it is what it is .. and kept on moving. I find myself battling my past with the hopes of better understanding what it means to be “free in Christ.” Like you said, I hope to pass this freedom to my children. I hope to find ways to address issues of the heart and not just focus on behaviours, perfectionism…. sigh. I can’t do any of it unless God does a miracle in me…

    Long-winded way of saying thank you for bringing to light things I struggle with but didn’t know how to name it…

  21. This post read very well. I appreciate you for sharing it.

    Mark Fee
    Mansfield, Texas

  22. I would echo some others commenting that ATI didn’t seem to me to be as synonymous with IFB as your experience showed, but it’s no sticking point. Two IFB churches I’m familiar with are very much ATI-type, and there are many aspects of ATI that are very compatible with IFB teachings.

    I spent several weeks at Indy as part of Sound Foundations, which it seems you may have attended as well. I was as intractibly legalistic in my music beliefs are you described yourself. It was a blessing for me when, after a period of broadening experiences (A Steven Curtis Chapman concert where the son and killer of Nate Saint spoke which occurred right around the time we studied Nate Saint in the Wisdom Booklets), my mother turned on what was billed as the last Billy Graham crusade televised from St. Louis. During the evening they played the music video for This Was Her Time by Michael W. Smith and it became very clear that this could not be “of the devil”.

    I think a great blessing in my life was that on the West Coast, many adherents of ATI and IBLP tended to take it all with a grain of salt, using those teachings they agreed with and leaving those they didn’t.

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