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I grew up on the West Coast and have noticed a pattern where families from California who were enrolled in the Advanced Training Institute (ATI) tended to be a bit more lax in their way of going about the program, compared with the experiences of families in the Midwest and elsewhere. Perhaps that had a little to do with my own experience, or perhaps it was how my parents applied it, or some combination of the two, or something else entirely. Whatever the reason, I had a generally positive experience growing up in ATI. My parents never abused me or my siblings emotionally, physically, or spiritually. I made and have kept many good friendships over the years through working at Children’s Institutes (CIs), various Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP) seminars and gatherings, Sound Foundations, working for a couple years at IBLP headquarters, and just being involved with the ATI community in northern California. My family is a strong family and we remain each others’ deepest friends without being exclusive or insular.
Something that my siblings and I have realized lately is that it was us, rather than our parents, who adopted and enforced many of the legalistic attitudes of IBLP. My parents didn’t decide what sort of music we’d listen to, and it was instead my brothers and I who drove the home music tastes towards IBLP-approved tunes. My parents never told my sisters to wear frumpy outfits but my sisters chose to wear culottes and long skirts and high-waisted loose jeans (my mom has always been a dress or loose warm-ups person). I took to the teachings of Sound Foundations and made a fool of myself on my own effort trying to convince other people about the immorality of music with a rock beat and the superiority of the IBLP way of life and homeschooling. Not that my parents were passive in all this, my dad was the one with the plan in the family, but his plan was raising us all to be successful, and despite a few issues here and there more readily attributed to his humanity than to his preference for or a slavish adherence to Bill Gothard’s teachings, he has succeeded. My mom generally had more emotional issues that negatively impacted us kids, but it turns out that was mostly caused by medical issues related to excessively difficult periods, and after some procedures a few years ago, she has found a very even emotional keel, which has probably greatly benefited my younger siblings.
My awakening to the problems and errors of IBLP occurred first in the area of music. My mom turned on one of the last Billy Graham crusades to be televised live, from St Louis I believe it was. This was soon after the Columbine tragedy and they played Michael W. Smith’s “This is your time” music video in the broadcast. While listening to this beautiful message in song I recognized that there was no way Satan could have been involved in the creation and performance of that song, because of “a house divided” and all that. Being the most musical person in the house, that realization probably freed my siblings up quite a bit as I, quite publicly, began broadening my musical horizons. My parents even encouraged this by telling me of their favorite tunes growing up. This experience occurred in the Napster era where I found quite a few songs, developed some preferred artists and genres, and have never looked back. I still love the Majesty and Glory series—I find them to be some of the best christian choral albums out there and their arrangements are excellent (to my knowledge, the composer, Tom Fettke, has no affiliation with IBLP). But I found syncopation to be an amazing tool and a critical component of music, and have developed a decent style and skill that works well with bands for leading church worship, something I have greatly enjoyed in the years since.
While working at IBLP headquarters, I began to recognize other issues with the IBLP teachings, especially tied up in the man Bill Gothard himself. I recognized he was not under any sort of authority voluntarily, and that he tended to do what he pleased and find ways to justify what he was doing or saying through the misuse of Scripture, primarily through the mechanic of the “rhema.” In my experience, this proved to be be a “God says I’m right” card, and I believe he used it to great effect during my tenure there.
Also, while working at IBLP headquarters, I never spent a great deal of effort abiding by the letter of the law. I went to movies and left campus without asking—in short, acting like the grownup I was rather than the permanent kid the rules expected me to be. At best, I developed an ambivalence to IBLP’s teachings and rules while I still retained some sort of respect for its ministry.
A few years later I returned to Chicago, and met my wife, who attended Moody Bible Institute. I made new friends, was exposed to Reformed theology and changed churches. During this time, I really began to see Bill Gothard’s misuse of biblical text, his completely unorthodox and self-serving theology, and his utter lack of corrective or checking authority. I believe there are two key flaws in his teachings: He makes grace into an act of man (“the desire and power to do God’s will”), and he has no personal concept of authority in his own life.
As I began to talk about this with my parents and siblings, they have cooled toward IBLP, though they haven’t quite rejected it completely. My wife and I do plan to homeschool our children, but we will not use the ATI curriculum. We hope to stick to a more classical method and raise up leaders who shape and change this world. I suppose it’s a testament to how well my parents did (despite what I felt and thought while growing up) that I hope to do as well as they did with developing and then releasing independent, thoughtful, and strong young people.
Through the Wisdom Booklet curriculum of ATI, I saw that many things are connected and correlated in life (though conflating causation and correlation remains a struggle for me). I also learned a useful and marketable skill while working at IBLP headquarters (computers and technology) that I have been able to turn into a career. Most of the good things I learned from IBLP are experiential lessons that came from situations I encountered, rather than from IBLP’s direct teachings. Those included good communication skills, good people skills, and knowing when to shut up. I have discarded most of IBLP’s teachings as false and misleading, but overall, I believe I am a better person for having grown up in ATI, or rather having outgrown it and I’m thankful to God for His oversight in seeing me through it.
I do not believe I was damaged by IBLP in any lingering way, though I don’t denigrate the experiences of those who were. It doesn’t benefit me to conjecture how different my life might have been if my parents took another path. They were both young, new Christians and were without their family’s support when they decided to enroll our family in ATI. As noted by Don Venoit in his introduction to A Matter Of Basic Principles, IBLP’s teachings came at a key point in time and were very attractive. Humans love a sure thing, and that’s what IBLP promised. That my parents took and used what they did, and left out what they did, and seasoned it all with an honest search for God’s best, is God’s true grace in my life.