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Teen Challenge, among the world’s largest and most successful substance abuse recovery programs, grew out of an Assemblies of God minister’s burning desire to share Christ with troubled youth. The program’s origin with David Wilkerson in 1958 and its subsequent expansion around the world is a remarkable testimony to God’s life-changing power.
After reading a news article in the Feb. 24, 1958, issue of Life magazine which talked about a high-profile murder trial for members of a teen gang in New York, David Wilkerson, a young pastor in Philipsburg, Pennsylvania, prayed about this situation. He felt a compelling burden to go to New York City and help those boys.
With the prayers of church members, and accompanied by his youth pastor, Wilkerson headed to New York City. He attempted to speak with the judge during the trial, but was thrown out of the courtroom. An embarrassing photo of him holding up a Bible was featured in the New York Daily News. Although his efforts seemed unfruitful, he learned that a number of gang members had been in the courtroom that day. The gang members figured if the cops didn’t like him, and the cops didn’t like them, they all were in the same boat.
The gang members began watching what Wilkerson did. He took advantage of this newfound popularity to preach the gospel both in street meetings and in crowded gang hideouts and heroin “shooting galleries.” Eventually he enlisted the aid of 65 Assemblies of God churches from New York and held a citywide rally for gang members and teens caught up in the gang culture. On the last night of the rally, members of the Mau Maus, Bishops, and several other gangs were in attendance. At the conclusion of the service, dozens of gang members came forward to accept Christ as Savior, including Nicky Cruz, a teen gang leader from Brooklyn.
From this small beginning, additional street rallies were held in New York City, and shelter was offered to young people in need. Evangelism, street meetings, and outreach to teens remained essential, but this new ministry also encompassed recovery from addiction, counseling, and training in practical life skills. This ministry, which is now known as Teen Challenge, focused not only on Christian conversion, but also on Christian discipleship.
In the early 1960s, Dave Wilkerson teamed up with John and Elizabeth Sherrill of Guideposts magazine to write the story behind Teen Challenge. The Cross and the Switchblade, published in 1963, gave the compelling story of David Wilkerson’s ministry to the gangs of New York City and the start of Teen Challenge. A popular movie of the same name was produced in 1970, which starred Pat Boone and Erik Estrada.
Teen Challenge centers sprang up in Brooklyn, Chicago, Boston, Dallas, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Los Angeles, etc. Many of these new Teen Challenge ministries were pioneered by people who had read The Cross and the Switchblade or had visited another Teen Challenge ministry.
Teen Challenge, which is now a part of AG U.S. Missions, has garnered the attention of national leaders such as President Ronald Reagan, President Gerald Ford, and President George W. Bush. President Reagan said, “Not only does Teen Challenge help our young people deal with their substance abuse, but it also gives our kids something to live for -- a relationship with God, a healthy self-esteem, and a direction in their lives.”
Fifty years ago, in the Aug. 27, 1967, issue, the Pentecostal Evangel highlighted the ongoing growth of the Teen Challenge ministry in an article titled, “Teen Challenge on the Move.” This article featured two new Teen Challenge centers located in Denver and Bayamon, Puerto Rico, as well as centers in Detroit, Seattle, Philadelphia, Boston, and Dallas-Fort Worth. A dozen Teen Challenge centers had been established worldwide by 1967.
What began as an outreach by David Wilkerson to the gangs of New York City in 1958 has developed into one of the largest and most successful Christian treatment programs for individuals caught up in drugs, alcohol, and other life-controlling problems. In addition to 30 administrative offices and 227 Teen Challenge centers in the United States, Global Teen Challenge has been set up to assist with the development of new centers outside the U.S. In 2017, Global Teen Challenge is in 122 countries, representing 1,200 programs.
The specific challenges and methods have changed over the years, but Teen Challenge’s focus remains the same. Teen Challenge leaders recognize that preventing addiction and other life-controlling problems is a process, and Christ alone holds the key to prevention and cure.
Read “Teen Challenge on the Move,” on pages 16 and 17 of the Aug. 27, 1967, issue of the Pentecostal Evangel.
Also featured in this issue:
• “Joy in Jerusalem”
• “The Lord’s Prayer” by G. Raymond Carlson
• “Good News Crusades in Nigeria”
And many more!
Pentecostal Evangel archived editions courtesy of the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center.
IMAGE - Howard Foltz (left) and Dieter Bahr (right) standing in front of a Teen Challenge center in Europe.