Teen Challenge: Breaking Chains for 60 Years
Ministry marks six decades of changed lives
July 22 marked 60 years since David Wilkerson’s God-inspired visit to a New York City murder trial set him on the path of ministry to drug-addicted youth and the formation of Teen Challenge International, U.S.A.
In the 1950s and ’60s, the phrase “drug user” usually referred either to flower-adorned hippies searching for peace through psychedelic drugs or to violent inner city gangs. Thus, major cities were the logical places for early Teen Challenge centers.
Today, drug use spans locations, lifestyles, income brackets, and generations, and the opioid crisis has been declared a national emergency. Chemical abuse costs the nation more than $442 billion annually, and an average of 174 lives daily. Over the past 60 years, Teen Challenge, a department of U.S. Missions, has developed programs and services to serve people dealing with life-controlling issues in a changing cultural landscape across the nation.
Being kicked out of that New York courtroom actually gave Wilkerson credibility with the city’s gangs, and in July 1958, the ministry had its beginnings in a rally at which several gang members accepted Christ. Wilkerson launched a coffeehouse outreach in 1960, and Teen Challenge purchased its first building in Brooklyn that year. The first men’s discipleship center opened in Pennsylvania during 1962.
With the release of the best-selling The Cross and the Switchblade in 1963 and its namesake movie in 1970, the ministry continued to grow. Teen Challenge centers opened in other cities, starting with Chicago and Dallas. Today, more than 200 centers offer programs for men, women, women with children, teen boys, and teen girls. Research projects have demonstrated long-term success among graduates, and a majority attribute that success to their relationship with Jesus Christ. In 2017, there were 2,732 graduates and 11,842 decisions to follow Christ as a result of Teen Challenge programs and events.
Even as Teen Challenge celebrates 60 years of success, the battle is not over, and Teen Challenge plans to stay in the fight.
The problem of addiction is a complicated one, encompassing emotional, spiritual and physical causes. Today’s addict might be a professional person struggling to cope with stress, an athlete or manual laborer who started with prescription pain pills for an injury, or an abuse victim who turned to alcohol or drugs to numb the pain.
Recognizing that some people cannot leave their jobs or responsibilities for long periods of time to get help, former Teen Challenge staff members developed Living Free discipleship materials for community group use, plus helpful curriculum for victims of sexual abuse. Stay Sharp assemblies — hard-hitting multimedia presentations about the consequences of poor choices — address the growing numbers of school-aged youth experimenting with alcohol or drugs. Studies continue to show that faith-based programs have good long-term outcomes because they treat the whole person and encourage participation in a supportive community.
Even as Teen Challenge celebrates 60 years of success, the battle is not over, and Teen Challenge plans to stay in the fight. Responding to the need for continuity between medically supervised detox and longer-term services, the first Teen Challenge detox center opened in 2017. Last October, as President Donald Trump declared the opioid crisis a national emergency, New York Teen Challenge Director Jimmy Jack was on hand to promote the effectiveness of faith-based solutions. In March 2018, Teen Challenge President Joe Batluck Sr. attended a White House summit to help shape the administration’s initiative to address the crisis.
Going forward from this milestone anniversary, Teen Challenge will continue to promote Christ-centered solutions to the nation’s drug problems and push for better government support of such programs. Batluck met with the U.S. surgeon general on July 25 to present Teen Challenge as the most successful, viable option for combating addiction. Another goal is to get Living Free support groups into more communities across the nation to help people who cannot enter residential treatment.
“Teen Challenge has remained mission-true for 60 years,” says Batluck. “The legacy is sound and rests firmly on the life-changing power of Jesus Christ. Sin is the ultimate trap for humankind, and it is only through the power of the gospel where true freedom is found. Second Corinthians 5:17 remains our cornerstone, ‘Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old things has gone, the new is here!’”