The Origin of Teen Challenge

 For more than sixty years Teen Challenge has been working worldwide to bring hope to hurting, disadvantaged people; young and old alike. Teen Challenge began in 1958 by Rev David Wilkerson responding to his belief that God had called him to help a gang of youths on trial for murder. As he walked around Brooklyn, New York and found an appalling high rate of drug and alcohol abuse amongst the young people he met and decided he wanted to make a difference. His story is told in the book, ‘The Cross and the Switchblade.’

“The whole strange adventure got its start one night as I sat in my study reading Life magazine. I merely turned a page, and at first glance it seemed there was nothing to interest me. The page showed a pen drawing of a trial taking place in New York City, 350 miles away from my home in rural Pennsylvania. I’d never been to New York, and I’d never wanted to go, except perhaps to see the Statue of Liberty.

I started to flip the page over. But as I did, something caught my eye. It was the eyes of a figure in the drawing – a boy. He was one of seven boys on trial for murder. I held the magazine closer to get a better look. The artist had captured a look of bewilderment, hatred and despair in the young boy’s features. Suddenly, I began to cry.

“What’s the matter with me?” I wondered, impatiently brushing away a tear. Then I looked at the picture more carefully. The boys were all teenagers. They were members of a gang called the Dragons. Beneath the picture was the story of how they had been in Highbridge Park in New York when they brutally attacked and killed a fifteen-year-old polio victim named Michael Farmer.

The story revolted me. It literally turned my stomach. In our little mountain town, such things seemed mercifully unbelievable. Yet I was dumbfounded by the next thought that sprang into my head. It came to me full-blown, as if from somewhere else: Go to New York and help those boys.

The thought startled me. “I’d be a fool to do that,” I reasoned. “I know nothing about kids like these. And I don’t want to know anything.”

It was no use. The idea wouldn’t go away. I was to go to New York. And I was to do it at once, while the trial was still in progress.”

Teen Challenge Rehab Formed

This trip changed his life forever. David Wilkerson’s burden for the lost of the city increased and gave birth to Teen Challenge – a nationwide ministry to reach out to people with life controlling habits. The ministry’s Bible-based recovery program to troubled teens, gang members, drug addicts and alcoholics has been recognized as one of the most effective efforts of its kind.

Teen Challenge was launched in 1958 from a small office in Staten Island, New York. Pastor Wilkerson conducted street rallies on “gang turf,” meetings through which many gang leaders and members were converted. Through this program, many street-hardened young men and women came to Christ, allowing God’s Spirit to transform their lives. In 1960, the Teen Challenge headquarters relocated to a large Georgian house at 416 Clinton Avenue in Brooklyn. The residence provided protection for drug addicts and gang members, as well as beds and shelter for troubled and homeless youth. In 1958, many people thought David Wilkerson was crazy to try taking the gospel to drug-addicted teens in New York City. Today, few of those critics are willing to question the success of the Teen Challenge ministry.

In 1969, a motion picture of The Cross and the Switchblade was released, starring Pat Boone as David Wilkerson and Erik Estrada as Nicky Cruz, the teen gang member whose life was dramatically transformed by Christ. The movie retells the unforgettable story of God’s tender mercy and love to New York City teenagers through Mr. Wilkerson’s ministry. Movie theaters were sold out for the film’s debut, drawing crowds from all backgrounds and lifestyles. The movie was dismissed by secular critics as uninteresting. However, it has been viewed by an estimated 50 million people in over 30 languages in 150 countries, according to World Film Crusade. They also report that it is one of the most viewed films in the world and is credited with drawing millions to Christ.

Now Teen Challenge programme now has over 500 autonomous residential and outreach centres in over 80 countries and is regarded as one of the most successful drug and alcohol rehabilitation organisations in the world. The emphasis is on helping people break the bondage of substance abuse and has resulted in a documented recovery rate in excess of 70% for men and women who complete the program. Similar secular programs offer a success rate between 5% and 25%.