Teen Challenge - History and Addiction Program Overview! 

Government statistics indicate an alarming growth in the gap between those needing drug treatment and those receiving it.

According to the most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) by the US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), "in 2013, an estimated 22.7 million Americans (8.6 percent) needed treatment for a problem related to drugs or alcohol, but only about 2.5 million people (0.9 percent) received treatment at a specialty facility."

This means every year there are over 20 million people in the US over the age of 11 who are in need of addiction treatment - but they are not receiving it. Here at Palo Recovery, we are committed to helping you or your loved one learn more about drug addiction and addiction treatment options.

In this article, I will review the Teen Challenge USA organization, its treatment services, and strategies for successful rehabilitation. While Teen Challenge has many proponents, because it is a singularly "Christ-centered" organization, it has many opponents, as well. I will try to provide an open-minded, neutral assessment of this program to help anyone considering Teen Challenge USA to make a well-informed decision.

What You Will Learn About Teen Challenge From This Article:

Part 1: The History of Teen Challenge USA.

Part 2: Controversies Surrounding Teen Challenge Programs.

Part 3: Understanding the Teen Challenge Program.

Teen Challenge Image Logo

Teen Challenge USA

Part 1: The History of Teen Challenge USA

Founded in 1958 by Assembly of God Pastor David Wilkerson, the organization which eventually became known as Teen Challenge was originally a street ministry to help teenage gang members in New York City.

Leaving Pennsylvania in hopes of helping a gang of boys on trial for murder, Wilkerson entered the courthouse but was denied access to the teens. The local paper printed his story and photo in the New York Daily News the following day.

Not long after, according to Teen Challenge USA, Wilkerson's rallies gained credibility when kids on the streets recognized him from this photo. They began attending Wilkerson's rallies and on the last night of a series of events, "dozens of gang members came forward to accept Christ as their Savior... The next morning, they traded their weapons for Bibles".

Following the startup of two coffeehouses in New York's Greenwich Village, Teen Challenge, as the organization had become known, purchased its first permanent facility in December 1960.

In 1961, a new chapter based on the New York model opened in Chicago, and in 1962 "the Farm," the first Teen Challenge Training Center, opened in Rehrersburg, Pennsylvania. The men's discipleship program developed for "the Farm" subsequently became the primary model for Teen Challenge centers all over the world.

Providing residential care to teenagers, adults, and families for over 50 years, Teen Challenge USA is now headquartered near Springfield, Missouri. The US network consists of around 80 501(c)3 corporations representing over 200 residential treatment centers in nearly every state in the country.

Teen Challenge House

Teen Challenge House

Part 2: Controversies Surrounding The Teen Challenge Programs.

Controversy #1 - Published Success Rates of Teen Challenge Programs

Opponent View:

According to Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times, "In 1995, Teen Challenge helped Aaron Todd Bicknese, a doctoral student at Northwestern University, track down 59 people one to two years after they had completed Teen Challenge's year-long residential program.

Mr. Bicknese compared them with a similar group of addicts who had spent one or two months in a hospital rehabilitation program. The results were favorable to Teen Challenge, which posted a simplified summary of the dissertation on its website concluding that it had an 86 percent success rate."

Goodstein continues, "Social scientists have pointed out that the 86 percent success rate of Teen Challenge is misleading. It does not count the people who dropped out during the program. And like many religious and private charities, Teen Challenge picks its clients."

Proponent View:

According to "A Review of a Study by Dr. Aaron T. Bicknese" funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), "Most secular drug rehabilitation programs only experienced a cure rate of 1-15% of their graduates.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), part of the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, funded the first year of this study to evaluate the long-term results of the Teen Challenge program."

The NIDA report concludes: "The results of this survey clearly indicated the success of the Teen Challenge program in the following areas:

  • The Teen Challenge definition of "drug-free" means abstaining from all use of narcotics, marijuana, alcohol, and cigarettes.
  • 67% of the graduates are drug-free as indicated by the urinalysis test. (86% stated they were drug-free on the questionnaire.)
  • 72% of the graduates continued their education upon completion of Teen Challenge. The areas include getting their G.E.D., or pursuing college level education.
  • 75% of the graduates indicated their current status as employed.
  • 73% of the graduates are self-supporting by earning their own salary. Of those who are currently employed, 58% have been at their present job for over one year.
  • 87.5% of the graduates did not require additional treatment in drug treatment programs after leaving Teen Challenge.
  • Over 90% considered themselves addicted to drugs before entering Teen Challenge.
  • 67% of the graduates are regularly attending church. 57% of the graduates are involved in church work.
  • 92% of the graduates report good-excellent health.

Controversy #2 - Teen Challenge Programs Violate Principles of "Church-State Separation".

Opponent View:

According to Rev. Barry W. Lynn, "The government has entered into a contract with Teen Challenge to perform drug addiction treatment services." Lynn adds, "But it’s always been a problem for the group to separate the treatment from the Christian orientation and beliefs of the organization.

And over time, the state [of Minnesota] has showed "clear favoritism" for the religious group by singling the program out for a raise in funding, despite its pervasively sectarian nature."

Lynn continues, "What’s even worse is that Teen Challenge said it will hire only Christians that adhered to the statement of faith and code of ethics. The organization stated that 'whether a person is preparing a meal, writing a computer program or generating a financial statement for the organization, that person must be an effective witness for Christ.'

This program demonstrates all that can go wrong when religious organizations receive state funding without accountability measures set in place to monitor that the funding is not going to discriminate in hiring or proselytizing."

Proponent View:

According to Doug Grow of the MinnPost, $1.6 million in Minnesota state funding for a Minneapolis Teen Challenge rehab facility came under attack. Grow reported, "In a letter to [Minnesota Gov. Mark] Dayton, Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, brought out the cost benefits of Teen Challenge. 'If not given a chance to participate in MN Teen Challenge,' Limmer wrote, 'many of these residents will either face prison or death.

At around $43,000 per person to stay in prison per year, $1.64 million dollars per biennium will only house 19 inmates per years. Our public funds are much better leveraged in successful treatment programs like this, rather than putting this category of offender in our prisons where success is less likely.'

Addressing the lack of employee and student diversity, Grow reported, "Richard Scherber, the Teen Challenge executive director, was not available for comment for this story. But in a letter to Senate Minority Leader David Hann, Scherber denied that his organization pushes a religious agenda or discriminates against those from the GLBT community.

In the letter, he said that Teen Challenge has a very clear non-discrimination policy. 'MnTC’s programs are available to all people regardless of race, color, creed, religion, marital status or sexual orientation,' the policy states.

Teen Challenge Program Overview

Teen Challenge Program

Part 3: Understanding the Teen Challenge Program.

Teen Challenge is not a medical program. Participants are referred to as "students," and they believe "the study and practical application of Biblical principles" are "the transformative component of our recovery program." They state, "While we recognize psychological and medical expertise to address many of the issues of addictions, we approach these issues from a spiritual perspective."

Funded mainly through charitable donations, Teen Challenge does not charge monthly fees to participants in the programs. Each center has unique entry procedures and costs, but, for example, at Adult & Teen Challenge of Texas, there is a $1,500 induction fee upon entry. Admission usually occurs around two weeks after being accepted.

Teen Challenge programs are divided by both gender and age, with separate facilities for males and females. Adolescent programs typically serve teens between ages 12-17, while adult programs serve people between ages 25-35. Using a "Christian faith-based recovery model," programs last from 12-18 months long.

They emphasize, "We are confident that a restored relationship with God, through Jesus Christ, can transform those who are broken into vibrant, free, and sober people."

Regarding the strictly Christian nature of the programs, the website states, "We give full disclosure to every person who enters Teen Challenge that this is a Christian faith-based program. Entrance into all Teen Challenge programs are voluntary, and part of that voluntary agreement include participation in all aspects of the program, including the religious aspects of the program."

Upon completing a Teen Challenge program, several additional programs are available to help foster graduates' continued progress.

A re-entry program provides support between residential life and independent living, an Emerging Leaders College offers continuing education, and entry into ministry training institutes is available. For graduates who relapse, there is a 'restoration' process available to re-enter a program for additional treatment.

There Is Always Room for Improvement

An addict's reasons for his or her condition are as diverse as his or her reasons for seeking treatment. Instead of grandstanding about diversity policies, politicians should be standing up for comprehensive facility licensing, standards, and data collection.

There is always room for improvement. Entrepreneurs should be studying statistics and partnering with health care professionals to design more diverse treatment opportunities based on the most effective strategies available today. With 20 million people every year unable to find help, there is clearly plenty of room in the marketplace for a wider variety of addiction treatments to serve America's diverse communities.

If you or your loved one is among that group of 20 million in need of help today, please don't give up hope. There are more opportunities available for free or low-cost drug rehab right now - today - than you may be aware of. Let us help you to find the services you need. The real question is not, "how will you pay for drug rehab?" No. The real question is one you already know the answer to -- "Are you ready to get clean?".

(All images copyrighted by Teen Challenge USA)


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Marco Sterling

I am a former mid-level advertising executive who had the unfortunate experience with drug and alcohol abuse. My experience nearly ruined my life, but in going through that I realized how precious life really is. My aim is to help many people that are going through what I went through and I hope you find the value in the resources provided through this site.