Teen Challenge (TC) is a global ministry of the General Council of the Assemblies of God, USA, focused primarily on individuals' life-controlling problems, especially substance abuse. TC dates its origin to 1960, when the Reverend David Wilkerson, a Pentecostal preacher from rural Pennsylvania, opened the first Teen Challenge Center in Brooklyn, New York. He read a newspaper account of a highly publicized murder trial in New York City in 1958 where all seven defendants were teenagers, members of a street gang, and accused of a brutal crime. Wilkerson drove 8 hours to New York City with a strong determination to speak to these "boys" about their need of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ who loved them. Nearly arrested by the judge when interrupting the courtroom to request to see the teens (subsequently denied), he began to meet with other gang members in Brooklyn. The evident needs of these teens to find a way out of their lives of daily substance abuse and ongoing gang warfare, led Wilkerson to establish what would be the first of many TC Centers. The demand for these Centers and the fundraising necessary to support them proved too much of a task, so Wilkerson turned over the ministry in 1963 to the Division of Home Missions of the General Council of the Assemblies of God, USA, with his brother, Don Wilkerson, as the first national director.
The treatment program of TC today is similar to when it was founded. Its central focus is for each resident having a relationship with Jesus Christ and developing a deep personal spirituality. The formal treatment program runs for a year and includes a regimented schedule that includes times for personal and group Bible study, personal and group prayer, recreation, work (both within and external to the Center), counseling, education (both GED and limited vocational training is offered), and church services. Each Center is locally owned and operated with training and support provided by the national office. Local Centers have a local operating or advisory board comprised of community and religious leaders. Many volunteers from churches in the areas surrounding a Center provide countless hours of donated services, including building upkeep and repair, cooking, recreational competition, "buddy" systems, and educational services. Many Center directors and staff are themselves graduates of the TC program. Since the 1980s, there have been accreditation standards for Centers that cover fiscal management, program implementation, staff training, and residents' rights issues. Inspections by the national office occur every 4 years.
The ministry has grown steadily over the years. In 2001, more than 3,300 year-long clients were served through its U.S. network of more than 160 adult male centers, adult female centers, adolescent female centers, adolescent male centers, prison ministries, reentry programs, TC Ministry Institutes, Crisis and Referral centers, and administrative offices. Combined annual income in 2001 was $68 million in cash and an equivalent amount in donated goods and services. There are an additional 250 centers in over 70 foreign countries. Indigenous church groups support some Centers; others are part of mission outreach from the United States. A series of studies have focused on the efficacy of the TC approach to drug and alcohol rehabilitation. These include studies commissioned by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and researchers associated with the Universities of Southern California, Indiana, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania, and Northwestern University. Studies to date all indicate very positive effects from the program, although the exact nature of these effects, their long-term benefits, and their comparability to effectiveness of other programs remain unclear.
TC is one of many faith-based initiatives in the United States that has come under public scrutiny as the White House seeks to promote federal dollars in direct support of these types of programs. Besides perennial issues of the separation of church and state, other issues that remain to be addressed include federal regulations regarding drug abuse rehabilitation facilities (most TC Centers could only meet these standards at enormous cost), suitable outcome measures, and the manner in which TC can control its intake (currently persons admitted to the program must be open to using principles derived from the Bible to change their lives).
TC has evolved over the years to meet challenges presented by adolescents and adults who engage in continual substance abuse. It has established its global reputation as a program that is quite effective for persons willing to engage with its spiritual orientation to the problems of substance abuse.