Tag Archives: David Wilkerson

Teen Challenge: Transforming the Lives of Drug and Alcohol Addicts Since 1958

Teen Challenge

Howard Foltz (left) and Dieter Bahr (right) standing in front of a Teen Challenge center in Europe

This Week in AG History — August 27, 1967

By Glenn W. Gohr
Originally published on PE-News, 31 August 2017

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!

Click here to read this issue now.

Pentecostal Evangel archived editions courtesy of the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center.

Do you have Pentecostal historical materials that should be preserved? Please consider depositing these materials at the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center (FPHC). The FPHC, located in the Assemblies of God national offices, is the largest Pentecostal archive in the world. We would like to preserve and make your treasures accessible to those who write the history books.

Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center
1445 North Boonville Avenue
Springfield, Missouri 65802 USA
Phone: 417.862.1447 ext. 4400
Toll Free: 877.840.5200
Email: archives@ag.org
Website: www.iFPHC.org

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The Legacy of David Wilkerson (1931-2011)

Reverend David Wilkerson, the author of The Cross and the Switchblade, as well as the founder of Teen Challenge, World Challenge Ministries and Times Square Church, was killed on Wednesday, April 27th in a head-on collision at Tyler, Texas. He died at the scene, while his wife was rushed to hospital where she remains under observation. He was 79.

A private funeral service held on May 2nd at Rose Heights Church of God, in Tyler, was attended by members of Wilkerson’s family and close friends, including evangelist Nicky Cruz. His body was laid to rest in Lindale, Texas. During the funeral service, a tribute video was shown to those who attended. To view this video, please click on: A Tribute to David Wilkerson.

Members of the church and the public will have the chance to pay their respects at a memorial service to be held at Times Square Church in Manhattan, New York City at 2:00 p.m. Eastern Time on Saturday, May 14, 2011. There will be overflow locations once full capacity has been reached inside the church. The service will be streamed live beginning at 2:00 p.m. on the Times Square Church website. A simultaneous translation of the service will be available in 10 different languages via conference call lines, details of which will also be posted on the church’s live stream page.

Wilkerson left a lasting legacy through his evangelistic ministry which spanned four decades and included preaching, teaching and writing. He has authored over 30 books, but was well known for having written “The Cross and the Switchblade,” also made into a movie, which gave an account of his ministry among New York gang members and drug users. Over 50 million copies of the book have been sold and it has been translated into 30 languages. This led to the establishment of Teen Challenge which has continued to minister to those caught in addictions. Today, there are 233 Teen Challenge Centers in the United States and 1,187 total worldwide.

In 1987, David Wilkerson returned to “the crossroads of the world” to establish Times Square Church. Since then, he faithfully led this congregation, delivering powerful biblical messages that encourage righteous living and complete reliance on God.

With a strong burden to encourage and strengthen pastors throughout the world, Wilkerson has been traveling around the globe since 1999, holding conferences for Christian ministers. His last blog, posted on April 27th, ended with these words: “Stand fast in [God’s] Word. There is no other hope in this world.” See: “When All Means Fail.” David Wilkerson was living in Texas with his wife, and together they have four children and 11 grandchildren.

The Pentecostal Evangel is also working on an issue in tribute to David Wilkerson.

For an overview of David Wilkerson’s life and ministry, see: http://www.worldchallenge.org/about_david_wilkerson

Some additional posts regarding David Wilkerson can be found below:

David Wilkerson Today

Rev. David Wilkerson Killed in TX Car Crash (CBN News)

Times Square Church Founder David Wilkerson Dies in Accident (Christian Post)

David Wilkerson Killed in Car Crash (Charisma magazine)

Sudden passing of David Wilkerson (AG-NEWS)

Memorial service for David Wilkerson finalized (AG-NEWS)

“Call to Anguish” (David Wilkerson’s soul-stirring sermon on the necessity of anguish – to bear God’s heart, passion, and burden within our lives) posted on YouTube.

“Call to Anguish” (David Wilkerson’s soul-stirring sermon on the necessity of anguish – to bear God’s heart, passion, and burden within our lives) posted on YouTube.

“The Dangers of the Gospel of Accommodation” (A sermon given by David Wilkerson at an Assemblies of God Headquarters chapel service on March 10, 1998, now posted on AGTV).

A transcript of Wilkerson’s message on the Dangers of Accommodation in Enrichment Journal, Winter 1999.

“Teen challenge: 50 years of miracles” in Assemblies of God Heritage, 2008, p. 14.


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Review: Teen Challenge history

Teen Challenge: 50 Years of Miracles, by David Batty and Ethan Campbell. Springfield, MO: Teen Challenge USA, 2008.

Since it first appeared forty-five years ago, The Cross and the Switchblade widely circulated as a book, movie, and comic in Pentecostal and evangelical circles and helped to spur the charismatic movement in mainline Protestant and Catholic churches. At a time when Americans were more concerned than ever about the rise of juvenile delinquency and crime, its author, David Wilkerson, testified to the power of the Christ over addiction, crime, and gang violence.

A handsome coffee table book, Teen Challenge: 50 Years of Miracles provides the rest of the story. David Batty and Ethan Campbell recount how Wilkerson, who had been praying for God’s direction, found himself drawn to the harrowing tale of the brutal murder of Michael Farmer, a handicapped teenager, by several members of the Egyptian Dragons. When it appeared in 1957, the news story shocked the nation and generated tremendous press coverage. To the searching Wilkerson, the plight of gang members appeared a call to action. He moved to New York, where he successfully developed connections with gang members. Batty and Campbell trace how Teen Challenge, the organization he founded, grew to an international organization of over 1000 Christian drug and alcohol treatment centers.

There are a few things the book does not do. It does not place Teen Challenge in the context of the history of the Assemblies of God, youth ministry, or the American conversation on juvenile delinquency. In content and tone, it is a celebration and not an analysis. This is not primarily a scholarly book.

However, what it does do, it does well. It is divided equally into three parts. The first chapter traces the growth of Teen Challenge as a local ministry to youth in Brooklyn during the 1960s. The chapter is broken into easily-read sections profiling important events and Teen Challenge participants. A rich collection of photographs and reproductions of documents tell the story even more powerfully than the text. Those interested in the religious literature of this decade will appreciate the many photographs of books and Teen Challenge promotional materials. The next two chapters trace the growth of Teen Challenge across the United States and globe. These sections follow the same format and focus almost entirely on contemporary personal testimony. Overall, this volume presents a well-organized visual feast and a spiritual chronicle that anyone concerned about the victims of addiction will appreciate.

Reviewed by Danielle DuBois Gottwig, Ph.D. candidate, University of Notre Dame

Hardcover, 199 pages, illustrated. $25.00 plus shipping. Order from Teen Challenge USA by phone (417-862-6969 ext. 212) or online (www.TeenChallengeUSA.com).

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