For Josiah, it was “the
Jesus factor” that saved him.
At the age of 20, Josiah says,
he was dying. Alcohol, meth, cocaine, heroin – it didn’t much matter what it was; if he could get his hands on
it, he’d take it. “My life was a mess,” says Josiah (who chooses to keep his last name private). “I
was so broken. I’d been in six car accidents, I’d OD’d twice, I weighed 115 pounds, my skin was gray and
my cheeks were sunken in.”
Josiah entered Minnesota Teen
Challenge, a faith-based recovery program, in a last-ditch effort to stay alive. He’d been chemically dependent for
six years by then, and “There was no hope for me. I was at the end of the rope, and I had no money to go into treatment.”
Teen Challenge, which accepts
its “students” at no charge if they can’t pay, helped Josiah turn his life around. Today, Josiah has been
clean and sober for two years, and is currently participating in a six-month internship doing office administration work for
the program. Tragically, his 18-year-old brother died of a drug overdose eight months ago, but Josiah credits Teen Challenge
for his own life. “I’m so glad Teen Challenge exists, because if not for Teen Challenge, I wouldn’t be here,”
he says. “I mean, I would not be alive.”
Josaih’s road to recovery
was very different from that of those who join 12-Step programs. Teen Challenge maintains that chemical dependency is no disease,
but a moral and spiritual failing. And the only answer, says the program, is belief in Jesus Christ. There’s no “God
as we understand him” for Teen Challenge students. “We believe all healing, recovery, and deliverance comes through
faith in God through Jesus Christ,” explains Jeff Dye, director of programming for Minnesota Teen Challenge. “We
have, specifically, a Christian emphasis.” Teen Challenge promotional materials calls it “The Jesus Factor.”
in 1958 by the Rev. David Wilkerson, who was working with gang populations in New York City, Teen Challenge now has 350 centers in 72
countries around the world – making it likely the biggest faith-based residential drug and alcohol recovery program
on the globe. Despite the name, many students are adult men and women. Unashamedly Evangelical and Pentecostal, the organization’s
theology –outlined on various websites – promotes “born again” Christianity and an eventual Rapture
of true Christian believers.
students have called it a “cult,” but a variety of studies have shown that indeed, the program works – when,
for many, traditional AODA treatment does not. In fact, a variety of studies nationwide have placed Teen Challenge’s
success rate at between 70 and 86 percent – much higher than AA and similar programs.
won’t approve of Teen Challenge’s view of drug and alcohol abuse as “a character and a choice issue,”
as Dye says. A Christian minister with a master’s degree in counseling and psychology, Dye says he’s studied the
12-Step model closely, and has talked to countless students who entered Teen Challenge when other treatments had been unsuccessful.
“I won’t criticize other programs, because everybody’s different,” he says, “but from what I’ve
seen, one can’t get well without acknowledging the bondage that they’re under. I’ve met some people who
have gone through successful treatment without Christ, but frankly, there’s not a lot of folks like that.”
accepts people of all spiritual backgrounds, and no spiritual background. “We exclude no one,” Dye emphasizes.
“But it IS a Christ-based program, and if you’re not willing to be included in that, then I’d question why
you’d want to be included in a program like this.”
at Teen Challenge? The more than 300 students in the Minneapolis
program enter the program for either 60 days or 12 to 13 months. They have “life controlling” problems and most
have been through other treatment programs that didn’t help. Most are destitute, many of them homeless.
they participate in a variety of activities including individualized counseling, on-site work study, Bible studies and participation
in the Teen Challenge Choir, which performs at churches all over the state. Teen Challenge students might be seen at grocery
stores and shopping malls requesting donations. In Minnesota,
65 percent of the organization’s funding comes from private donations, including those from houses of worship. Minnesota
Teen Challenge also subsidizes the cost of each resident by $1,200 per month.
Teen Challenge is tough, but it’s meant to be. Students are up early, doing chores and studying the Bible. After some
time, they’re out working in the community – and for many, it’s their first “real” job. Teen
Challenge staff (many of whom are Teen Challenge graduates themselves) help students work on the “core issues”
that contributed to their chemical dependency.
are addressed, according to Teen Challenge’s promotional materials, “in a caring, but firm, manner. Love (is)
expressed through bonds of relationship between people and encouraging personal responsibility and accountability for actions.”
In the process, they develop “the ability to say ‘no’ to temporary fixes and temptations and ‘yes’
to enduring promises from God … (and) the ultimate hope (for) eternal life in heaven for those who repent and place
their faith in Jesus Christ.”
the Teen Challenge program rejects the “disease” model, the organization expects “the ex-addict (to be)
responsible for building character and deciding to overcome a destructive habit; he or she is the active agent in recovery.”
In the 12-Step model, according to one study, “the drug, not the user, is the agent; the user is a passive host.”
In fact, the program sees the disease model as “shifting responsibility for the drug user’s behavior from the
user to the drug, even to the extent of absolving the user of guilt for any deviant acts committed under the influence.”
Challenge, one takes personal responsibility for the decision to stop drinking and using drugs for good, and the willpower
comes from Jesus Christ: “It (is) not enough to have a vague belief in a higher power; one must commit to the Christ
of the Bible.”
Minnesota Teen Challenge is in the process of studying recovery rates and has no statistics yet available, nationwide, a number
of studies have shown astounding success. One major study, by Aaron Bicknese of Northwestern
University, shows the vast majority of graduates from Teen Challenge
currently healthy, happy, and employed. A large percentage of them continue to work for Teen Challenge or choose to go into
the ministry. The results of the study are even more impressive when one factors in the fact that Teen Challenge students
“have fewer productive pretreatment relationships, are using a greater range of drugs, are more severely addicted, and
often come from more difficult-to-reach groups” than the 12-Step population.
study also shows that Teen Challenge graduates have “a higher abstinence rate, less severe relapses, less severe periods
of depression, and significantly increased full-time employment.” In addition, Teen Challenge is less expensive than
traditional treatment programs (the Bicknese study compares a one-year stay at a Teen Challenge center for $11,000, compared
to a 30-day stay at a typical treatment center, ranging from $7,000 to $35,000).
Teen Challenge isn’t for everybody. “We are upfront about what we are,” says Dye. “We don’t
want to pretend we’re something we’re not. The students in our choir travel to churches to sing and testify about
what God has done in their life.” And for graduates like Josiah, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks, or
what statistics show, or whether or not the government should pay into faith-based programs. “The staff just pours themselves
into the students,” he says. “I came here and I got the hope and the love that I needed.”