Religious Abuse
Jesus factor
Judge Bartell
'The Jesus Factor:'
Teen Challenge's approach to addiction
By Teresa Peneguy Paprock

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.”


Founded 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.


Some former 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.


But 12-Steppers 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.”


Teen Challenge 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.”


What happens 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.


Once in-house, 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.


Living at 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.


These issues 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.”


Because 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.”


At Teen 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.”


While the 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.


Bicknese’s 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).


Certainly, 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.”

Teresa Peneguy Paprock

This article originally appeared in The Phoenix. Teresa Peneguy Paprock / words & stuff freelancing retains the copyright to this article and it may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, without express permission. For reprint rights, contact Teresa Peneguy Paprock at or P.O. Box 5207, Madison, WI, 53705.

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