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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...




Meeting New Challenges

Teen Challenge gains voice by adapting to latest needs

By John W. Kennedy
Nov. 28, 2010

While alcohol, marijuana and cocaine are as prevalent as ever, Teen Challenge has entered a new phase of ministry — rehabilitating enrollees addicted to prescription drugs such as the painkiller OxyContin.

“Our number-one problem is now prescription drug abuse,” says Jack Smart, who took over as president of Teen Challenge USA in August. “People can easily secure antidepressant or pain medications, and once they start they can get hooked without even realizing it.”

According to the National Institutes of Health, 15.2 million Americans, including 1.6 million teens, have taken a prescription pain reliever, tranquilizer, stimulant or sedative for nonmedical reasons in the past year.

A growing number of those who abuse prescription drugs are females, who have sought them out to numb a variety of life’s pains.

“Many women suffer with low self-esteem and poor self-image,” says Mark Gallo, who, with his wife, Juanell, leads the Teen Challenge women’s center that opened last year in Springfield, Mo. “Women have been hurt by men — they have been verbally, physically and sexually abused. We’re seeing a lot more eating disorders too.”

Of the 196 Teen Challenge residential centers in the U.S., 49 are for women and 15 are for girls. Originally designed to rehabilitate drug and alcohol dependence, Teen Challenge now includes treatment for other addictions ranging from gambling to pornography, according to Smart, 55. 

The Assemblies of God discipleship ministry and substance abuse residential recovery program has 7,267 beds around the country. Males and females stay for 12 to 18 months, learning to live drug-free lives via a Bible-based classroom environment.

“For most of our students, other addictions play a role,” says Smart, who moved to the national office in Ozark, Mo., after spending 20 years as director of the Teen Challenge center in Cape Girardeau, Mo. “We’re not just satisfied seeing the bondages broken. We are more concerned with overcoming the root cause of addiction so that the behaviors are not repeated.”

Scripture-themed principles used in curriculum have proven effective in breaking the cycles for multiple addictions. Various studies have shown that Teen Challenge has about a 70 percent success rate — compared to around 10 percent for most non faith-based programs — in keeping graduates off drugs and alcohol.

“The problems these folks have are extremely debilitating, yet through the power of the Holy Spirit transformation takes place,” Smart says. He says every Teen Challenge center emphasizes that only through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ can an addicted person change.

“We will not be watering down the message to get government assistance,” Smart says. “Giving up the gospel would mean losing our effectiveness.”

Indeed, despite societal tensions over government involvement in faith-based programs, “drug czar” Gil Kerlikowske came away impressed from an April tour of Teen Challenge in Tucson guided by Snow Peabody, who has been Teen Challenge executive director in Arizona for 34 years.

In January, Peabody assumed the additional role of Teen Challenge national representative in Washington, D.C., serving as liaison with government leaders. Peabody says Teen Challenge is known not only in the administration, but also among members of Congress, in the court system and with other drug rehabilitation groups.

“We have gained respect because we have results of changed lives in our midst,” Peabody says. “We are recognized as a vital organization making a difference in countering serious drug threats.”

“There’s something about seeing God make changes in a life when that person is in the depths of despair, when they have spent 10, 20 or even 30 years seemingly purposely trying to ruin their life,” Smart says. “It’s remarkable when God in His grace and mercy intervenes.”

Although judges can’t force defendants into a Christian rehabilitation program, many addicts sign up for Teen Challenge when the other option is prison. Up to half of the students in Teen Challenge, a ministry founded by David Wilkerson in 1958, enroll after an appearance in court.

Smart says there is a growing need for Teen Challenge ministry to women and teens. He hopes the national office can be more of a resource center to local affiliates so that individual students can receive more effective ministry.

Although numerous centers are creative at generating income — such as operating a dry-cleaning business, running a restaurant or managing a lawn care service — such measures only cover a fraction of operational costs, says Smart, the successor to Mike Hodges, who resigned for health reasons after five years in the post. Still, officials are hopeful.

“This is our hour when we can really make a difference in unprecedented ways,” Peabody says. “More people are accepting the fact that Teen Challenge is really effective.”

Gallo knows from experience that Teen Challenge succeeded when nothing else could cure him of his appetite for marijuana, alcohol and cocaine. Gallo entered Teen Challenge as a student in 2004 after 15 years in jails, prisons and traditional rehab centers.

“I couldn’t defeat these addictions in my own power,” Gallo says. “When I surrendered to the power of the Holy Spirit, I broke free.”


JOHN W. KENNEDY is news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.

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