Teen Challenge Operates on Faith but then Pays for it
Cami began using drugs at the age of 12. After violent fights with her parents, she ran away from her small lowa town, and was eventually lured into prostitution.
Cami witnessed gang rapes, and held her best friend in her arms as the girl died from a drug overdose. At 19, despite having attended 22 drug-related funerals in six months, Cami began shooting IV drugs. Her sojourn at a drug treatment facility ended in failure.
After her release, Cami hit bottom. In desperation, she made her way to Minneapolis and checked into Teen Challenge, a yearlong residential drug treatment program. Nine months later, Cami’s transformation seems almost miraculous. She is buoyant, self-possessed and full of hope. Recently, singing before a cheering college audience with the Teen Challenge choir, she peered from the stage with one wish: “I want to be sitting where they are.”
Teen Challenge has helped thousands of Camis across the country — about 50,000 to be precise. It is the world’s largest drug and alcohol treatment program, with more than 200 locations worldwide. The program’s extraordinary success with society’s hard-core “losers” has caught the attention of news media from ABC News to Time magazine. Addicts come to Teen Challenge from hospitals, detox centers and jails. Some are high school football stars; others are pimps or gang members. Like Cami, many have tried a variety of treatment programs without success.
What sets Teen Challenge apart from most other rehabilitation programs? First and foremost, its unabashed Christian focus. Teen Challenge dccisively rejects the reigning medical model of addictive behavior; its residents fashion a life plan, not a treatment plan.
“With the disease model, the medical model, you don’t accept responsibility for your actions,” explains Pastor Rich Scherber, director of Minneapolis Teen Challenge. You say, ‘It’s not my fault I’m sick; my grandfather was an alcoholic.’ ” In fact, however, says Scherber, “people are here because they habitually made bad decisions. By teaching them to walk in honesty and integrity, we help them learn how to make the right decisions.”
Teen Challenge serves both adolescents and adults. Teen residents — who generally pay a monthly fee — attend the program’s alternative school. Adult residents, who obtain vocational training, pay nothing. Both groups learn skills like money management; work at chores in the kitchen and laundry, and learn to minister to others through community service. All attend chapel and pray daily, learning “biblical principles” for virtuous living.
Research confirms Teen Challenge’s remarkable record of success. According to Time magazine, “studies have found that Teen Challenge has a 70 percent success rate for those who finish the program, far better than secular treatments.” A recent study at Northwestern University found that “exabusers seem to lead normal lives after Teen Challenge, holding down full-time jobs and apparently very rarely needing to return to treatment.”
According to Sheryl Ramstad Hvass, Minnesota’s commissioner of corrections, “When it comes to community resources, Teen Challenge is one of the best-kept secrets for helping those who have failed again and again in our system.”
Rich Scherber attributes his program’s success to the lifetransforming power of religious faith. Teen Challenge’s motto is taken from scripture: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” One graduate put it somewhat differently. “He who has been forgiven much,” he noted, “loves much.”
Social science bears out Scherber’s claim that religion can change troubled lives. A recent review of 400 studies of juvenile delinquency found that the more scientific the study, the more optimistic its findings about the extent to which “religion reduces deviance.” Multiple studies identify religion as a key variable in recovering from alcohol and drug addiction, escaping the inner city, preserving marriages and staying out of prison.
Why is religion so important in overcoming social pathologies? In a recent article in the Brookings Review, political scientist James Q. Wilson points out that troubled people find it very difficult to change the habits of a lifetime.
The process, he observes, requires “an act of faith that many persons cannot supply and few will sustain.” As a powerful source of faith, adds Wilson, religion may well constitute “the last best hope of the utterly disadvantaged.”
Paradoxically, the very thing that underlies Teen Challenge’s success — its religious focus — creates problems in raising funds. Govemment agencies, corporations and foundations provide little of Minneapolis Teen Challenge’s budget, 83 percent of which comes from donations. (Churches are the program’s main funders.)
Teen Challenge works its wonders at a fraction of the cost of most other treatment facilities. But corporations and foundations generally shy away from programs with an explicitly religious message, no matter how efficient or effective they are.
Across the country, there are many faith-based social programs that help desperate people transform their lives, yet struggle to raise the money their work requires.
To assist them, Wilson has proposed the creation of a faith-based equivalent of the United Way. Wilson envisions a United Way for Religious Outreach, an independent organization that would identify effective faith-based programs, large and small, which target social problems that require radical behavior change.
With a branch in every large city, this organization could provide guidance to corporations willing to consider funding such programs, or match the gifts of employees eager to contribute to them.
Wilson’s proposal is an idea whose time has come. Unless we find better ways to channel funds to proven faith-based programs, we will be effectively turning our backs on the people who need our help the most.
— Katherine Kersten is a director of the Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis.