EDITOR’S NOTE: Beginning next year, Life Challenge will celebrate its 50th year of ministry. In the coming months, The Challenger will interview some of the people that have guided and shaped the ministry and its culture through those many years of God’s grace. We’ll also be sharing a vision of what God holds in store for Life Challenge in the next 50 years. This month begins the first in a series of articles called “Looking Back. Looking Forward.” It’s an interview with Executive Director, Jeff Bonzelaar. Pastor Jeff takes time out from his busy schedule to talk with chief editor, John Richardson.
JR: Pastor Jeff, could you give our readers a little background about your life in the ministry. How did it begin?
JB: I grew up in Western Michigan. My connection to Life Challenge, or Teen Challenge as we are known nationally, began there. When I was young, my mom and dad got saved. Shortly after, they visited a local church where Teen Challenge was holding a rally. They were struck by what God was doing in the lives of Teen Challenge students. God gave them a burden, a calling for the ministry at Teen Challenge. They started volunteering. They soon became directors in charge of the women. From ages 11 to 18 I grew up in the ministry, living with the women at Teen Challenge. I ate with them, went to church with them and recreated with them. I saw first-hand what Christ could do in the lives of drug addicts and alcoholics.
JR: So did you feel a call into the ministry at that time?
JB: Yes. I never went through a period when I wondered what I was going to do with my life. Never. As early as 12 or 13 years old I knew that I wanted to work at a Teen Challenge.
JR: So after High School, what happened?
JB: When I was 18 years old my dad accepted a call to come to Detroit Teen Challenge as director. DTC was imploding, on the verge of collapse. The ministry was getting shut-off notices from the utility companies. The center had a bad reputation – there was just a handful of students and a couple of staff. Mom and Dad came as a step of faith. They received no paycheck for the first five months. I came with my parents to Detroit. I enrolled for two years at the University of Michigan, Dearborn. Then I transferred to Bible School at Southeastern University.
After graduating, I went to Fuller Theological Seminary for my Masters degree.
JR: Did you return to Detroit after seminary?
JB: Yes, in 1988 I started working for my Dad. I was the Director of Education. The students and staff lived in about six different homes near Grand River. My dad put me in the so-called “rebel” house. I really thought I knew what I was doing up until that point. The Rebel House was home to all the hard cases, the ones that were in serious rebellion. They saw me as the “college kid,” wet behind the ears. I was baptized in fire. I thought, with a Master’s degree and a lifetime of experiences at Teen Challenge behind me, I should be able to handle anything. I was wrong. I wasn’t nearly as smart as I thought I was.
JR: So, how did you deal with that, how did your grow as a result?
JB: Honestly, I didn’t have a lot of time to grow. About a year later, I met Lori. She had come out of Bible school herself. She was on staff before I came. We were in love and we married in 1990. Shortly after that, Dad resigned in October of 1993.
JR: Did you feel unprepared? JB: I thought I was very unprepared. But the Board took a chance, a chance on a 29 year old kid. First as “interim” director, then as executive director. Three of those board members are still serving: John Packer, Dave Pace and Jim VanHouten.
JR: Were you able to inspire confidence from the get go?
JB: No. That first summer I nearly drove the ministry into the ground. We were 13 weeks behind in payroll when I started. Not my Dad’s fault. It’s just part of the culture here. We have good times and we have bad times. But given that I was starting in a hole, I tried to go too far, too fast. I wanted a community outreach. So, we went door-to-door around the neighborhoods, inviting kids to a week long VBS at the center. I was gung-ho. I thought I could come in on a white horse and save the world. The big mistake I made was overlooking the local community leaders. I bypassed them. I never bothered to involve them. It was arrogance and ignorance.
They circulated a petition to have us shut down. We had a Detroit city councilman here, and other leaders, trying to get us out of the neighborhood. They were very serious. I remember weeping alone on the back porch of my house. I thought I had destroyed everything that had been built by God. That was the summer of 1994. What I remember clearly was getting an anonymous card. All it said was “God is with you, Jeff.” That card somehow sustained me. I needed that word at just that time, and by the grace of God, we survived. But that was not the only time an anonymous letter saved me from depression. It happened again a few years later, during another time self-doubt.
JR: What happened?
JB: One of the most important people in my life at that time was Dave Ytterock. He was an older man on staff. He was a great teacher and he always encouraged me. He became a kind of surrogate father, mentoring me patiently. For whatever reason, he believed in me. He was the one I turned to when I needed guidance. Pastor Ytterock died in 2003. I was suddenly lost, stunned by the finality of it. I really wondered whether I could run things without his support, his wisdom and encouragement. That’s when I got the second anonymous letter that saved me from my self-pity.
JR: Did you ever figure out who sent it?
JR: Did you even try to figure out who sent it?
JB: No. Not really. I just knew that whoever it was, they had clearly heard from God and had acted in perfect obedience. I knew that I needed to act in obedience, too. I was called to lead this ministry and so I did. I moved forward and by his Grace I am here today.
JR: Was there a time when you thought you had really hit your stride?
JB: Well, I still go through self-doubt a couple of times a month. I don’t know if a person like me ever fully gets comfortable and fully confident. But I am comfortable leading now. I know that God has called me here. As I reflect back I see that over the last ten years or so I have developed my own approach to this ministry. It has been a time of learning and growing as a leader. My dad was good at counseling, at outreach and fund raising. I am good at none of those things. I learned that I needed to lead from the gifts I had been given.
I discovered that I was a teacher and preacher at heart, an exhorter. The ministry has grown tremendously. We’ve become more defined and more focused. We emphasize academics. As a Teen Challenge center, we are now widely recognized as a leader in academics and discipleship. Other centers have a different emphasis.
JR: Is there anything different about the needs of today’s students?
JB: The students are very different today than they were 20 years ago. We now live in an over-medicated society. We didn’t used to have so many students with prescription drug problems. Now we see a lot of it. Also, students have much less respect for authority than they used to. We are also living in a post-Christian, post-religious America. Not everyone believes in God these days, that there is a God that can help. It is not a given that the Bible is trustworthy. Now, in our teaching and in our discipleship we have to back up and start with much more basic questions about the meaning and purpose of life. Lately, I’ve been re-reading The Cross and the Switchblade. In it, David Wilkerson asks himself, “Why are all these young people on drugs?” The answer, he discovered, is loneliness. Young people are lonely in their sin. That’s what sin does. It alienates us from each other and it separates us from God. In that respect, nothing has changed.
Next Issue: In January’s issue Pastor Jeff will share a vision of the future of Life Challenge and reveal some of the celebration plans for the coming year. Stay tuned…