It began in the streets of New York City. It was a fateful February in 1958 when David Wilkerson felt compelled to pack a suitcase for the big city after seeing a photograph of seven teenage gang members on trial for murder. He couldn’t have known what to expect, but he knew immediately what to do. The humble, backwater preacher from the mountains of Pennsylvania evangelized the media and all who would listen as soon as he arrived on the courthouse steps, telling the world that there was hope.
In 1959, hearing God’s voice, David resigned his pastorate in Pennsylvania and moved his family to New York City where he founded Teen Challenge (initially called Teenage Evangelism). Through his singular act of obedience, tens of thousands of those bound by drug, alcohol and other addictions have found freedom through Jesus Christ–God gave David Wilkerson a vision, a plan, a call. Now as a result, there are 233 centers in the US and 1187 total worldwide, providing help to as many as 25,000 people a day needing deliverance through the power of God.
It was only a few short years later, in 1964, that Detroit Teen Challenge was founded by Herb Meppelink, another man who answered the call.
And now, 2014 marks our 50th year in Detroit. For a ministry to last 50 years is significant. Few start-up ministries last even a decade, let alone five. It is a testament to David Wilkerson and the long line of leaders who have risen to follow him in obedience to God. We can shout it with confidence: God’s hand is in it.
What follows is the conclusion of the interview we conducted with Pastor Jeff Bonzelaar, Executive Director of Life Challenge of Southeastern Michigan. Pastor Jeff shares his vision of the future of the ministry and the ministry’s plans for a big, Gala Event to commemorate the occasion on Thursday, May 8, 2014.
JR: Pastor Jeff, we know there are big plans underway for a celebration this spring, can you tell us what we can look forward to in the coming months?
JB: The first thing we need to celebrate is God’s faithfulness to us. A ministry that requires three thousand dollars a day that continues to operate for 50 years is further proof that there is a God who is faithful. We want to celebrate that faithfulness.
Also, we want to celebrate his faithfulness in saving and keeping people. We have seen the “holy ripple effect” impact hundreds of people’s lives through the years.
JR: Can you tell us what plans are already in place for the Gala event?
JB: I can reveal this much: It will be big, it will be exciting and anyone who has been touched by this ministry will not want to miss it. Some plans aren’t final yet, so I can’t share too much in detail, but our vision for the event is to provide a broad platform for the exposure of our ministry.
Ultimately, we need to increase our footprint in southeastern Michigan. We want to see the media and thought-leaders bring new and much-needed exposure to the ministry, so that we can reach out to more needy people. And, of course, we need to raise money.
Ward Church has graciously offered us their facility, so the dinner event itself will be held in Knox Hall on a Thursday night at Ward. Many of our readers will know that Ward Church has a beautiful campus and Knox Hall is going to be a beautiful venue. Individual tickets will be on sale for $50. People should mark the date. We want to make sure there are enough tables for all our old friends, new friends and family members. Everyone is invited. People can call the office for more details or go online to our web site.
One thing that excites me a lot is the fact that we are able to bring in Tim Dilena as our keynote speaker. Tim is a powerful man of God who knows the history of our ministry. His father, the late Sergeant Paul Dilena, figured prominently in The Cross And The Switchblade. He was one of the founding board members of Teen Challenge. Tim himself has had a long-standing relationship with us in Detroit. He has many friends here because he lived and served here in the city for so many years, founding Revival Tabernacle. Tim is now Jim Cymbala’s associate pastor at Brooklyn Tabernacle in New York City. He will bring great passion and great depth.
During the course of the evening we also plan to highlight former graduates and show how God has kept them and how they have impacted others. There will also be multimedia presentations about our first 50 years of the ministry in Detroit.
JR: It sounds like a wonderful event. How might it impact the ministry?
JB: Whenever we share our story it reminds us of the greatness of the gospel. We always need to be reminded of the power of the gospel to change lives. My hope is that we will be further strengthened and encouraged in the ministry. We need that because ministry can be discouraging. Not everybody makes it. There are disappointments. But we want to stay the course and do what the Lord of the Harvest has called us to do, to persevere.
The mission for us is always the great commission. Reaching out to a needy world. To do it effectively, we need exposure. We need resources. We need money. We are what I like to call a “Jericho ministry”. A Jericho ministry is one that doesn’t get so caught up in its own vision, but is always ready, willing, poised to hear from God, moment to moment. Our plans are puny compared with God’s. Isiah Thomas said that a good basketball player is one who is able to “read and respond” well to changing circumstances. I like that. That’s what Life Challenge is about.
We are focused on a special group, those that are bound by drugs and alcohol. We look for the needs. Society changes, so we need to change and evolve with it, to always be effective, responsive, as a ministry.
In order to fulfill our mission we need to come alongside the local church. I’m hoping that this event will accelerate that process. We want to have relationship with more churches. As Bill Hybels often points out, our only hope is the local church.
Currently, we have a little over 130 churches that invite us to have rallies in their buildings, that allow us to reach out directly to the needy people in the pews and that have included us in their missions budgets. We need to grow that base. We are a critical ministry. The local church does not typically have the tools to respond to the need. We want pastors and lay leaders to know that we are a safe place to send hurting people.
JR: Jeff, when you think about what God has called you to do, what do you see for the ministry ten, or even twenty, years down the line?
JB: I see multiple centers across the state, across the country and even abroad. There is a great need for Life Challenge. I’d like to provide a leadership school to train workers to send out. I’d like to better equip our own students for transition back into their regular lives. I’d love to hire a Director of Evangelism who could lead us in crusades, street ministry. Let’s be better fishermen. Lead people into the field for the glory of God. Raise up missionaries. Provide missions trips for our students. The worst thing that can happen is for men and women to leave our program clean and sober, but without a passion for the Great Commission.