IN JULY 2018 Adult & Teen Challenge celebrated the 60th anniversary of David Wilkerson embarking on the ministry. More than 500 people showed up to a special conference at the Hilton Alexandria Mark Center in Alexandria, Va. Among the special speakers—including Don Wilkerson—was Peter Greer, president and CEO of Hope International and author of the book Mission Drift.
In both the book and his talk, Greer showed how organizations that aren’t intentional, focused on handing down their mission to the next generation of leaders, drift further and further from their core vision. At the ATC conference, Greer had the crowd singing the lyrics to the VeggieTales theme song before sharing how the Bible-themed children’s TV show lost its way. He pointed out Harvard and Yale universities both began as Christian institutions.
[Having] Empty beds doesn’t bother me. It’s empty hearts that bother me. —Don Wilkerson
At one point he asked the crowd three times, “Can you take Jesus away from Teen Challenge?” Greer warned: “The world is going to look at the progress that you’re making and is going to say, ‘We love what you do. We love the impact that we see. We love the impact of men, women, children, and adolescents. Just tone down the Jesus stuff.’”
Dave Batty, who for 20 years worked as the national curriculum coordinator for Teen Challenge, developed the curriculum ATC students studied in their yearlong programs. Batty says what has come to be known as the “Jesus Factor” is critical to ATC’s ministry. He now trains ATC staff in the United States and around the world: “Another real concern of mine is that we identify and pass on the DNA of Teen Challenge to really keep the core principles clear in the minds of new staff. In other words, to train them on who we are and this is what drives our values.”
Batty thinks the national ATC board’s policy change this year “in many respects formalized what was already being done.” He says short-term, licensed programs are meeting a need. He’s seen as many as 60 percent of students in a short-term program enroll in ATC’s long-term program: “You could describe this short-term program as a pre-evangelism phase.” He says some students, because of withdrawal effects, should enter a detoxification program—such as the one run by Pennsylvania ATC—before beginning any other ATC treatment: ATC detox centers could funnel more people into the long-term program.
But Batty warned of the danger in walking such a tightrope: “The issue of funding—of relying on government funding—has major potential for concern because it can easily become the single source of funding.”
In Minnesota, revenue generated through the licensed programs has soared. In fiscal year 2005 Minnesota ATC had $9 million in revenue, including $3 million in government fees and contracts and $4 million in long-term program revenue (insurance payments and room and board fees). In 2017—the latest year for which tax returns are available—Minnesota ATC had $41 million in revenue: $7 million from its long-term program (with $13 million in expenses) and $19 million from its short-term one (with $12 million in expenses).
A Minnesota Management and Budget agency database shows $7 million in government fees paid to Minnesota ATC in 2017—but in fiscal year 2019, Minnesota ATC received $12 million in state payments, nearly all of which came from Minnesota’s Department of Human Resources. Vagle said Minnesota ATC leaders aren’t concerned about state fees growing too much: “The revenue from our licensed programs allows us to continue to expand.”
Batty wouldn’t offer an assessment on whether ATCs like Minnesota or Pennsylvania are drifting in their mission or relying too much on the revenue that the short-term, licensed programs provide. But he sees why people like Don Wilkerson are sounding alarms, and that’s why he’s still working to help leaders avoid mission drift: “I think there is a danger here of the short-term and secular components taking over and becoming the primary focus of the program.”