Español Français Русский Português 中文(简体) 中文(繁體)
Historical Precedents
> Biblical Reference > Historical Precedents > Quotations & Writings > Commentary
> Home > Historical Precedents > Virtue > Faith > "David Wilkerson: Unshackled from the 'Small Screen'" -- [1958]
> Category

David Wilkerson (1931-2011): Unshackled from the “Small Screen”

An onslaught of restlessness hit Pastor David Wilkerson as he watched the remnants of “The Late Show” fade slowly from the television screen. He began to pace the room, calculating the amount of time he spent absorbed by the media’s lure every night—at least two hours. Wilkerson glanced at the ceiling and wondered aloud, “What would happen, Lord, if I sold that TV set and spent that time—praying?” Within a few minutes, Wilkerson determined that if God wanted him to substitute prayer for television, then He would allow him to sell the television no more than half an hour after a newspaper ad for the TV hit the streets. The morning came, and the Wilkerson family sat in the living room watching a big alarm clock posted beside the telephone. Twenty-nine minutes after they began their vigil, a man called and purchased the set, sight unseen.1

That was February 9, 1958. A few months later, during one of Wilkerson’s prayer sessions, God spoke to him through a courtroom drawing in Life magazine, a picture of seven boys in a murder trial. Wilkerson realized God was calling him to New York City to bring the gospel to these troubled teens. The next day he announced his intentions at a prayer meeting in his Pennsylvania church.2 They took up an offering to cover his transportation costs, and he departed for New York City early the next morning, full of conviction but with little direction.

After a series of trips to the city, Wilkerson began street evangelism in the most dangerous areas of Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx. By August of 1959, several of the most violent gang leaders, including Nicky Cruz and Israel (and their entire gangs), had genuinely converted to Christianity—the story captured in the best-selling book The Cross and the Switchblade. A few even decided to attend seminary. Within two years, Wilkerson permanently left his burgeoning parish in Philipsburg, dropped his wife and children off at her parents’ in Pittsburgh, and moved into a grungy office space in Staten Island to start a “program aimed at setting youngsters free.”3 He soon retrieved his family, purchased a home in Brooklyn, and with a staff of young evangelists in tow, established a safe haven for New York’s urban, troubled youth.

So began a journey that grew into a worldwide youth ministry, today called Teen Challenge. It provides faith-based rehabilitation services to teenagers plagued by addiction. Its program has broken addictions psychologists claimed impossible to overcome; it maintains a high success rate of long-term recovery. Wilkerson opened the first center in Brooklyn, and now centers can be found across the U. S. and around the world.4

Pastors may wonder what attributes made Wilkerson such a formidable force in New York City and beyond. First, he pursued the Lord in prayer before he made any decision or took any action regarding his calling. As he prayed with Bible in hand, he learned the power of balancing petition and praise.5 Second, once he discerned God’s will, Wilkerson was readily obedient: He started going to New York City every week. He walked the crime-infested streets, and he talked to as many teenagers as possible about the issues they faced. Essentially, he took the trouble to become well-informed. And though he faced obstacles, Wilkerson kept going back. Third, Wilkerson’s ministry was led and empowered by the Holy Spirit. When a teen suggested he was “trying too hard,” Wilkerson realized that he needed to step aside and allow the Spirit to win the hearts of his unconventional congregation.6 It was not that Wilkerson ceased to prepare for his interactions with the teens or to work diligently at his ministry; it was merely that he remembered that “it is God, and only God, who heals.”7 And the healing began at a stunning pace.

Who knows what can happen when the man of God turns off the TV long enough to hear the Lord speaking to him.


David Wilkerson, with John and Elizabeth Sherrill, The Cross and the Switchblade (New York: Random House, 1963), 8-9.


Wilkerson pastored a growing Assemblies of God congregation in rural Philipsburg.


Wilkerson, 122.


For more information on Teen Challenge, visit Teen Challenge Website, (accessed January 16, 2008).


Wilkerson, 10.


Ibid., 88.
There is a particularly amazing account of Wilkerson, which occurred in the summer of 1959 when he preached at a convention that he and some other local ministers had created for the gangs. It was the last night of the convention, and the most violent gangs had shown up to hear what Wilkerson had to say, but mostly to be entertained. After twenty minutes of unsuccessful preaching, the crowd deemed Wilkerson’s words impossible and began to provoke each other to fight. Wilkerson stopped speaking and prayed for three, solid minutes that the Holy Spirit would come. Before the third minute passed, the entire crowd was silent, and then teens began crying and approaching the front to accept Christ. The gang that had given Wilkerson the most trouble followed its leader to the front, and every member became a Christian. After the convention ended, that same gang spent several hours reading their newly acquired Bibles before bringing the Bibles down to the police precinct for the officers to sign. The officers were so dumbfounded that they called Wilkerson early the next morning and asked him to come down to the police station. Even Wilkerson was speechless! Ibid., 91-99.


Ibid., 90.
The Holy Spirit proved to be the healing factor for the teens who struggled with addictions. Upon questioning several teens who had converted to Christianity and successfully dropped their drug/alcohol habits, Wilkerson learned that it was when the teens received the Holy Spirit that they knew they were freed. It was similar to Jesus’ disciples before and after Pentecost.