Addiction and the Church

addiction and virtue“If the church has resources for offering an even deeper hope to recovering persons than that offered by the twelve-step movement, why has the twelve-step movement essentially replaced the church as the place that addicted persons go to recover?”

For me, this is the most profound question Dr. Kent Dunnington raises in Addiction and Virtue. (184)  His answers to this question have profound implications for the church.

The twelve-step movement insists on treating its members as recovering addicts, but the church does not insist on treating its members as repentant sinners.  Sure, both the AA meeting and the sanctuary have their fair share of hypocrites.  However, it only takes one visit to each to see that the majority of those who attend the AA meeting live as if they are recovering addicts.  They celebrate their recognition and public acknowledgement of their own addictions.  They share testimonies of how they are living (or trying to live) new lives.  They process obstacles and struggles right there in the middle of the meeting with those who have been working the steps longer sharing their knowledge.  They confess their failures … in front of everyone!  The church doesn’t operate this way.  Many of us certainly don’t want to belong to a church that calls us, no, expects us to share our failures and our struggles openly.  We’re not accustomed to that sort of training.

Yet many of us think something is to be gained from the church apart from learning to acknowledge our sinfulness and our utter dependence upon God.  To the extent that the church legitimates this error – by offering, instead, social capital, childcare, entertainment, family time, and so on – the church is accountable for its failure to provide hospitality, sustenance and redemption to the addicted person in its midst. (187)

The twelve-step movement demands its members to enter into apprenticeship relationships.  AA provides its members with sponsors, people who are a few steps ahead of you.  In fact, Step 12 requires the person in recovery to carry the message forward to others.  There is a built-in discipleship process within the twelve-step movement.  The Big Book of Alcoholics says, “it is easier to act yourself into new ways of thinking than to think yourself into new ways of acting.” (366)

The church fails to provide sustaining and transforming relationships for addicted persons in its midst wherever and whenever it buys into the modern assumption that growth in virtue is a product of learning abstract principles whereas friendship is a private endeavor that is based on “similar interests.” (188)

The twelve-step movement and its transformative friendship requires two things: lots of time and shared space.  Integral to recovery is the amount of investment and commitment AA members exhibit by attending weekly meetings, nearly every day of the week!  They share life together.  The image of a an AA member with 10 years of sobriety getting into his car, driving to a rented room, starting the coffee, sitting quietly through the meeting, staying after to talk with others, cleaning up, locking up and heading home may seem strange to us.  For him, it is living life intentionally with others.

If the church is to be a place where addicted persons may find redeeming fellowship, it will have to become a primary social hub. It must facilitate and expect of its members friendships that are rooted in the day-to-day sharing or ordinary activities. … it must provide daily, rather than once-weekly opportunities for communal worship, testimony and prayer, and it must challenge its parishioners to treat the church as their primary social community. (191)

I think our Wesleyan heritage (we’re Free Methodists) provides some great practical examples of how to minister to the person recovering from sin and recovering to the image of God.  I’ll mention three here.

First, we have the three simple rules (from The Nature, Design, and General Rules of Our United Societies by John Wesley): (1) do no harm; (2) do all the good you can; (3) stay in love with Jesus.  Not only are these rules to live by, but they provide a platform for confessing in a healthy manner.  Our own congregation has gotten into the practice of confessing the harm we have done, confessing the good we have done, and confessing how we have stayed in love with Jesus.  Those who confess harm are met with correction and forgiveness.  They are often instructed by others who have overcome similar temptations and struggles.  They are trained for righteousness.  We confess the good we have done.  This is not bragging on ourselves, but in Christ, “apart from [whom] we can do nothing.”  This leads to others joining in on the good being done.  We share how we have stayed in love with Jesus and encourage each other in the style of 1 Corinthians 14.

Second, we have bands, classes and societies (John Wesley’s 3-Strand Discipleship Process).  Societies are large, weekly gatherings for corporate worship and instruction.  Classes are smaller gatherings of about 12 people, who gather weekly to share life, study Scripture, pray, and confess sins.  Bands are groups of four people – same gender, maturity, life stage, etc. – who gather at least weekly to confess sins.  These three meetings involve high levels of commitment and investment, but are necessary for sustained spiritual growth.  I have heard that George Whitefield once said, “I have led more people to Christ, but Wesley knows where all his people are.”  He was referring to Wesley’s system of meetings.  It is in this environment that true kingdom friendships are established.

Third, we have permission to gather daily for prayer and constantly for communion.  Wesley, an Anglican priest, used the Book of Common Prayer on a daily basis.  Such a heritage and such tools provide the people of God impetus for gathering daily to pray and hear Scripture, to share testimonies and receive encouragement.  He encouraged gathering for communion as often as possible and himself took communion an average of once every five days.  We don’t need to use the Book of Common Prayer (though there is certainly nothing wrong with using it), but we should recognize that we have resources for gathering daily.

I’ll close this series of posts with one final quotation from Dr. Dunnington.  Of course, the answer is a resounding, YES!

But when an alcoholic stumbles into church, when we learn that our pastor has been addicted to pornography for the past ten years, when we drive through the local ghettos and slums that are decimated by addiction, the immediate response for many of us who call ourselves Christians is despair.  Is the gospel really powerful enough for all this?

(Previous Post: Addiction and Worship)

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