by Dale Ryan
This is an edited transcript of a talk presented by Dale Ryan at the ISAAC convention in Madrid, Spain in May, 2003. It is intended to provide a general overview of the Christian recovery movement in the US for people working in other parts of the world.
The particular task I’ve been given for today is to talk about how the Christian Recovery movement has developed in the United States. This is a very large subject and we have only a little time so I will necessarily skip a lot of material. I want to emphasize at the beginning that the sorts of developments that have taken place in the United States may or may not represent a useful model for other cultural situations. I suspect that there are things to be learned from our experience in the United States but there are many unique features to our experience as well. What has worked here needs careful examination before it is adapted to other situations.
It is not possible to talk about the Christian Recovery movement in the United States without talking first about Alcoholics Anonymous. In the 1930s, if you look at what was available for alcoholics who wanted help–there was almost nothing. The most common way of understanding addictions at that time was that if you were an addict or an alcoholic you were just a bad person. That was about as sophisticated as it got. There were good people and there were bad people and if you were an addict you were a bad person. This is really not an observation that is very helpful to recovering addicts. Most addicts already know–or suspect–that they are bad people and having you emphasize this fact doesn’t really seem to help at all. To make a long story very short, God chose a couple of hopeless addicts to start a ministry called Alcoholics Anonymous that offered an entirely different–and dramatically more helpful–perspective on addictions.
It probably should not surprise us that God chose a couple of hopeless drunks to start something important–rather than picking a couple of professors at a seminary or a couple of respected pastors. God did in this case what he has done many times throughout history–he picked people who did not have the respect of their communities to head up major advances in his Kingdom. Moses is the first example that comes to mind–he certainly did not have the credibility he thought he needed.
In the mid 1930s, these two hopeless drunks developed a programme that seemed to be helpful. What they did was this: they looked at the Christian discipleship programmes available at the time, took what seemed to be the best of those programmes and adapted them so that they had a discipleship programme that was optimised for alcoholics. This developed into the Twelve Step Programme. One of the core principles of the Programme was that it required people to recover in community. It wasn”t possible, they decided, to recover by yourself. You could try to not drink by yourself. But this does not appear to be a successful strategy for alcoholics–trying to not drink. Every alcoholic I have ever known has decided not to drink. They have typically made this decision not to drink many times–but always unsuccessfully. So, merely encouraging alcoholics not to drink is not a very helpful programme for recovery. It just doesn’t work. You need, or so the founders of A.A. were convinced, a supportive community. And in addition to a supportive community, the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous believed that you needed a spiritual transformation. Their conviction was that a successful programme involved not a self-help programme–not even just a mutual-help programme–but a God-help programme. You needed God’s help. There is a lot of work for recovering alcoholics to do in Twelve Step Programmes, but when it comes down to the fundamental changes that need to be made, the most that we can do in recovery is to be ready for God to make the changes that need to be made. As a result, many of the spiritual disciplines which you find in the Twelve Step programme are focused on becoming ready for God to do the things that need to be done.
Developments in the Twelve Step Movement
In the early years Alcoholics Anonymous was intended for hopeless drunks–people who had lost everything. The people who became involved in the programme were typically long-term, late-stage alcoholics. They were not ‘problem drinkers’ or people who had other kinds of problems. Several factors have, however, profoundly changed the character of A.A. since it”s founding. First, it has grown. In the 1930s and 40s there were only dozens of Alcoholics Anonymous groups in the US. In the 50s and 60s there was a dramatic expansion in the numbers of groups–well into the thousands. I don’t remember when they broke the 10,000 mark, but thousands and thousands of groups started, because people found it to be a practical help in staying sober. If it was not a practical help these groups would not have been sustainable.
The second change began when people observed that the spiritual disciplines that are practised in the Twelve Step Programme were helpful to people who were not alcoholics. Drug addicts, for example, were also helped by the social support and spiritual disciplines of the Twelve Step Programme. As a result, a parallel programme to Alcoholics Anonymous emerged for people struggling with different kinds of drug abuse–Narcotics Anonymous. In fact a number of different networks of Twelve Step groups were formed including Cocaine Anonymous, Sexaholics Anonymous, Nicotine Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous and several others.
A third major change began when people started to pay attention for the first time to the fact that addiction is not just about the person who is drinking. The alcoholic is not the only person in an alcoholic family who has a problem. The whole family is profoundly engaged in the addictive process. It is not just about the alcohol. If you take away the alcohol from an alcoholic what do you get? You get an alcoholic that has no alcohol to drink! So alcohol is not the problem. Taking away the alcohol does not solve the problem. You just get a “dry drunk” instead of a “wet drunk”. But nothing fundamental has changed. The same kind of thing is true of the whole alcoholic family. If you take the alcoholic out of the family system, what do you get? Do you get a healthy family? No, you get an alcoholic family that just doesn’t have the alcoholic in it. All the problems remain. This observation–that the whole family system is impacted by one person’s addiction–leads rapidly to the conclusion that the kind of intervention that people need is systemic. The practical consequence of this observation was the development of organizations like Alanon and groups for adult children of alcoholics–there are even some groups for grandchildren of alcoholics.
A fourth thing that has had an effect on the development of the Twelve Step movement, is that people started to get involved in Alcoholics Anonymous who had not lost everything. In the beginning, if you went to an A.A. meeting they might ask you: “Have you lost your job?” or “Have you lost your family?” If your answer was “No” they would often suggest that you probably needed some more experience before you could be helped by the Programme. The thinking was that–because the spiritual disciplines involved in Twelve Step Programmes are so demanding–people will not have the motivation to work the programme unless they have come to the end, unless they’ve hit bottom, unless the pain is powerful enough to motivate them to do the hard work that will be needed. There is now, of course, a lot of evidence to suggest that it is possible to recover from alcoholism and other addictions without first losing everything. Pain is still the great motivator for recovery. Nobody gets into recovery saying: “I have some extra time this Summer so I think I will either learn how to Scuba dive or get into recovery”! Recovery is not just an optional activity for life-enrichment or a kind of life-style choice. It’s almost always something that we feel forced into. We’re facing some kind of pain that we simply can’t live with. But that is not the same as losing everything. This openness to participation by people who had not lost everything greatly expanded the pool of potential participants in the programme. And it has also led to a dramatic increase in the number of group participants who are not even present voluntarily but who attend meetings as a condition of their parole or by mandate of the legal system.
All of these factors have resulted in a dramatic expansion of the Twelve Step movement. There are now tens of thousands of groups meeting weekly. Tens of millions of people have participated in recovery groups of one kind or another. And, as a result, some significant changes have taken place in how the average person in the U.S. thinks and feels about addictions.
Recovery Ministry in the Church
So where has the church been in all of this? The church has always been an important part of the Twelve Step movement. Alcoholics Anonymous began as a kind of Christian discipleship programme. All of the spiritual disciplines found in the Twelve Steps were disciplines which the founders of A.A. learned from the Rev. Sam Shoemaker, an Episcopal priest who was the head of the Oxford Group movement in the United States. The Oxford Group movement was an evangelical movement in the early part of the twentieth century that emphasized the same kinds of spiritual disciplines that you find today in the Twelve Step movement. And, of course, churches have from the beginning supported A.A. and other Twelve Step movements by providing facilities for group meetings. There has, however, been a lot of criticism of A.A. and other Twelve Step groups–some from the Christian community and some from the culture as a whole.
The most common current criticism of Alcoholics Anonymous, both within A.A. and in American culture as a whole, is that Alcoholics Anonymous is entirely too Christian. According to many, it is just a thinly disguised Christian evangelical programme. That is the most common criticism. It is an understandable criticism. Just look at the stuff such programmes ask you to do. They ask you to repent, they ask you to make amends, they ask you to do a searching moral inventory of your life, to practice prayer and meditation. All the language is Christian language, all the spiritual disciplines are Christian spiritual disciplines.
Within the Christian community, however, the most common criticism of A.A. and similar programmes is just the opposite. There the criticism is that A.A. and similar programs are not Christian enough. I do not have time today to explore this particular issue in depth. My own view, briefly, is that the Twelve Steps are a kind of spiritual kindergarten. Bill W., one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous often referred to the Twelve Step programme in this way. It was never intended to provide people with “everything you need to know about God.” It was, rather, a starting point. The principle was: “keep it simple.” And that is what it is–a very simple, but very powerful way to restart life after an addiction has done its damage. To criticise it for not being “Christian enough” seems to me to miss the point entirely. Addicts and alcoholics need a discipleship program that is incredibly basic. Anything more than kindergarten needs to wait for later.
Because the Twelve Step programme is so deeply rooted in Christian principles, you might think that it is relatively easy for Christian alcoholics to feel comfortable within the programme. Many did. And still do. But others face two frustrating realities. First, because Alcoholics Anonymous was intended to be a kind of spiritual kindergarten–a place to learn the basics–it is often not possible to be as direct about faith as participants would like. The commitment to focus only on the most basic and fundamental of truths–while very helpful to many people early in the recovery process–can become frustrating for many Christian alcoholics. They long for places where they can be both “in recovery” and also be fully open about their Christian faith.
The second frustration is the church. At church you can be fully Christian. But the church has been, and continues to be, a difficult place for people in recovery to feel safe. You can be a Christian at church. But can you be a person in recovery? Why does it feel so much safer to tell the truth at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting on Thursday night than it does in a Sunday School class meeting on Sunday morning? Why is A.A. helping me to change my life–to experience the power of God in practical and tangible ways–but church doesn”t seem to have a similar impact? Let me illustrate this frustration with a story.
I have a friend who is an addict. At the time of this story we had known her for probably 20 years. She was raised in a very abusive Christian home. She left God and Christianity in her early 20s. Over the years we watched as she went about as far away from God as you can get, started to come to her senses, and gradually started to turn back to God. It was a kind of a prodigal daughter story, I guess. I remember sitting in our living room once and she asked me about some verse in the Bible and I literally fell off my chair! It was such a startling thing that she would be asking me a question about anything to do with spirituality. It was such a wonderful thing to see her growing sobriety and interest in seeking God”s will for her life. Here was this person coming all the way back to God. To make a long story short, we finally got the courage to invite her to come to church with us. And she came. At the time, I was working in a church in Southern California at the top of a hill, across the street from a country club–a golf club. It was a very nice church, full of nice people. And we had one of those ‘performance-oriented’ services where each song leads in a smooth sequence to the next thing and there’s never any silence to interrupt the performance, you know, very high performance values! So it was very smooth, and well done, and a very polished sermon that morning by the senior pastor. I was hoping that maybe our friend had a good time, but I didn’t know, so I asked her afterwards “So, how did you like it?” She said: “This is the nicest church I have ever been to in my entire life.” She couldn’t believe how nice it was, how functional it was–things seemed to work. She was particularly struck by watching parents hold hands with their children as they walked out to the parking lot. I thought, “Well, God has really done something in my dear friend’s life–think of all the years when she was gone from faith, and now she’s come back and she’s had a great experience”. So I said: “We would be happy to come by and pick you up, if you want to come back next week.” She said: “Oh, no! I can’t come to this church! Where did these people go before they came to this church? There’s got to be a remedial church some place. I want to come here. But I can’t come here. At least not yet. I don’t even have clothes like these people have clothes. My kids aren’t nice kids like these kids. They would make a mess of the Sunday School. There’s got to be a church where you can start off with the basics and gradually get healthy enough to come to this church.”
She needed the basics. Not the advanced Christian stuff. Just the basics for now. There is no way that she could get started spiritually at our church. And she certainly could not have started her sobriety at our church. For that, she needed to go to A.A. So, like a large number of Christians in the United States, she started her sobriety in AA. That”s where she learned that shame was not the solution, but part of the problem.
Bringing Recovery to Church
There are a variety of ways in which the local church has been involved in the recovery movement. Let me briefly talk about seven different strategies for congregational involvement. I first I call “A.A. in the basement”.
AA In The Basement Strategy
Historically the most common way for local churches to be involved in recovery ministry is for the church to allow AA or NA or some other organization to meet in church facilities. It is difficult to imagine where AA would be today if it were not for this kind of participation by local churches over the years. Literally hundreds of thousands of people have begun their sobriety in AA meetings in church basements. This is a wonderful kind of ministry for a local church. Even though most of us are very supportive AA and other ‘secular’ programs, however, something makes us anxious about congregations whose commitment to recovery is limited to this strategy. Why is it that the power for personal transformation is facilitated by an organization external to the local church while the local church contributes only space? Why is recovery ministry at the margins of congregational life rather than at the center? Don’t misread me here–I am not suggesting that the church become more entangled with AA. What I am suggesting is that if recovery ministry remains at the margins of congregational life, we will miss enormous opportunities.
One way local congregations have attempted to integrate recovery more fully into the life of the congregation is to develop what I call ‘bridge’ strategies. Most Christians in recovery want a way to ‘bridge’ the ‘recovery’ world with the ‘Christian’ world. Typically local congregations have responded to this need by developing distinctively Christian support groups. These groups are not usually intended to replace A.A. or other Twelve Step groups but rather to ‘bridge’ to them. Thousands of congregations have established such ‘bridge’ groups. These safe places are a wonderful resource. In most cases, however, these groups remain marginalized within a congregation. People within the ‘bridge’ group find help, but the life of the congregation as a whole is only rarely impacted by the ministry.
Alternative to AA Strategies
A third approach is rather like ‘bridge’ strategies in practice but includes an intention to ‘replace’ secular programs rather than ‘bridging’ to them. There are several networks of Christian 12 step groups with this intention. Although the intention is different, in practice these groups often serve many of the same functions as ‘bridge’ groups. In congregations which are overtly hostile to “secular” resources this may be the only kind of recovery ministry which is possible.
Recovery Department Strategies
A fourth approach to recovery ministry is for a local congregation to develop a recovery ministry in parallel with it’s other ministry ‘departments’ such as the music ministry ‘department’ or children’s ministry ‘department.’ In this model, recovery ministry becomes one of the mainstream elements of congregational life. Recovery would not be the central feature of the congregation but it would be fully integrated into the life of the congregation. Congregations which take this approach often develop a wide range of services in addition to ‘bridge’ support groups. These might include educational programs, long-term 12 Step study groups, retreats and other ministries. Connections with counseling ministries might be part of this strategy as well as employment of pastoral staff members to supervise and coordinate the ministry. The strength of this approach is usually the range of resources that are developed and the impact of the ministry on the congregation as a whole.
A fifth, and less common, approach to recovery ministry is for a local congregation to operate or identify with a long-term residential treatment program. The Salvation Army has a number of congregations which are connected with half-way houses or other facilities for long term care. Many rescue missions have developed special relationships with local congregations that also serve this function. A lot of good work remains to be done to adapt this kind of strategy to congregations in a variety of social and cultural settings but it can be a particular effective way for a local church to invest in recovery.
The Recovery-friendly Church
It is important to emphasize that congregations need not have ‘recovery programs’ to be actively supportive of recovery. A congregation that ‘does grace’ instead of shame in all of its affairs will be profoundly helpful to people in recovery even though it lacks support groups or other elements of recovery programming. I once encouraged a pastor who did not think it was possible to develop a recovery ministry in his congregation to change the way he did the ‘welcome’ at the beginning of each worship service. This was the smallest part of the worship service and the part he thought would be easiest to change. His assignment was to welcome the people who actually came to church. One Sunday, for example, he said “I know that many people who come to this church experienced very abusive childhoods and that sometimes an experience like that makes it difficult to come to church later on in life. If that fits your situation, I want to particularly thank you for coming today. I appreciate your trust and value your participation.” That’s all he did. The effect was profound. Without inventing new programs he was soon well on his way to reshaping the congregation into a place both safe for and helpful to people in recovery. Learning to tell the truth was the key. It is the heart of all recovery. And it will be at the heart of any local church that wishes to be involved in recovery ministry.
Another approach to being a “recovery-friendly” congregation without developing recovery programming is to become an information resource for people who need recovery resources. If when you walk into a church you get a list of all of the resources available in the community for people who are recovering from addiction, abuse or trauma–people will notice that. It sends a powerful message: You don”t have to be “well” to be a part of this congregation. We are all struggling. And that”s okay. This is a safe place to seek progress not perfection.”
The Church in Recovery
In the United States there are increasing numbers of people who are not satisfied with having a church with a couple of “bridge” Twelve Step groups or even a Recovery Department. They want everything about the congregation to be about recovery. The worship. The missions program. The children”s educational program. Everything. There are not yet many examples of congregations who have taken this approach. In this model, ‘recovery’ becomes the central paradigm of the congregation. Participation in recovery becomes as much a part of ‘doing church’ as participation in worship services–in some cases (following Wesley!) participation in recovery groups may be a prerequisite for participation in large group meetings. A good example of this might be several Salvation Army treatment programmes that have recently planted churches for the graduates of their programme. They just could not find appropriate churches to send their graduate to, so they have started to build their own. It is still too early, or so it seems to me, to know how effective this approach to recovery ministry will be. I suspect we may need to make more mistakes in this direction before we know how to do it well! This is a kind of strategy that it works best, of course, in church planting situtations rather than trying to subvert the strategy of an existing church.
I hope this very brief overview has been helpful. May God grant you the serenity you need this day.