by Dale Ryan
There are certainly a lot of people who find it difficult to imagine at all. Many of us learned early in life that church was not a safe place to tell the truth about what was going on in our lives–not a safe place to be real. If from an early age we practiced the social dynamics of “How are you?” “Fine, thanks,” then telling the truth at church may seem difficult if not impossible to do. If looking good or having a good testimony was what was really valued, then we will have to learn a completely different way of doing church. The reason for that is pretty obvious: Without honesty no recovery is possible. Learning to do church in ways that encourage and support us to tell the truth about ourselves can be an extremely important part of the recovery journey.
Unfortunately, there are still many, many churches that are just not safe places for people in recovery. There are many congregations where the dominant response to any kind of real-life struggle is still “If you really trusted God enough, you’d be better by now.” The most difficult struggles of life are all too often dismissed with simple platitudes such as “Have you prayed about it?” or “If you are not feeling close to God, guess who moved?” These exercises in shame and blame do not help anybody. And they communicate in direct ways that this place is not safe.
It is also clear to me that many congregations are reasonably safe places for people in recovery on Thursday nights or Friday nights at the recovery group meeting but are still unsafe places for people in recovery on Sunday mornings. The marginalization of recovery ministry in many churches means that people in recovery are viewed as people with “special problems.” Until the culture of truth telling, which is essential to recovery and is so fundamentally Christian, has an impact on congregations as a whole, people in recovery will continue to find it difficult to become full participants in the life of a congregation.
It is easy enough to get depressed (or angry) about the culture of dishonesty that is so common in local churches. But when I think about recovery within the church, I find it necessary to remember that there are also many support groups that are not safe places for people in recovery either. There are Twelve Step groups that have become little more than a forum for the repetitious recital of old drunk-a-logs. And there are also lots of therapists’ offices that are not safe places for people in recovery. Sometimes the places that ought to be the safest are just not safe at all. So the local church is not unique here. It is not just the local church that can be a problem rather than a help to our recovery journey. All human institutions can get in the way.
Recovery is a difficult and dangerous journey, and all of us must do the work of recovery in environments that are sometimes unfriendly or even hostile. It is just not possible to find a perfect environment in which to recover. Ain’t gonna happen. And of course, if we did find a perfect environment in which to do our recovery work, we would have brought along with us all of our baggage and it would soon become obvious that the place was not as safe as we had hoped. Wherever we go, there we are. So while it is perfectly fair to experience frustration when we find a lack of understanding about recovery at church, it would be a mistake to think we need a perfect church in which to recover. We don’t. We don’t need a perfect support group either. We don’t need a perfect therapist. We don’t need a perfect sponsor. We don’t need a perfect church.
Actually, at least on my good days, I have found myself being incredibly optimistic recently about the progress that the recovery movement has made in the Christian community. A professor at a major American seminary — not someone teaching pastoral care courses or personally involved in recovery — recently told me that he felt that having a recovery ministry had rapidly become a basic essential for any evangelical church. That is a huge change in perception about recovery. I have thought a lot about his comment. No one would have said this a decade ago. No one. But God has been busy. Thousands of churches have started recovery ministries. Many others are eager to do so but don’t know how. A recovery ministry is certainly not yet thought to be as essential to a local church as a Sunday School program, but it is certainly on the map in a way that I for one could not have imagined a decade ago. And that is very good news. If we focus on progress rather than perfection, I think it is fair to say there has been an enormous amount of positive change taking place in the Christian community. I know this may be a very small comfort indeed if your own congregation still seems hostile to recovery. And all of us have days when the glass seems half-empty rather than half-full. But the history of the recovery movement is full of remarkable examples of God bringing grace and truth into situations where it seems like shame and denial have dominated. That’s just the kind of thing God seems to love doing–both in our individual lives and in our congregations.
The local church has, of course, been intimately involved with the recovery movement from the very beginnings. A.A. was not created out of nothing. The early A.A. groups did not think of themselves as a separate organization. Participants understood themselves to be attending Oxford Group meetings, and attendance at a local church was assumed to be a helpful part of recovery. It took several years before A.A. left the umbrella of the Oxford Group; some A.A. groups left more quickly than others. It is impossible to imagine what A.A. or N.A. or any of the existing Twelve Step fellowships would be like today if they had not been supported and encouraged by thousands of local churches.
Today there is an enormous amount of creativity in the Christian recovery movement. People are trying lots of new strategies, new approaches to old problems. Recovery ministries have formed in churches from a wide range of theological traditions, everything from jump-and-shout charismatic churches to stay-in-your-pews Presbyterian churches. No two churches seem to do recovery ministry in exactly the same way. I am convinced that, to be effective, a recovery ministry must be adapted to the specific traditions, values and vision of a local faith community. There doesn’t seem to me to be a one-size-fits-all design that will work effectively in every church.
One of the more interesting developments in the last few years has been the emergence of churches where recovery is central to the life of the congregation. Each congregation of this kind is different. As the interview with Jo Campe in this issue of STEPS illustrates, the process of becoming a “recovery church” or a recovery-friendly church is often full of surprises.
God is not finished yet. Not with me. Not with you. And not with the church.