On January 1, 2018, the West-Ark congregation realized a vision we had worked toward for over a decade. We began our Celebrate Recovery program that night. Eight months into the process, this program has blessed me and has been an opportunity to minister to other in Christ’s name.
Charles Siburt was the first person to suggest to me that 12-step recovery programs and the church might be a good fit. This was about the same time that the Saddleback Church initiated the Celebrate Recovery program. About 25 years later, many churches have embraced various types of recovery programs. Here are five reasons I believe the church and 12-step recovery groups are a good fit.
- Twelve-step groups are leadership factories. Please do not mistake this observation as a suggestion for using recovery groups as an indirect means of boosting membership. I have observed churches attempt this, and it tends to fail. Rather, the development of leaders and contributors to the life of the church and the kingdom of heaven is embedded in the code of the 12 steps. The final step in the program encourages the people in recovery to continue their recovery by “practice[ing] these principles in all our affairs.” It makes sense that people who have experienced victory over crushing addictions, destructive habits, and negative thinking would want to share this with others. The ones I have met can no longer settle for being “pew-warmers.” They want in the game.
- Twelve-step groups give support but they do not attempt to fix people. Charles Siburt used the writings of Edwin Friedman (among others) to avoid the temptation of applying “quick fixes” in ministry. The care of souls is far too complex to be fixed so simply. Discipleship looks like a process and involves people living in a community that runs counter to the ways of the world. Celebrate Recovery includes five guidelines that are read before every small group meeting. The third of these states: “We are here to support one another, not fix one another. This keeps us focused on our own issues.” (I can hear Charlie at this point saying, “Manage yourself!”)
- Twelve-step groups bring structure to the process of repentance. I wonder if Protestants ever came up with a successful alternative to the sacrament of penance and reconciliation. The practice of “going forward before the congregation” (a.k.a. The Walk of Shame) was reserved for sins of a public nature (whatever that meant). Twelve-step programs treat very seriously the matter of confession and making amends, and they provide the support and encouragement to do so without reducing these to institutional procedures. Step five states: “We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.” James 5:16 is often connected to this step: “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” Notice that the result of confession is more than forgiveness; it is healing. I believe that includes the mending of communal injuries and the restoration of sound thinking and living.
- Twelve-step groups create a truthful community. We swim through a culture of lies and dishonesty. Even the best of us are conditioned to put up a good front. The expenditure of this energy is exhausting. Recovery groups thrive on the principle that the truth sets us free (John 8:32). Hiding from the truth, deceiving ourselves, and masking our feelings are sources of anxiety and spiritual/mental damage. What we need is a truthful community that is dedicated to speaking and hearing the truth.
- Twelve-step groups are NOT the church. And this is a great reason why the church should support them. One of the common fears of churches is that 12-step programs will become a substitute for the church. This fear fails to understand the nature of church or 12-step groups. It also avoids real problems that need to be addressed. For instance, if a church fears that people will find more acceptance, less judgment, and more encouragement in a 12-step group than in church worship, maybe the problem is not the 12-step group. Sometimes we are reluctant to admit that the leaven of the Pharisees is expanding among our church family. But if it is, why not embrace people who are learning how to manage their own reactions and overcome sins of pride and self-righteousness in the structure of a 12-step program? That attitude will carry over to the church.
Chris Benjamin is the preaching minister for the WestArk Church of Christ in Fort Smith, Arkansas. He previously served as preaching minister for the Lake Jackson Church of Christ in Lake Jackson, Texas, and campus minister for the CCSC on the campus of Arkansas Tech University. Benjamin earned his D.Min. and M.Div. from ACU and his B.A. from the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville, where he and his wife Karen were involved in the Razorbacks for Christ campus ministry. They have two sons, Wyatt and Ethan. When he is not restoring some portion of his 50- year-old house, Chris enjoys a good story told well—no matter if it is a novel, comic strip, movie, or comedian.