“My name is James and I am an addict.” I have said this countless times in meetings since I first entered recovery from heroin addiction on June 6th 2000. Since then I have moved on in victories with many personal struggles, first drugs and alcohol, then tobacco, candy, and caffeine among others that are more personal. As a drug baby, I was literally born without “a clean date” and it seems I was destined to struggle with the obsessions and compulsions of addiction my entire life. Even now, I am trying to lose weight through dieting, which is simply the next phase of an endless lifelong “jihad” against an inner compass that always points toward self-destruction and is always in need of God’s grace.
N.A., Celebrate Recovery, and now most recently, A.A., have been a welcome addition to my life. I found God directly as the result of a 12 step program, and even its vague theology of “God as I understand Him” was a huge step in the right direction for a former atheist. I found “the program” lost in pride and rebelliousness, moved into a life saving legalism, and eventually discovered the grace of God; a grace displayed wonderfully and powerfully in the person of Jesus Christ. Soon after my experience of “rock bottom” in a potentially fatal overdose, I began going to church at a Quaker meeting with my parents. There I found a greater depth of spiritual journey, a path that has lead me to many mystical experiences and times of palpable encounters with God’s grace. At church, my view of spiritual success and failure grew beyond the fatalism of many recovery groups. The simply standard of whether or not I had made it through another day clean and sober slowly became not good enough to guide my life. Then the impossible standards set by Jesus on the Sermon on the Mount, and the law of love guided by the Holy Spirit, helped my heart to grow and change in ways I had not yet begun to imagine.
Since these two spheres—AA and church—had a great many connections, I felt very comfortable in the great gray area between them. There was always this tension though. On the one hand, the people at A.A. and N.A. were often visibly uncomfortable with the language of my experience. I learned quickly that referring to my “Higher Power” as Jesus in a recovery meeting could be a barrier to relationships. Some people were outright hostile toward “organized religion” of any kind. On the other hand, I also learned that many people in the church simply could not relate to my experience with recovery. It seemed they did not often struggle in the same areas I did, or share any of my experiences growing up outside the church in a world of drugs, violence, and poverty. It often seemed that they didn’t struggle at all. While I knew many church people’s lives were not perfect, some pretended to be. And scarier yet, some shone brightly—walking so closely with God in ways I could not then imagine. These great souls were deep wells, but as I walked among this new herd, I was constantly made aware of my lack of innocence. You cannot erase some memories, even if you spent a large portion of your life in a drugged out fog. But, the people of the church loved me genuinely, despite a huge communication barrier. Love shone through regardless of different roots and experiences.
So much has changed in my life from who I was when I walked into my first meeting, whether that be A.A, N.A, or Quaker. Now after serving as a youth pastor with another denomination for four years and recently coming back into the Quaker fold I have come to appreciate many a thing new and old about this strange and welcoming branch of the church. With graduating from college and coming back to my hometown, I also began attending A.A. again as well.
As a seminarian preparing to serve one day as a released Friends minister, I see things a little differently than I did at the beginning of my journey of faith and recovery. For starters, to many people A.A. is their church. This is a little uncomfortable to me. I do not go to A.A. to proselytize, but as one who studies religion, it is hard to miss the “cultishness” of this particular “spiritual program.” A.A has its own form of discipleship, its own form of righteousness, and a book people look to for answers in the exact way many Christians search their Bible. Moreover, A.A. has its own kind of “salvation” (a daily reprieve of addiction through conscious contact with a Higher Power) and its own kind of gospel message (to carry the message of A.A. to the alcoholic who still suffers). I do not say these things to knock A.A. from some vantage point of spiritual “superiority” or to accuse it of being a cult. As I mentioned earlier, I will be forever grateful for the way the program put me in a place of “conscious contact with God.” But one can only spend so much time studying Christianity and hanging out with other Christians and going to A.A. meetings before you start to see a lot of similarities. Some people “preach” when they share in an A.A. meeting. Some people cite the A.A. Big Book by page number the same way I do when I am arguing biblically for a certain theology or practice. Like Paul at Mars Hill, I often feel I am surrounded by people who are very religious and yet do not yet recognize the “Unknown God” within their midst.
This similarity make sense for many reasons, first among them is that Bill W. (the founder of A.A.), was inspired by a spiritual encounter with God through the work of a Christian ministry called the Oxford Group. Bill actually said in his book that we who struggle with addiction would do well to “look at where religious people are right.” The fact is, the spiritual principles that undergird the 12 steps all have their roots in the Bible, whether Bill realized it or not. This is well illustrated in the literature of Celebrate Recovery, a Christ centered 12 step program that is also based on 8 spiritual principles from the Beatitudes:
Celebrate Recovery 12 Steps and Biblical Comparisons
1. We admitted we were powerless over our addictions and compulsive behaviors, that our lives had become unmanageable.
- “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.” Romans 7:18
2. We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
- “For it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” Philippians 2:13
3. We made a decision to turn our lives and our wills over to the care of God.
- “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship.” Romans 12:1
4. We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
- “Let us examine our ways and test them, and let us return to the Lord.” Lamentations 3:40
5. We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
- “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” James 5:16
6. We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
- “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.” James 4:10
7. We humbly asked Him to remove all our shortcomings.
- “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:9
8. We made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
- “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Luke 6:31
9. We made direct amends to such people whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
- “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.” Matthew 5:23-24
10. We continue to take personal inventory and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
- “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” 1 Corinthians 10:12
11. We sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, praying only for knowledge of His will for us, and power to carry that out.
- “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” Colossians 3:16
12. Having had a spiritual experience as the result of these steps, we try to carry this message to others and practice these principles in all our affairs.
- “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore them gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.” Galatians 6:1
Many of the things that A.A. does so well it actually borrowed from the church. The problem is for me as a Christian is sometimes A.A. seems to do these borrowed things better than the church does them. There is a certain freedom and nimbleness to knowing what your purpose is, and developing a framework to keep your organization on track, spiritual or otherwise. A.A. seems to have stripped things down and made them very simple, and also made sure to communicate them to everyone and always. A.A. has its own liturgy, and a part of that liturgy involves communicating the purpose of A.A. itself. The actual guiding principles of an A.A. group are the 12 “Traditions,” which operate as the loose philosophical framework behind the program. They function almost as the constitution for the individual groups. In between each one I will comment on what the church would gain, if any, from readopting some of these philosophical principals in our church praxis:
- Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon A.A. unity.
Before the members of the body should be asking for responsibilities (like serving on committees), or using their gifts (leading, teaching, preaching or doing outreach), the primary emphasis should be on spiritual growth and living in vibrant relationship with God. It is not enough that someone be gifted, or measure up to some kind of performance based assessment. Many of these things are surface level. It is not enough that someone can jump through the right hoops with the right timing or “do the job” well. More important is that they are actually growing in relationship and learning to walk in holiness. In the church, we can often see people as cogs in a big worship machine. This is unfortunate, because it perpetuates selfishness. Rather than looking first at the spiritual growth of others, we look at things like charisma, organizational skills, and willingness to serve, as we try to put people in slots of service for our benefit. It is not merely skill, or even love for the church, that we should look at when we look at empowering people to lead. It is calling. The Bible is frankly full of screwed up people who were called to lead. Few of them were qualified. It was their relationship with God that pushed them into service. We would do well to put more of an emphasis on the mystical nature of calling and relationship than to dwell as we do on the sheer pragmatics of how we perceive the church should best function. It is not about what we like, but what God wants, and who God is calling to serve and how.
- For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority—a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.
I cannot help but feel that my particular denomination, the Quakers, has really kept this principle alive better than most. I am struck by how similar “group conscience” and something like the Friends understanding of “business as worship” complement each other. For the most part, I feel we do this well. Pastors, elders, and laity are not really titles or a hierarchy, These things are simply functions of a priesthood of all believers.
- The only requirement for A.A. membership is a desire to stop drinking.
Most churches seem to have adopted a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy toward sin. This often leads people to one of two extremes: either toward the idea that we are no longer sinners who need God’s grace, or toward hypocritically holding people who do not know God to the impossible standards we may only live into by God’s grace and with His power. Worse yet, we shoot our wounded when they come for help. This principle reminds us that perfect sinlessness (or at least the ability to put on that show) is not a requirement for membership. As sinners who need a Savior, we cannot acts as guardians of legalism. Errors of belief or action are important, but we should be in the business of building bridges and not barricades. Without room for honesty and transparency, we are enslaved to wearing masks. We need a safe place for confession and doubt if we will find true healing and community. I love the saying “the church should look more like a hospital for sinners than a hotel for saints.” The people we want the least to be in our church might just be the people who need to be there the most. These prodigals remind us of our tendency to be “the older brother,” yet God loves us both the same. If all we benefitted from was the being reminded of this fact, that would be blessing enough, but of course there is probably a great deal more than that at play. It might be time to act as though that is true, and stop trying to find reasons to exclude people.
- Each group (or church) should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or A.A. as a whole.
This seems reasonable… not all churches function the same way. There is no one “right” way that fits every group. Instead of trying to force a mega church model on a group of 200 or less, perhaps we would do well to let our own organic giftings and size of group inform us how we particularly function as a “cell” in the body. Instead of being “hands” jealous we are not “eyes” let’s just be the best hands (or toenails or whatever) we can be. One church’s leadership may function better as elder lead, or pastor lead, or a more congregationally lead. When it comes to function, Christ is the head, but how He moves through us is not set in stone. Let each group find their own identity in Christ and function best as who they are, not as how some trendy program or trendy church tells them to.
- Each group has but one primary purpose—to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.
The church likewise should get back to its mission of carrying the gospel, and break through its tendency toward a lack of compassion, fear, and selfishness. This is the primary purpose of the church. Jesus did not say “Go ye unto all the world and set up worship services” or “go ye unto the world and build buildings” or “form non-profits.” I am not saying we should all rush out and get sandwich board signs and bullhorns, or tactlessly cram the gospel down stranger’s throats, but we are no longer known for the gospel. We are known for our opinions on same sex marriage. We are known for what we believe about abortion. We are not known for compassionately carrying the message of Jesus. We are not generally know for caring for the poor. This is not right at all. It is great to give money to a missionary in Africa, that is good. But how about personally building a relationship with someone on our block who does not know Jesus? We tend to suck at that collectively… and that is why we are all supposed to be here. This is not the rotary club, or some other benign organization where you just pledge the right words and shake each others hands, and do good things in our communities. We are the church of the Living God, who steward the most powerful message of hope and reconciliation the world has ever known. Let’s stop putting our light under a bucket. Let’s use it to help others find their way out of the darkness. It is not about the music or the carpet, or whether we are “programmed” or “unprogrammed” as Quakers. It is time to get back to reaching those outside the church instead of spending all our time and resources toward the comfort of those within. The truth is our budgets often reveal we are more concerned about keeping the church air conditioner running than looking out for the spiritual needs of even our actual, next door neighbors.
- An A.A. group ought never endorse, finance, or lend the A.A. name to any related facility or outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property, and prestige divert us from our primary purpose.
Again, let’s strip away any distractions from our primary purpose of sharing the Gospel.
- Every A.A. group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.
We are all supposed to give as we are able, and do so cheerfully. How you do that is between you and God, but giving should not be considered optional or taken lightly. The church is not to be a peddler of religious goods and services, but neither should it be controlled by a wealthy few because of neglect. As Jesus said, where your treasure is your heart is also. We should look often at our checkbooks for signs of what we worship, or even signs of our idolatry.
- Alcoholics Anonymous should remain forever non-professional, but our service centers may employ special workers.
We are all ministers, but there is nothing wrong with employing “special workers” to make the harvest even more fruitful. This is the AA counterpart to “the priesthood of all believers.” I could long lament the professionalization of ministry, even as I attend seminary and discern where God is leading me to answer my own call to ministry. I love my Quaker tradition’s attempt at navigating this balance, called “releasing someone to ministry.” It is a healthy framework from which to navigate the unhealthiness that comes from either putting paid ministers up on a pedestal, or questioning their call and motives simply because they spend more time doing a certain work to which they are called, and need financial help to carry that work on.
- A.A., as such, ought never be organized; but we may create service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve.
I think Friends (Quakers) also do this well, though as with any long standing structure, at certain points the form can be tempted to replace the function. I look at the trellis as a metaphorical example of how structure and organics are supposed to relate to one another. The vine is supported so that it can be even more fruitful. We are called to be a whole body. The skeleton exists to support the vital organs and flesh. We need both for health and life. We are not simply to be cogs in a “worship machine.” When things change, we need to “listen to the body” and adapt to what is needed. Not simply push people into slots (hey how about serving on the X committee?) simply because we have always done things a certain way and need fresh meat for the grinder.
- Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the A.A. name ought never be drawn into public controversy.
I think we in the church could learn from this. As a church, we are called to be known by what we love—what we stand for—more than what we stand against. There are a lot of hurting people out there who need to hear the gospel a lot more than what you and I think of Romney’s or Obama’s economic plans, or whether or not we think global warming is real. Abortion and same sex marriage should not be the first things that pop into people’s minds when they hear the word Christian. It is true that many were martyred in church history for “having opinions on outside issues” like whether or not to worship the emperor. I do not want to minimize the sacrifice of faithful people who speak truth to power or boldly proclaim the gospel with their final breath. It seems to me though, that the greater danger in our day however has to do with not losing the authenticity of the gospel by, for instance, not becoming the pawns of lobby groups or political parties. In our day, time, and culture, perhaps it is time to take a step back from some of these things and not engage in controversy for its own sake. In an age when some are defining themselves as Christians by something as silly as buying a sandwich at Chick-Fil-A, we might want to take some of what Bill Wilson had in mind when he wrote this word of caution.
- Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, and films.
Honestly, I am fine with promotion. What bothers me is our tendency toward Christian consumerism. Do we really want to surround ourselves with an impenetrable bubble of Christian alternatives to contemporary culture? If all your friends, school, music, concerts, and movies are Christian (or Quaker), I think that is a bad sign. It is easy a slippery slope to singing along with our favorite musicians as we drive past a homeless person on the way back to our gated communities. I am not against Christian movies, schools, or music per se. But let’s face it, Christian radio exists to sell Christian concert tickets, t-shirts, and music. People make Christian movies to make money and not just as a tent making exercise. We should not look at pushing Christian entertainment as an actual ministry, these are peripheral cultural things. We can dress ourselves head to toe with clothes bearing Christian artists and slogans, or let a culture war play out in chrome fish on our bumper, but what we really need is to be salt and light in this world, not trapped in the economics of making a Christian parallel dimension for our kids to grow up in.
- Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.
In some ways this has to do with our identity. As Christians, we get our identities from Christ. Anonymity speaks of a world without labels, where people can safely grow. “Principals before personalities” reminds us that it is not our really cool pastor, or Christian author we are reading that shapes our identities, but Christ. We are to foster these things, things like being a safe place for newcomers and not developing “cults of personality,” in order to protect the true function of our group. We exist to serve those outside and grow those inside, to be like spiritual ushers to help people find their place in the family of God.
There are many more connections between the church (especially the Quaker branch), and AA. But here are just a few things A.A. borrowed from us it is time to take back and put to good use. I have been formed deeply by A.A. groups and they share a lot of wisdom collectively. There are bad things too, but let’s focus on A.A. at its best. There are many other things that could be said about my experience, and other areas I could have elaborated on, but this is enough for now. Have you shared a similar experience of following Jesus through the twelve steps? Are you a Quaker in A.A. or N.A. who has also pondered these things? Please share your experience, strength, and hope in the comments below. As I mentioned early on in this post, it can be isolating to walk as a Christian in recovery. Often those in the church do not understand addiction and those in the program do not understand the spiritual journeys of those who follow Christ. Do you?