“You guys are having so much fun, I’m thinking about taking up drinking,” I said with a grin to the cheerful group beginning to gather in our church’s sanctuary. It was noon on a weekday and this group of recovering alcoholics and addicts was about to start an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting at Peace Community Church (PCC) in Houston, Texas.
In the mid-1990’s our founding pastor (Rev. Robert Westenbroek) opened the church’s doors to the recovery community. Today there are eighteen AA meetings held each week in our facilities. If you’re wondering, we do charge rent. This helps the church’s budget and is part of AA’s tradition of remaining independent of “. . . any sect, denomination, politics, organization or institution” (A.A. Preamble. Copyright © The AA Grapevine, Inc.).
During the thirteen years I have been PCC’s pastor, I have come to know and love many of the members of this community, especially those who attend the noon meetings on weekdays in the sanctuary, just outside my office door. Some of them have joined or attend our church.
THE LITURGY OF AA
The rhythm of my work week is punctuated by the liturgy of AA meetings: the subdued and reverent Serenity Prayer, the formularies that outline AA’s 12 Steps and Traditions which are read (sometimes beautifully, sometimes stumblingly) each meeting, the broken and tearful acknowledgements of failure and lapse, the loud laughter of captives set free (Ps 126). These folks know how to laugh at themselves and with each other! They cheer each other on, something I think we ought to do more of in the church.
But I’ve had questions, especially at first: How does this program “work” without any acknowledgement of the atoning death and justifying resurrection of Jesus Christ? What is the relationship between the Gospel and the recovery movement? How are these people growing “along spiritual lines” (an AA phrase) without proper doctrine? Why do many of them attend several meetings a week (or more) when we are hard-pressed to encourage a healthy proportion of our church members to attend even one extra meeting a week, outside of the Sunday worship service?
These are important questions and I don’t have completely satisfying answers for any of them. There are, however, a few things I’ve learned along the way.
For one thing, it has gradually dawned on me that many of my questions arise from the spirit of the “older brother” in the parable of the Prodigal Son. You remember him, right? He was as lost at home as the young brother was in the “far country.” The attitude of the older brother is censorious, judgmental and shot through with envy. Not a good place from which to evaluate a movement like AA!
One thing that has surprised me the most is the Christ-centered ministry of many Christian recovering alcoholics. It’s true that during the hour long AA meetings participants are generally not allowed to be very specific about naming Jesus Christ as their “higher power,” but in private ministry (called “sponsorship”) with individuals – there are no such restrictions. They freely quote Scripture to their “sponsees.” They name Jesus as their Lord. They emphasize that being forgiven empowers one to forgive others. After all, forgiving and seeking forgiveness from others is an essential aspect of recovery – according to the 12 Steps of AA.
Is this sneaky? Is it contrary to the principles of AA? I don’t believe so. I’ve come to think of AA in these terms: It’s like Paul meeting on Mars Hill to discuss how to stay sober. The spirituality there is broadly inclusive; what is shared in common (“an unknown god”) is acknowledged. But after the meeting breaks up, the name of Jesus breaks in! Through the witness of Christian alcoholics in recovery some come to realize that the loving, gracious, patient, sovereign God left unnamed in the public setting of AA meetings turns out to bear a remarkable resemblance to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. This makes sense, given that AA has its historical roots in a Christian renewal experience called the Oxford Movement.
Along the way I have learned some things about AA, beautiful things, encouraging things. But I have also learned things from AA.
For example, at PCC we practice something called “Table Fellowship” (TF). Table Fellowship consists of small groups that meet after the worship service. Unlike traditional Sunday School, the emphasis in TF is on the scriptures read and the sermon preached in the service – just minutes before the group gathers. There is a shared experience of Word and Sacrament that is fresh. Everyone is a beginner again, but just as in an AA meeting, the more mature are able to gently encourage the newcomers and learn from them. Knowledge helps, but is not the main thing, as it sometimes can be in an adult Sunday School class.
There’s another element of Table Fellowship that we borrow from AA. Every TF meeting begins with reading aloud the “Seven C’s.” This simple liturgical act helps focus the purpose and spirit of the TF meetings. The shy are encouraged to participate; those who might talk too often are reminded to listen more. Spiritual formation is happening both intellectually and liturgically. This insight came through the steady process of overhearing thousands of AA meetings.
A THORNY ISSUE
One of the most painful things I have learned from listening to people in recovery is how often they say their experiences in churches did not help them overcome their addictions. In fact, sometimes they felt shamed and condemned in the church – an experience that exacerbated their drinking and drugging problems.
This is a thorny issue, in my opinion. Did the churches really lay the guilt on that thick with no relief through Christ? Maybe some did. Or did the message of the Gospel fall on ears that had yet to be opened through the crisis and trauma of feeling, as the “Big Book” of AA says, “powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.” We may never know.
But some things I do know: Alcoholics Anonymous has been a gift from God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) to many people who would otherwise be dead. And where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And that our congregation and I have been richly blessed through our association with the recovering alcoholics and addicts who pass through our church doors seven days a week. We thank God for Alcoholics Anonymous!