The 12-Stepping Church

By Dan C. Gilliam

The 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous began when the organization’s cofounders, a New York stockbroker and an Akron physician, discovered that focusing on a Bible study group’s faith-building techniques helped curtail their desire for alcohol.

Bill Wilson, the stockbroker, had been sober for a few months but was perilously close to taking a drink when he randomly called church phone numbers from a hotel lobby in search of a minister who might know of an alcoholic in need of help. A minister put him in touch with Henrietta Sieberling, a member of the Oxford Group, a nondenominational Bible study group that had a simple, direct method of leading people to New Testament Christianity. She convinced a family friend, Bob Smith, to meet with Wilson for 15 minutes.

Over a period of months they remained sober by continually surrendering to God, confessing their sins, making restitution for harms done, and working with other alcoholics. Through this process they discovered alcoholics are more likely to hear a message of recovery from one of their own kind, and that the process helped relieve all involved from the obsession for alcohol.

Wilson and Smith decided God had given them a gift to share with the world. The date of Smith’s last drink, June 10, 1935, is the birthday of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Spiritual Awakening

Around 1939, and now with 100 sober members, Bill Wilson and others decided it was time to put into print the AA formula. The book, Alcoholics Anonymous, gave special attention to the language describing the recovery program. Alcoholics tend to be of an agnostic temperament when they reach the place where they are ready for help, so it was determined the book’s 12 steps needed to be written with spiritual language rather than religious.

While it was clear a spiritual awakening was required for an alcoholic to achieve sobriety, it was up to each member to find his or her own concept of a “higher power.” This principle of “God as we understood him” made room for non-Christians, agnostics, and even atheists to experience the miracle of recovery without first having to convert to a religion or embrace a particular perspective of God. Experience shows that, in time, many recovering alcoholics return to the churches of their youth as faithful members and testimonies of God’s grace, but many of these people would not likely have enjoyed this opportunity were AA a religious program.

In recent times, the church has shown interest in the Scripture-influenced 12 steps. By now, many preachers in America have delivered a sermon series on the 12 steps, and many congregations are forming Christian recovery ministries. The church is seizing the opportunity to bring the gospel to a stream of hurting people filing through her doors.

Though the church is still learning how to best utilize the 12 steps, her twofold goals are noble and attainable: (1) offer real solutions for suffering alcoholics, addicts, and their families; and (2) assist spiritually and emotionally bound Christ-followers in finding a deeper spiritual path.

Autonomous, Anonymous

The 12 steps are a time-tested tool of spiritual restoration designed to help people with addictive temperaments to cease destructive behavior and grow toward an honest and effective relationship with God. The steps are also capable of facilitating healthy relationships by focusing on biblical principles such as deflation, surrender, confession, forgiveness, prayer, meditation, and service. Attempts by the church to discourage participation in 12-step fellowships (usually with the disclaimer that they are not “Christian”) can only hinder the alcoholic’s or addict’s chances for long-term sobriety and a consistency of spiritual living.

Since Jesus said, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost,” we can conclude that wherever people gather with the intention of seeking God as best they know how, Christ is among them making contact with these seekers. In Matthew 25, Jesus said how we treat “the least of these” is how we treat him.

Effective church recovery ministries know the importance of a comprehensive and balanced philosophy that includes encouraging addicts and alcoholics to regularly attend autonomous 12-step groups and work the program with the help of a sponsor, one day at a time. Many Christians, having seen remarkable transformations firsthand, believe 12-step fellowships are nothing less than an anonymous arm of Christ’s church, exposing agnostics, atheists, and pre-Christians to the life-changing gospel without some of the more religious aspects that could close their minds to God.

It is no coincidence many 12-step groups meet at night, gather in basements, and enter the church building through the back door. Much like Nicodemus in his covert encounter with Jesus, many among us are meeting God in places they did not expect to find him.

A Unique Opportunity

Most people in recovery discover an interest in expanding their relationships with God at Step 11, which states, “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood him, praying only for the knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.” The alcoholic or addict, having witnessed a supernatural transformation at this point, often turns to the church for answers, guidance, and a deeper understanding of who has saved him or her from certain destruction. It is at this juncture that the church has a unique opportunity to offer something significant to the alcoholic or addict that reaches beyond the boundaries of the 12-step program:

Prayer and meditation—Most American adults were raised with a sense of God and some exposure to Christianity. While many addicts have gone astray, during recovery many of these folks regain interest in reclaiming the God experiences of their youth. A worship gathering designed with the recovering person in mind can be appealing and effective. If this service, organized by maturing believers active in 12-step groups, is seasoned by an atmosphere of acceptance and authenticity, it will provide a comfortable environment for those desiring re-entry into the institutional church and help them to grow in their understanding of and participation in the body of Christ.

Traditional and contemporary models of church services, while effective and meaningful for many people, tend to be too “churchy” for some 12-steppers. Spiritual gatherings that appeal to addicts and alcoholics are relaxed and real. A worship service that allows time and space for prayer, meditation, quiet reflection, and creative expression will go a long way toward welcoming the recovering community into the mainstream life of the church. In time, this 11th Step gathering will be attractive to people of all walks of life, particularly young adults searching for fresh and creative opportunities for connecting with God.

Study and fellowship—Many churches have built successful Christian 12-step programs that serve as bridges to sobriety and salvation. Like autonomous 12-step fellowships, these gatherings give addicts and alcoholics the opportunity to connect with God and others like them who have experienced extreme brokenness and are willing to talk about it. Those who attend church-sponsored meetings enjoy the opportunity to fellowship with others who have identified their “higher power” as Jesus Christ and to seek guidance from God through Bible-based teaching and worship.

Several churches could come together and share resources to offer a single service of this type. Leaders of various ministries in town could meet regularly to talk about how to best support one another in their common goals of reaching out to suffering addicts and alcoholics. One church could develop an 11th Step contemplative gathering while another might offer a book study specifically for those in recovery. Another church could have a weekly meeting where people tell their stories of how working the 12 steps has brought them the miracle of sobriety and strengthened their Christian faith. Yet another church could be the primary organizer of service opportunities for those in recovery.

Service and outreach—Step 12 states that “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others and to practice these principles in all our affairs.” This is another point at which the church can intersect the lives of her 12-stepping members by providing additional and significant opportunities to serve. Self-centeredness is a root problem of addictions, so serving others is the pathway to freedom and a God-reliant life. Serving others also helps us become more like Christ, whose ministry intersected the lives of people who were sick, poor, and outcast.

God has designed life to be complete only when we dedicate ourselves to serving the needs of others. Step 12 is the point when the recovering addict becomes aware of the gift of gratitude and begins to thank God for the trouble and pain that have brought him to this place of surrender and grace. This is also the point at which he becomes aware of the need to share with others the possibility of recovery.

Ministries to prisons, jails, and hospitals are a perfect fit for people who have found their relationship with God through recovery. Reaching out to help those who suffer is a necessary part of the process for those willing to go to any lengths to seek God and stay sober. Can we be any closer to Christ than when we serve the lost and hurting, the hungry and homeless as his hands and feet?



Dan Gilliam is minister of meditation and prayer at LifeBridge Christian Church, Longmont, Colorado.

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