“I was sick and you looked after me.”
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By Nate Graybill
“I’m one of ‘those people.’ Hypocrite. Liar. Addict.” This admission was a moment of rigorous honesty that changed my life. It came after hours of bingeing on my drug of choice. More afraid of where my habit was leading me than of being exposed, I woke up my wife and said, “Honey, I need to tell you something. I’m addicted to porn. I need help.” I finally accepted the fact that I was not powerful enough to control my sin.
Broken and afraid of losing my marriage, I was willing to try anything to heal. My wife suggested we tell our pastor. I was skeptical. Our church, Watermark Community Church, was less than a year old. Growing up a pastor’s kid, I knew church could be a risky place to talk about personal struggles, but out of desperation, I agreed.
The Power of Community and Confession
After discussing my struggle with our pastor, Todd Wagner, we asked if he could point us to help from another couple who had dealt with this problem in marriage. He said, “Oh, porn is a big problem here, but I can’t refer you to anyone with this problem because you are the first to admit it. But I do have a small group of people you can trust. Let’s start with them.”
Alone in this particular struggle, feeling like a failure (I was leading a ministry at the time), the suggestion to expose my sin to others seemed like a really bad idea. Except, it wasn’t just pastoral advice; it was biblical instruction. James 5:16 says, “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” I needed healing.
Confessing your gut-wrenching sins to a group of peers is one the most frightening, humbling experiences anyone can undergo. Pretense is dismantled; the risk of rejection is monumental. Yet, this confession is the threshold of the transformational fellowship described in 1 John 1:7: “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.”
Sharing my sin with the small group was humbling, but freeing. No one acted shocked. In fact, they shared stories of their own messes and Christ’s healing. They remained present to comfort us and help us heal. “[God] comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Corinthians 1:4).
As our group searched the Bible for God’s healing path, I examined my entire life. We noticed patterns of sin. Pastors’ kids are keenly aware others are watching. Growing up, I began to relish the affirmation of the community when I performed well. When I became afraid of failure, felt rejected, or didn’t get the approval I wanted, I struggled with porn. In my fantasy world, I was always successful, pursued, and affirmed. Discovering that my addiction was fueled by a desire for validation changed everything. Idolatry was my heart problem.
I stopped trying to manage an unmanageable addiction and began weeding the garden of my heart. I shared fears, resentments, and confessed the smallest sins. I forgave others and made amends for harm I caused. Most importantly, I embraced my identity in Christ—priceless, bought with Jesus’ blood, chosen by Him for Him. God’s view of me now defined me. Through recovery, intimacy in my marriage flourished, our small group bonded, and deep affections for Christ filled my heart and crowded out those idols.
Months later, my wife and I reported back to our pastor. He was excited and asked, “Well, whom are you going to tell? Others need to know what God’s Spirit can do working through his Word and his people.” We remembered what it was like to feel alone, so we began helping other struggling couples. When Watermark launched a Christ-centered recovery ministry, I agreed to help lead.
The Start of a Christ-Centered Recovery Ministry
Surprisingly, I found the 12 steps of recovery to be like my own healing experience. Participants admitted powerlessness over sin, believed God could save them, and trusted God for recovery. They inventoried, confessed, and repented of sin. They made amends, practiced daily recovery, and shared hope with others. Curious, I researched and learned that the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) were developed by people from the Oxford Group, a Christian group focused on biblical practices for spiritual growth:
- Sharing sin and temptations with other Christians
- Surrendering their lives—past, present and future—into God’s keeping and direction
- Restitution to all whom they had wronged directly or indirectly
- Listening for God’s guidance in all things, and carrying it out
Sadly, as AA grew apart from the Oxford Group, it did not keep Jesus as essential, but let people surrender to “a god of their understanding.” While AA members did experience authentic accountability groups, they focused on sobriety rather than surrender to Christ, and the transforming work of the Holy Spirit was lost.
Thankfully, the recovery material purchased by Watermark reinstated Christ as the only “Higher Power.” The ministry was a place where everyone showed up “broken” and ready for change. Because it was a safe, Christ-centered place to work through struggles, lives were healed. With full support of church leadership, Watermark’s ministry grew, and I joined the church staff to provide oversight.
After a few years, we started surveying participants to see if we were fulfilling Watermark’s mission to call people to full devotion to Christ. We found that people were growing in their trust of God, experiencing authentic accountability, and getting sober. But we also discovered they were not growing in knowledge and use of Scripture or trust of the church. Participants struggled in areas of life beyond addiction. Many of their relationships remained unreconciled. They didn’t understand their identity in Christ, spiritual gifts, or God’s purpose for their lives. Many were not experiencing a daily, dependent relationship with Jesus.
Furthermore, some participants sheltered themselves in the safety of the recovery ministry without integrating fully into the church. Recovery people viewed “those people in the church” as inauthentic, unsafe, and different. Some participants feared leaving recovery because the meetings were viewed as essential for continued sobriety.
Likewise, longtime church members, though happy to have a place for “those people in recovery,” didn’t see the ministry as something useful for their own spiritual growth; they saw their struggles as less significant.
We were missing the mark. Sobriety over one issue is a shortsighted goal. Christ doesn’t heal us so we can just go on with life unbothered by sin. He wants us to surrender every area of life. He is restoring us to the image and glory of God so we can fulfill his purpose.
This transformation doesn’t happen through devotion to a program but through devotion to a person, Jesus Christ. The biblical principles I practiced before I knew about the 12 steps led me to a daily, dependent relationship with Jesus that changed every aspect of my life—a transformation that is promised to all who come to Jesus willing to change. All of us need recovery in Christ.
Re:generation: Restoring the Biblical Roots of Recovery Ministry
Our church’s recovery ministry needed to refocus. So we took recovery back to its biblical roots to help participants focus on Jesus for daily transformation. We created daily curriculum relevant to everyone, from unchurched addicts to mature Christians growing in their faith. We named it re:generation, meaning “new birth” (Titus 3:3-7).
Re:generation’s 12 steps focus on spiritual formation. Participants realize their desperation for Christ by uncovering the sin hindering their relationships with him. Daily, they trust their lives and wills to him. They learn how to confess and repent of sin. Out of Christ’s love, they reconcile relationships and practice intimacy with God through Bible study and prayer. They embrace their identity in Christ—chosen, set apart, and uniquely designed to do God’s will.
Bridges are built between recovery and the church. Baptism, church membership, and serving are emphasized. Participants ask Christians already in their lives to be mentors. Christians who wish to disciple others volunteer to mentor unchurched participants. Those seeking counseling services from the church are directed to participate in re:generation, too. All members (including church staff, elders, and leaders) are encouraged to attend when they struggle, but also just to grow in their faith.
Today, more than 1,500 people attend re:generation weekly at Watermark—half come from outside the church. Groups are mixed with people whose struggles range from chemical addiction to pride to unresolved hurt or anger. Most of our staff have participated. “Recovery” has no stigma at Watermark. We are a community relentless in helping each other remove barriers to intimacy with Christ in order to know, love, and serve him more.
I am one of “those people,” a sinner rescued from sin by Christ, made new, and set apart to do his will. This is not just God’s desire for me but for everyone. He is recovering lost humanity to himself through Christ. You too are one of “those people.”
Nate Graybill helped launch the recovery ministry at Watermark Community Church in Dallas, Texas, in 2002 and joined the staff in 2006. He wrote the curriculum for re:generation, a 12-step discipleship program now used in churches across the country.