The Church and the 12 Steps

Why Can’t Church Be More Like an AA Meeting?
And Other Questions Christians Ask about Recovery
By Stephen R. Haynes
Eerdmans, pp. 240, $19.99

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Review by Chilton R. Knudsen

The title of this book is a question often asked in both church and recovery settings. Churchgoers (and former churchgoers) describe leaving Alcoholics Anonymous or other 12-Step meetings feeling accepted, hopeful, connected, and inspired. The level of honesty in most meetings is high. People feel safe to risk being authentic and vulnerable. By contrast, participation in faith communities is often linked with judgmentalism, rivalry, in-group vs. out-group divisions, and shame. Because 12-Step groups often meet in church basements, the comparison is often made that many more people flock to the basement for a meeting than show up to attend public worship. The last place where one can be candid about one’s faults is in church.

Author Stephen R. Haynes engages this question with thoughtful wisdom. This timely and comprehensive work could be described as three books in one volume. Any one of these would constitute a great contribution to the literature of the field.

The first book incorporates personal witness and narrative. The author reflects on his journey in recovery, integrating faith, theological understandings, and experience as professor of religious studies at Rhodes College and adjunct professor of recovery ministry at Fuller Theological Seminary. This candid account establishes his credentials (to use recovery language) in “walking the walk.” He tells his story with humility and courage.

The second of the books is a wide-ranging survey of literature, resources, programs, and landmarks of recovery. These include the many offshoots of AA, adapted for every problem from smoking to anger to food to gambling to prescription drug issues to pornography. In the table of contents every chapter is organized around a question (with parenthetical answers, often amusing, that foster the reader’s curiosity). The chapter notes and index are thorough and accessible. This makes the second book a kind of reference work and handbook to the historical evolution of the 12-Step movement. The author includes current perspectives on sex addiction and online groups.

The third book is a thoughtful and illuminating analysis about the various ways that faith communities and recovery programs reciprocally interact, intersect, and inspire. The author proposes and describes three broad categories of the faith community-recovery program relationship: Adapters, Embracers, and Rejecters. As the names imply, these terms represent three broad expressions of response from the faith community regarding 12-Step programs.

Faith communities fault 12-Step groups because their culture, vocabulary, and traditions are nonsectarian. Other concerns held by faith communities include the absence of sacred Scripture from 12-Step programs; although AA and its sister organizations have plenty of cherished literature, it is not biblical per se.

Twelve-Step programs are silent about eternal salvation and damnation, and other theological concepts important to various faith communities. Holding those concerns, some faith communities develop alternative programs of recovery, using their chosen religious language. There are a number of “Recovery Bibles,” Bible studies, and devotional reading programs, which are designed to be overtly Christ-centered. Groups include Living Free, Christians in Recovery, and Celebrating Recovery. These Adapter movements and resources are heavily utilized worldwide; as Haynes states, “Christ-centered recovery makes AA more like church without making church any more like AA.”

Progressive Christian bodies, including mainline Christians, unambiguously affirm 12-Step recovery, feeling little to no need to reinterpret the steps or shoehorn Scripture into them. However, as Haynes points out, these Embracers arrive at that affirmation by a number of paths. Some see Christ “secretly at work” within the 12-Step program, while others point to accountability in community or personal testimonies as the substance of recovery.

Of interest is the Roman Catholic community’s embrace of 12-Step recovery. Foremost among the 12-Step enthusiasts in this faith community is the Franciscan Richard Rohr, along with Thomas Keating, Sister Mary Monaghan, and Fr. Martin of the famous “chalk talks.” People “come to know and love God in AA,” Sister Mary observes.

Rejecters find little or nothing of value in 12-Step programs and practices. They object to terms like Higher Power, sensing that it verges on paganism. Even renting or sharing space with AA or its sister programs endangers the purity of their Christian witness. Although there are often steps or touchstones or horizons outlined on the path of addiction recovery, they are uniquely formulated in the vocabulary of those faith communities, and they never add up to 12. Many people in this group reject the disease model of addiction, and adhere to the “moral model,” using the language of sin and judgment. An example of literature from this category is William Playfair’s 1991 book The Useful Lie: How the Recovery Industry Has Entrapped America in a Disease Model of Addiction.

The categories of Adapters, Embracers, and Rejecters, and Haynes’s explication of each, form the unique core of this book. He has developed a creative, reasonable, and well-documented treatment of each category. The entire book is a vital contribution to the literature on recovery and the faith community’s partnership in human thriving. It will challenge, inform, and inspire its readers, and, I pray, lift addiction and recovery back into respected places in the ministry of faith communities of every kind.

People die of addiction. Lives around the addict are shattered. The human costs are incalculable. This book is an important resource for raising awareness, taking action, and equipping faith communities to make a difference.

The Rt. Rev. Chilton R. Knudsen is assisting bishop of Chicago.


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