Proverbs 23:29-32 NLT
Who has anguish? Who has sorrow? Who is always fighting? Who is always complaining? Who has unnecessary bruises? Who has bloodshot eyes? It is the one who spends long hours in the taverns, trying out new drinks. Don’t gaze at the wine, seeing how red it is, how it sparkles in the cup, how smoothly it goes down. For in the end it bites like a poisonous snake; it stings like a viper.
When your church gathers this Sunday, at least one third of the people in attendance are directly impacted by drug addiction or alcoholism. That is a very conservative estimate. If we include all the prescription drug addicts and the nicotine junkies, we probably go way over 50% who are either addicted themselves, or love someone who is. As Christians we can either turn a blind eye, or offer a helping hand. The prevalence of addiction is a golden opportunity to reach people, to help people, and to impact entire family systems for generations. The question is, “What do we do?”
Ignorance of any subject is a guarantee of ineffective action. The most basic and necessary way to address a problem is to become informed. In our day it is almost criminal to be ignorant in the area of drug and alcohol addiction, yet much of the church labors in the dark. There are many sources of information available with a minimum of effort and expense. Sometimes it seems the church finds it easier to deplore the problem than to address it. The fact you are reading this article is a positive testimony to your motivation to acquire accurate knowledge.
The first thing you can do to fight the plague of addiction is to educate yourself. If you are a minister or a concerned parishioner, the place to start is with you. There are any number of good books on the subject of alcoholism. Some are listed in the bibliography. I believe the best place to start is with the big book called Alcoholics Anonymous. Most libraries have a copy, or you can purchase one easily through your local A.A. fellowship. You will normally find a phone number in the Yellow Pages under alcoholism. The book reflects the nature of the thinking of an addicted person. Some of the stories in the back of the book give helpful glimpses into the warped mind-set of the drunk. The text of the book addresses many of the problems of the alcoholic and his family in an understandable way.
Allow me to address one common “Christian” fallacy. Because you have the Holy Spirit and are a good student of the Word does not necessarily equip you to deal with addicts. I’m sure you are a lovely person, but without some specific preparation you will be of little aid. If you are good-hearted and determined, you will eventually learn through experience. Unfortunately, the human cost of such experience is high. I beseech you to take the trouble to learn from those who have been in the battle before you.
In my years as a pastor I have encountered many people who felt the Lord was calling them to start some kind of ministry to the addict and alcoholic. I remember one dear lady who claimed to have had a visitation from the Lord. He wanted her to open a home for young people troubled by drugs. She had no experience, no knowledge, and no resources. I encouraged her to take steps to prepare herself for this ministry and believe God that her faithfulness over small things would be rewarded by promotion in due time. I never heard any more about it. This is fairly typical. There is much to be done, but good intentions and godly desires must be transformed into effective actions. The first step is always preparation.
Another good place to learn is in an actual meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. There are many meetings which are open to the public. You can call the local office and ask for the time and place of what is known as an “open” meeting. You will be welcome in this setting to observe and learn. In addition to A.A. meetings, most larger cities have some form of mission ministry in the inner city. They would probably love to show you around and allow you to help out in some of their services or activities. Generally speaking, people who have quietly given their lives to helping addicts will be a great source of information about the daily realities of this ministry.
Nearly every community now has some organization dedicated to educating the public about alcoholism and/or drug addiction. These folks can usually be located in the Yellow Pages and will often provide a pile of free literature. If they don’t exist in your town, try dialing “information” in the state capital. They are out there and waiting to hear from you. Many have regular newsletters which will advertise educational seminars throughout the year. The resources are immense for those who want to learn.
In addition to educating yourself, you can help to educate your church. If you have a book store, make material available for purchase. Check the bibliography for ideas. Bring in speakers. If you can’t bring yourself to do it on Sunday morning, sponsor a workshop or special seminar on the subject. You will be shocked at the turnout. There are many resources available. I have invited counselors from local treatment centers with excellent results. One of my church members was an alcohol counselor. His teaching on the basics of alcoholism became a very popular tape series.
When inviting speakers to help addicts and their families, avoid the temptation to bring in someone who leans heavily on a great testimony of deliverance. While this may be encouraging and exciting, without some substance in the principles of healing and deliverance there will be little long term benefit. Look for speakers with experience in treating addictions as well as in living them.
By talking about the subject and inviting people to learn the realities of recovery, we create an atmosphere for healing. Although we are saved by grace and can stand only because of the blood of Jesus, the church is often the most shame-filled place in town. We must break through the mentality which says, “No one at the church must know,” and replace it with, “If I can only get to church I can share my burden with my family.” As we make a conscious effort to acknowledge the problem and take positive steps to minister to those affected, we open the arms of Jesus to those who are bound. We offer them the freedom to reach out for help without fear of being castigated and shunned.
Probably the most important area of education is in the children’s department. This is the place where we can actually do something to prevent the disaster rather than clean up after it. It is important to address the issue with youth, but that comes a little too late in our current social milieu. By the time most kids get to the youth group they have already been faced with a decision about drugs and alcohol. Children are exposed to chemical use at a disturbingly early age. They need to have accurate facts rather than parental fears on which to base their choices. Unlike the public schools, we are not constrained to present the subject without interjecting values. We have the privilege of instructing the kids about God’s opinion. What better place to learn?
Some parents will be disturbed at the idea of “exposing” little Petunia to such things. Keep an eye on these parents. They are headed for trouble. You must, however, lovingly give them the option to hold their kids out of these sessions. Other parents will be distraught because they feel threatened. If Billy Boy knows the truth about drinking and smoking, he will recognize the hypocrisy in his parents when they drag him to church, then go home and hit the liquor cabinet. If we find situations like this among our so-called “Christian” families, we are constrained to do something to intervene. The best way I know to raise a rebellious child who despises God and the church is to espouse one thing and live another.
One real advantage to instructing children about alcohol and drugs is the opportunity to uncover hidden addiction problems. Several years ago I had the privilege of representing a treatment facility in its public relations program. I went to local schools and spoke to classes. Even though the kids were as young as 9, they were quite capable of understanding the problem. In every class there were some children who reacted to the content by putting their heads down on their desks or covering their ears. When I inquired with the teachers I found in every case that there was a problem in the home. Shouldn’t the church be interested in this kind of information? God help us if we’re not.
One question frequently asked by concerned relatives, friends, and ministers is, “What can we do to make him(her) stop drinking?” For the church that wants to go beyond the simple dispersion of information there is another level of involvement: intervention. This means some form of active effort to confront the behavior of the alcoholic and force him to positive action. This is a bit daring for most churches. Most of us prefer the passive presentation of theory. It’s much less messy.
One of the most common places where active addicts come in contact with the church is in the distress of a relative, often a wife. The scene is familiar to all pastors. A woman comes in to the office with any one of a number of complaints. She may simply be concerned about wayward children. She may complain of her husband’s lack of spiritual leadership. She may even relate a history of physical abuse. After a little questioning the pastor discovers a pattern of alcohol or drug abuse. Now what?
I came to the conclusion a few years ago that I had a responsibility to my flock to deal with people who profess to be part of the congregation and are living in ways which are overtly destructive to the church or to their family. In the case of alcoholism and addiction this means confronting the issue. If the abuser doesn’t claim to be a Christian then I must try to help my parishioner get in touch with someone who can guide him in the process of dealing with an addict in the home. In either case, something must be done to help both the family and the addict.
There is an old adage that a drunk has to “reach bottom” before he can get help. The idea is that no one will do the things necessary for sobriety until they are motivated by the enormity of their own misery or necessity. This is true. Unfortunately, many die or cause immense destruction before they reach a bottom on their own. We have an obligation to bring the bottom up to meet them. I mean it is our responsibility to make some effort to increase the discomfort the addict is experiencing.
Bottom-raising can be a difficult task, but there are resources available. Some years ago we had the opportunity to help in what the treatment community refers to as an “intervention.” This basically means getting a number of significant people to simultaneously confront the addict and insist that he get help. In our case, the man was a member of our church. His wife reported numerous instances of drunk driving and other frightening behaviors. We knew there was a problem because we had smelled alcohol on his breath at church functions. We enlisted the help of treatment professionals and embarked on a new adventure.
The first step was recruiting allies. This meant talking to people who were close to our subject. We’ll call him Tip. Anyone who was dear to Tip was fair game. We needed people who had firsthand experience of the effects of his drinking: friends, co-workers, relatives. Many had anecdotes to relate, but few were willing to participate. They didn’t want to call good old Tip an alcoholic. Some had to be informed about the nature of alcoholism and the purpose of treatment. Finally we had a group of five. Now we had to get organized.
With the help of a professional counselor, we each compiled a list of specific instances when Tip’s drinking had caused us grief. A child’s fear at daddy being passed out. A wife’s chagrin at forgotten appointments. A sister’s panic in a drunken car ride. Each one listed as many specific incidents as they could remember. Then each incident was rewritten to be as non-accusatory and matter-of-fact as possible. “Dad, I was really scared and cold when you got drunk and forgot to pick me up from school. One day I stood in the snow until dark and you never came. I cried until a stranger called mom at work.” “Tip, I was really hurt and embarrassed when you came to the family reunion drunk. You called me names then passed out on the dinner table. We were all too embarrassed to wake you up.”
We went through every incident with the counselor. She helped us decide which ones to use and which ones to leave out. She coached us on language to emphasize the pain caused by the behavior and the connection to drinking. It was a difficult process. Then we started the hard part.
Our counselor now took us through a practice intervention. One person pretended to be Tip while the others took turns speaking to him. The premise of the upcoming meeting was this: Tip would be brought into the room under false pretenses. He would be shocked to see us. We would have a seat reserved for him, preferably not near the door. After he was seated we would each tell him how much we loved him and that we were there because of our concern for him. The counselor would tell him what was going to happen: “Each of these people who care for you have some things they want to say. We would like for you to listen before you respond. You may get angry. That is OK. Just try to hear what is being said.”
The introductions made, the process begins. Each person in turn reads his statements. In the practice session, the mock-Tip tries to attack – calling names, yelling, crying. The goal is to prepare the participants to remain calm in the face of Tip’s anger and defensiveness. This practice time is very important. We want to have a confrontation, not an explosion. It is vital to prepare a calm, loving atmosphere. The content is threatening enough without attitudes to match. Bitterness and pain must be identified and talked about now, before the real drama begins.
After practicing the content, we practiced the conclusion. The goal of the intervention is to get Tip into treatment for his addiction. The counselor has already made arrangements for him to be admitted to a treatment center the very day of the meeting. His wife will have his bag packed and in the car. A plane ticket is purchased in his name. His job is ready to cooperate. The moment Tip sees that his drinking is causing trouble we can press him to do something immediately.
Each person must now be ready to be in agreement on the bottom line. What are we asking him to do? What will be the consequences for Tip if he ignores our concerns? Will his wife leave him? Will his nieces no longer come to visit? Will his job take him back? In this case we determined to establish a “fall-back” position. If Tip insists he can quit on his own we will give him that opportunity, but he must agree that any alcohol intake within the next year will mean he goes to treatment immediately. We were ready.
Tip came in the company of his sister. He was shocked to see the room full of people. He was moderately defensive and got angry a few times. He cried and denied, but finally agreed to plan B. He went to treatment after another drinking bout. My thought at the time was, “Wouldn’t it be nice if the church could love people enough to go through this kind of discomfort to try and save them.” I believe the church can do this. It is painful and uncomfortable, but it is life-saving.
The principles involved in this process are applicable in the church. Jesus told us in Matthew 18:15-17 (God’s Word):
If a believer does something wrong, go, confront him when the two of you are alone. If he listens to you, you have won back that believer. But if he does not listen, take one or two others with you so that every accusation may be verified by two or three witnesses. If he ignores these witnesses, tell it to the community of believers. If he also ignores the community, deal with him as you would a heathen or a tax collector.
The principle of dealing with a sinning brother is very clear. The requirements are that he be confronted individually first, then with a witness. The final step is to bring him into confrontation with the “church.” My belief is that we can apply this principle to anyone who claims to be a Christian. If you love an alcoholic, you can begin the process by asking him to stop drinking. If he refuses, go to your pastor for further instruction.
The key principles in the process are simple: recognize, recruit, organize, confront, and follow through. We first assure ourselves we are dealing with a chemical problem. We then recruit as many significant people as we can locate. Especially important are people in positions of authority or who hold particular esteem in the eyes of the subject. Parents, teachers, employers, or supervisors – anyone who has leverage. After recruitment comes the crucial phase of preparation. This is key to success. Finally comes the moment of truth: confrontation in an attitude of love.
There is one hidden principle here. You need an outside guide who is not emotionally involved. Let me make this clear: don’t try this on your own. If you are a relative of an addict, talk to your pastor. If he doesn’t know what you are talking about call the local alcoholism council. If all else fails, contact us and we will find you a good referral. You need someone to guide you through the process. If you are a pastor, call your local alcoholism council. Simply tell them you want to know more about intervention. You need to know how to do this.
I thank God for every church which is educating its people on the subject of addiction. I am grateful for every pastor who is trying to equip himself to help the alcoholic. It is music to my ears to hear that some brave pastor has helped organize an intervention. We take seminars on the subject to churches and are thrilled when people come to be informed. What blesses even more, however, is when a church takes the information and begins to formulate ongoing programs of support for the addict and his family.
By educating we make it possible for people to identify potential problems in themselves and others. In intervention we attempt to propel an individual abuser into a treatment setting. At this level we are still expecting the addict to receive support and ongoing care in the world’s mechanisms. We are sort of “sending him out” like we would dry clean a suit. The church which really wants to mobilize resources in the area of addiction can take strides to provide a network of support and healing for family and addict alike. When you think about it, isn’t the church the most natural place to find a “support” group?
If the pastor feels he cannot devote his own time to specializing in the support of addicts and their families, he can appoint someone from the congregation to oversee the ministry. Send him to seminars and provide him with educational materials. Someone needs to be competent in the field and identified as the one who operates in that ministry. This makes it safe for families to begin to shed their masks. An atmosphere of acceptance is essential for healing to take place. For the person who is just getting out of treatment, a church with some idea of the nature of his problem can be a welcome haven. He needs a place which has someone to help him deal with the problems of being a Christian in recovery, someone familiar with addiction, treatment, and A.A., in addition to being a strong Bible student.
Going further with the idea of providing support, the church can open its facilities to support groups. There are often A.A. groups in need of a place to meet. Churches are a favorite setting. This is one method of getting recovering addicts inside the church building. The two most obvious groups are Alcoholics Anonymous and its sister organization for family members, Alanon. While neither of these groups is expressly Christian, the simple fact of meeting in a Church has a sanctifying effect on the participants. It also provides a familiar place for church members to come for their necessary meetings.
Another option for support is the founding of overtly Christian support groups. There are several nationwide. All of these groups are full of wonderful, dedicated, Christian people. They can provide you with literature and ideas for establishing a group in your church.
While I strongly advocate using the resources already available, there are other options. You can start your own in-house program of support for addicts and/or their families. This can be a daunting project if you have no experience or guidance, but it need not be a catastrophe. The first step is to determine interest. Need is not a problem, but many who need it won’t come until the program has become established. You must locate the willing few.
The best way to locate the willing is to sponsor a seminar on the subject. Bring in an outside speaker who will present the principles of recovery as outlined in this book, or use a staff member who is trained and familiar with the topic. Advertise well in advance and put the meeting on a Saturday or an evening when there is no regular service. This allows for a crowd specifically interested in the topic. At the conclusion of the seminar, distribute an anonymous questionnaire to evaluate the material. Include in the questionnaire a place to indicate interest in two support groups, one for addicts and one for their families.
To actually begin the group, start with a well-trained leader. Select someone with a firm Christian foundation and a compassion for people. He should be familiar with the material in this book, and he should certainly attend a few A.A. and Alanon meetings to get a feel for the clientele. Schedule the meetings on an off night for the church to avoid the potential embarrassment of being seen by other Christians. Set a predetermined number of meetings for the group, usually twelve weeks. This gives a sense of finitude to the activity and gives people hope. At the last meeting a schedule may be set for another cycle or for other groups which may spring up out of the first.
The first meeting should have an informational tone along with some “get acquainted” activities. Review the plan for the remainder of the meetings and let the leader share his or her testimony. Set ground rules for the group. All meetings should keep to ninety minutes or less and be opened and closed with prayer. Discussions will be moderated by the leader as the designee of the Pastor. Determine what language will be allowed. Emphasize the confidentiality of the group. This is an absolute essential. The remaining meetings should follow a discussion guide which allows for reading, prayer and preparation at home.
A review of the many different programs of recovery available today has led me to a list of general principles which are essential for a solid sobriety. These “Seven Principles of Recovery” make a good outline for discussion in meetings. Briefly stated, the principles are:
- Absolute deflation. An admission of defeat and a cry for help, recognizing the nature of addiction and becoming willing to do whatever is necessary to recover.
- Faith in God. A beginning of willingness to acknowledge a divine being and taking steps to know Him.
- Accountability. Establishing accountable relationships with personal mentors, group support, and church involvement.
- Self-examination. Developing a rigorous, structured, honest method of reflecting on one’s behavior and motives. Change is the opposite of death.
- Restitution and restoration. God has forgotten our sins, but human relations must be repaired.
- Commitment to ongoing spiritual growth. Establishing the spiritual life as a lifestyle through church involvement, prayer, and Bible study.
- Service to others. You can’t keep what you don’t give away.
The companion workbook, “Seven Principles of Recovery,” which is dedicated to these seven principles can be used by an individual in recovery, by a counselor, or as a group discussion guide. If you are leading a group, give the workbook to the group members at the first meeting. Have them prepare ahead of time. Then, in discussion, ask for questions or areas of difficulty. Hone in on principles and problems. You will have more than enough to talk about.
If you are a pastor with a parishioner in trouble, you can use the workbook as a tool in counseling. Work through each segment with him. Be tough and exacting. He can become a valued member of your church and he can teach you much in the process. If you are in need of recovery, be diligent in the doing of the work in the workbook. Don’t drink, don’t use, and ask God for help. You are in for an adventure.
There is much more that could be said. Science is finding new information daily. Psychology is formulating new patterns for treatment. In the meantime, however, our communities are full of suffering people. God has provided us with answers and opportunities. I hope this is of use to you as you seek to find freedom or to help those who are bound. The fields are white, the laborers are few.
This article is excerpted from God Help Me, I Can’t Stop! This book and its companion workbook, Seven Principles of Recovery are being used in support groups in churches, jails, and Christian treatment programs with remarkable success. These books and other materials are available at the Book Nook at www.fcftucson.org. Inquiries for help or more information may be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org, or you may phone the office at 520-792-FCFT. We have able ministers ready to share their experience, strength, and hope. You are welcome to contact us via the above e-mail address or phone number to obtain a free copy of the Seven Principles Discussion Guides.