What the Church can learn from AA 12 Steps (by T)

This post is by T.

This is the second post in our series looking at what churches could learn from 12-step groups. Our first discussion talked about how the 12 steps are arguably a tailor-made response to a King-Jesus gospel.  Today I’d like to look at AA and support groups from a different, but related angle: discipleship and spiritual (trans)formation.

For me as with many others, Dallas Willard has been a wonderful and challenging influence. Whether the topic was the gospel, spiritual formation, or even something as basic as the concept of trust, Dallas had a tendency to see and talk about things from surprising and illuminating angles. I didn’t agree with all of his insights (I don’t think I even understood several of them!), but I don’t know that I will ever encounter another contemporary author whose mind and kindness of spirit I will appreciate more. He will be missed.

Even though I come from generations of alcoholics who had recovered in AA, I have to say I grew up with a typical evangelical distrust for any program that refused to specifically name the name of Jesus. It wasn’t until I started to wonder about what discipleship actually was that AA started to get my attention and then admiration as I learned more.  We were planting a church, meeting outside near a beach, when a lifeguard who had come to Jesus through Al-Anon joined our church, and we became (and still are) good friends. We had many, many discussions, comparing and contrasting 12 step groups with churches, in content and methods and goals.  About that time is when I picked up my copy of Renovation of the Heart. And typical of Dallas, just when I was becoming convinced that I had only seen the tip of the iceberg of AA’s God given wisdom, I read this quote from Dallas in Renovation:

“The familiar means of the traditional AA program—the famous “twelve steps” and the personal and social arrangements in which they are concretely embodied, including a conscious involvement of God in the individual’s life—are highly effective in bringing about personal transformation. Historically, the AA program was closely aligned with the church and Christian traditions, and now it has much to give back to the church that has largely lost its grip on spiritual formation as a standard path of Christian life. Any successful plan for spiritual formation, whether for the individual or group, will in fact be significantly similar to the Alcoholics Anonymous program.” (emphasis in original)

It would be one thing to read that from someone who was a relative newbie (as I was) to matters of the spiritual disciplines and spiritual formation. But to read that from Dallas, I was floored. Still am. At that point, I was determined to study (and personally work) not just the steps, but also the “personal and social arrangements” of AA.  So, I read Alcoholics Anonymous (i.e., the “Big Book”) as well as Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions and a variety of other materials (including Trevor Hudson’s One Day at a Time, which is fabulous), all of which I recommend. But most importantly, I decided to work the steps.

What I discovered fairly quickly is that the steps are not meant to be worked alone. I doubt they can be worked alone. At least, I couldn’t do it. They’re hard. Or, to put it another way, sin within me is much harder to see, grab and wrestle out the door than I realized. Or, to put it another way still, it’s hard to crucify one’s self by one’s self.  Frustration and pain were easy to accomplish alone, but not working the steps.  When working the steps, I needed the help of another person, and almost everyone does (so I am told), preferably someone who has walked that path before, someone who has faced the depths of their own junk with as much honesty and grace as they could find, and continues to face it as needed, someone who now has the kind of humbly honest and gracious connection with God, themselves and others that you’d like to have.

In AA, that person is called a sponsor. Much can be said about this, but for now I’ll just quote from the introductory section of the AA pamphlet on sponsors: “sponsor and sponsored meet as equals[.]  Essentially, the process of sponsorship is this: An alcoholic who has made some progress in the recovery program shares that experience on a continuous, individual basis with another alcoholic who is attempting to attain or maintain sobriety through A.A.” Regardless of what one may think about the particulars of AA sponsorship, the key for this discussion is that encouraging and practicing this kind of voluntary, yet deep, one-on-one relationship is a foundational part of AA’s culture and program. If there is an anti-Cain, it is the sponsor. Sponsors are there to support and help the sponsored make progress, but as an equal, a brother.

In addition to getting a sponsor, who is often available for calls at virtually any hour, the newcomer to the group is often encouraged to attend 90 meetings in 90 days. Think about that for a moment. Several things came to my mind when I first heard that: (i) There are actually enough groups in most places that 90 in 90 is possible!? (ii) Talk about immersion . . . wow! And relatedly (iii) if the goal is trans- or re-formation, that makes perfect sense.

I will say a final thing here, though more could be said about the way that AA does formation via a discipleship/communal process. There are a variety of meetings. Not all are the discussion meetings that many associate with AA. There are meetings for discussion, teaching, etc. But AA is big on personal stories or what we might call testimonies. If you spend any length of time going to any support group meetings, you will hear an abundance of personal stories of failure and progress.  These stories are not only disarming because of their honesty about real failures in a way that is uncommon, but they are magnetic.

The practice of such honesty becomes makes both the program and the AA group very attractive, especially when the stories of failure outstrip the failures of the newcomer! Just hearing other addicts be honest about their lives without being shamed crushes one of the biggest lies standing in the way of any transformation, namely, if I allow anyone—even myself—to look at and know the truth of what I am and have done, I will be and should be shamed to death. Further, because there are often blessings and redemption beyond failure in these stories, the stories give hope, which is essential to taking a new path. There has to be hope that it can lead somewhere good.

In sum, the newcomer to AA is encouraged, first, to work the steps. This is the core of the program, and developing willingness to do anything for recovery is stressed. But they are also encouraged to immerse themselves in the community and culture of the program by doing 90 meetings in 90 days. They are encouraged to get a sponsor, someone who is their equal, but who has what they want, who will be personally and individually available to help the newcomer on their new direction in life, which is guaranteed to be hard and have failures as well as progress. Finally, at the meetings and via their sponsor, they will take in countless stories of failure and success from real folks who have done things even worse than they have. They will see people facing the truth about themselves, asking for help, and getting it. They will be encouraged, in teaching and example, to do the same.  Perhaps most importantly, hearing all these testimonies from other addicts, both at meetings and from their sponsor, begins to change what the newcomer believes is possible. They begin to believe.

Obviously, it is tough to do justice to how 12-step groups do (trans)formation and discipleship in this forum, but I hope I’ve given enough to ask some questions: What, if anything, can the Church learn from how AA does discipleship and formation?  Is there anything here that churches could implement or seek to cultivate? Was Dallas off his rocker with the comment about AA, or is there some truth there, and, if so, how so?  Is the difference b/n a typical church’s practices and those of AA a function of different goals, or different aspects of “salvation” being sought or prioritized? Do you feel that (trans)formation and/or discipleship is as central to church as it is to AA?  Why or why not?

If you want to contact me directly, you can do so at t.n.freemanii at gmail.

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