Addiction is fashionable in churches. Congregations host Recovery meetings, have Celebrate Recovery ministries, and, because of the Opioid Crisis, hold overdose response training. I am glad there is interest. The absolute worst thing churches can do is ignore a problem. I am also grateful. Grace works one day at a time if it works at all. I have a few words of advice for churches considering these ministries.
Addiction Is A Living Death
The late Brennan Manning is known for two things. One is that he wrote the most popular book on grace – The Ragamuffin Gospel. The other is that he was always candid about his struggles with alcoholism. I did not know until recently that he died suffering from Wet Brain Syndrome. It is one of the two major diseases associated with alcoholism. It is rarely reversible. And to my mind scarier than Cirrhosis of the Liver.
Manning, like many late-stage alcoholics, drank because he had to but did not want to drink. Stopping drinking is a frightening prospect for the person needing recovery. What will happen to me if I stop? To the normal person, the answer sounds simple. But it is not for the addict. The responses parallel those we hear from victims of family abuse when asked why they stay.
Substance abuse involves deception, selfishness, and fear. These are attributes of sin. But, addiction itself is not sin anymore than death is sin. Addiction is variously defined as a disease, a syndrome, or a disorder. Knowing this removes the stigma of sinfulness from addiction. Church leaders who understand this difference can begin offering help.
Addicts Are Not A Source Of Income
Helping addicts is an expensive proposition. Churches involved in these ministries often have one full-time staff person who directs them. There are other costs to consider. These are the volunteer time commitment, the use of dedicated space in the building, and the fact that other ministries get scheduled around recovery ministries. Heartbreak and failure happen.
The greatest abuse in all recovery work is using addicts as a source of income. Too many “recovery centers” or “half-way houses” are merely money making prospects for the owners. I once lived in a place that cost $800 per month. Out of that fee, I got $30 a week for meals. I shared a room with another person. And I lost thirty pounds in 2 months. When I left I got a one-bedroom apartment for $400 per month. What was more galling to me was that we were used to raise money for the facility. But there are some that simply make slaves of their “patients.” Churches that connect with “ministries” that provide free labor should ask questions.
Churches doing recovery ministries need money to do them. But using the ministry as a fund-raising tactic for the churches raises ethical questions about how the funds are used. If I give money to a ministry, I expect the money to be used for the ministry and not other stuff the church wants to do. Be clear and accountable about how donations are used.
Addiction Destroys Personal Contact
What is the picture of an addict in your mind? Is it a picture of a criminal, a homeless person, a deadbeat parent? You may be surprised to learn that most addicts and alcoholics had the same images in their minds before they realized their own condition. By that time, most of their friends and family gives up on them. Their situation may not be as bad as the preconceived image. But it has its own burden. They suffer loneliness.
I know several people who sat alone in a house full of people while they drank and used. I was one of them. The loneliness is self-reinforcing. An impossible barrier exists between the addict and those who don’t understand.
Church ministries to addicts should emphasize community. The pandemic brought isolation to so many recovering addicts and alcoholics. And isolation is a killer. It is not enough to talk about a connection to Jesus in these ministries. Jesus knew how important it was to have a community of outcasts. He may be the only non-addict who gets addiction. And maybe that overstates the point I am trying to make.
Addiction And Healing
There is no cure for addiction. People can recover though. Recovery groups and programs that succeed offer connection as the result of whatever steps or promises are taught. Make miracles happen for people. It is our work.