Being helped by those you once helped and being ministered to by those to whom you once ministered ~ is a humbling and, often, extremely powerful and beautiful paradox. But not always. There is often shame, defeat and stigma associated with hard times and troubles. Who wants to openly admit to their church, for example, that their child is suffering from a substance use disorder?
I entered my first church at 34 years old, looking for a deeper spiritual connection that I had found in other areas of my life. I went “church shopping” and was surprised at how little heartfelt communication was happening, especially compared with the 12 Step fellowship out of which my spiritual curiosity had grown. This changed from church to church but the churches I visited were certainly not hotbeds of introspection.
It seemed that church folk frequently wear a public face of “doing just fine, thank you” when often they are not. Concealing feelings was not unfamiliar to me; after all I was in long-term recovery from substance use disorder. My addiction was, I believe, directly related to concealing feelings, as well as biological, social, spiritual and psychological components.
The church can be (but is not necessarily) a good place to avoid yourself by focusing on other people, places and things. By doing so, a lot of very good stuff gets done by a lot of good people in a lot of good churches.
But the traditional posture of many churches is to serve the less fortunate, not to be one of them. Church has been a part of my life for about twenty years and there has been a gradual (and, in some cases, a precipitous) drop in attendance across the country and across denominations. Part of that decrease is directly related, I believe, to people beginning to openly wonder whether church really helped them cope with day-to-day life.
People struggling with a variety of issues, alcohol and other drugs being among them, began to vote with their feet and walk away from churches that did not seem relevant or vital to their daily lives. They either sought help elsewhere, or they didn’t seek it at all. In my experience as a pastor who is deeply involved with community in its myriad manifestations ~ when people seek help it is common for them not to even think of church as an option.People increasingly think of the church as even more broken than they are. In the church’s brokenness; in its ensnarement in accusations of hypocrisy; systemic sexual exploitation of children; dwindling attendance and emptying coffers; in the aging of its members and shrinking of its Sunday Schools ~ the church has become spiritually ill, grieving and despondent ~ just like the alcoholics and drug addicts meeting in church basements and back rooms. And just like the alcoholic and drug addict who is desperately seeking sobriety in a life-and-death struggle ~ the church also came to desperately seek salvation in its own life-and-death struggle for survival.
In the same way in which an intoxicated alcoholic resists an admission of defeat and a need for help, the church has reluctantly, although increasingly, become willing to go to any lengths to regain physical and spiritual health and balance ~ including being ministered to by those to whom they had previously ministered.
Like many alcoholics who finally quit drinking (but not before there may have been irreparable damage to their vital organs) ~ many churches openly wonder if their cry for help has come too late, and that not even dialysis of the soul, or transplant of the heart and mind can save them.
Desperation is indeed a great motivator. But not everyone who is desperate is motivated to change. Not everything living is meant to live for long. Not every attempt at remission and recovery is blessed with longevity. Many churches are dying.
But there is hope. There is hope for churches with dwindling membership. There is hope for 12 Step fellowships witnessing persistent relapse. There is hope for people with substance use disorders who have not relapsed but still feel spiritually unfulfilled. Church people have a lot of gain from 12 Steppers (whether they go to 12 Step meetings or not); and 12 Steppers have a lot of gain from church (whether they go to church or not). We are, I believe, journeying separately to the same destination. As a matter of fact, I am absolutely convinced we are. Now strap yourselves in ~ we are in for the ride of our lives!
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