Synergies Between the Emerging Church and 12 Steps

Synergies Between the Emerging Church and 12 Steps August 23, 2013

The following is a guest post by Chris Estus. Chris is an “Aspiring Emergent.”  He left the friendly local mega-church in 2011 to start Pioneer at Asbury – A worshiping community of people in, in need of or interested in recovery.  He and his good Al-Anon wife Pat have lead the Pioneer Group since 2001.  His worship CD – The Chris Estus Band can be sampled at

I had my last drink of alcohol on July 24th 1999.  I ‘ll spare you the details, but suffice it to say, I had enough.   It had quit working.  My ways of fixing me had quit working too.  I went to AA the next day.  There I found a community of people that immediately welcomed me and seemed to have a solution.  I discovered that I was a sick person trying to get well, not a bad person trying to get good.  They explained that I had a fatal, progressive illness with no known medical cure.  But there was a solution.  One day at a time, just keep coming back and drink this bad coffee and pray and follow direction and take the steps and try to help somebody and don’t drink and you won’t get drunk and life will improve.  Seek God, Clean House, Work With Others.  They were and are right.  Since then I have been an active member of the fellowship and an active participant in my recovery and that of many others.   I haven’t had a drink since I showed up and my life has improved exponentially.

A few months after sobering up, a recovery friend invited me to the local friendly Non-Denominational Mega Church.  I loved the music, the atmosphere, the shiny everything.  The motivational seminar attitude and vibe was hopeful and vibrant.  I soon responded to an altar call, prayed the prayer, repented from not tithing all these years and went through the new members class.  I quit the bar band, became a Contemporary Christian Praise and Worship Artist and joined a home group.

It was at the home group that I started noticing something troubling.  About 10 of the home group members were alcoholics or addicts that had sobered up in AA or another 12-Step program.  They all became active in church.  They loved and studied and knew The Word.  Somewhere in the process each of them had somehow convinced themselves that:

  1. Identifying oneself as an alcoholic or addict was a “negative confession” or a “word curse.”
  2. They were now “new creations.”  All the old things had passed away etc.  Alcohol and drugs had no hold on them.  They were “no longer bound to sin.” 
  3. Therefore, they no longer needed 12-Steps, they needed 1-Step – Jesus. 
  4. Therefore, they didn’t need to be part of the program or go to meetings anymore. 

The problem with this was that most of them had started drinking again, and they all did eventually.   The good news is that after several divorces, treatment center stays and years of other punishment, all but one is back in recovery and sober today.  The bad news is that Earl didn’t make it.  He died drunk and took 5 more with him driving the wrong way up I-35.

It was then I decided that Christians really needed recovery. 

About this same time I was in a meeting when a long-time member started sharing about spirituality and religion.   He had grown up in a church-going family but was now more of a “New Thought” guy (Emmet Fox etc.).  He still occasionally attended church.   He told a story about being in his yard raking leaves when his charcoal grill caught his eye.  He thought to himself – “If my son did something wrong or didn’t believe the right stuff, would I fire up the grill and stick him on there for eternity?  No eff-ing way.”  He went on to say he was convinced that church and religion were for people who were afraid of hell and recovery and spirituality were for people who had already been there.

It was then I decided that recovery people really needed to see Christianity from a new perspective. 

After surveying the “Christian Recovery” options and finding them long on a certain “Christian” view and short on “Recovery”, my sponsors (mentors) and I decided to start The Pioneer Group in the summer of 2001.  The meeting has met every Friday night at 7:15 ever since.  It is an open study/discussion meeting.  Members come from AA, Alanon, Narcotics, Cocaine, Overeaters, Sexoholics, S-Anon etc.  Practicing Catholics, Protestants, Jews and those with no church affiliation are members.  Other interested people with no recovery connection attend as well.  They are always blown away by our transparency, our commitment to the program and the fellowship.  They also get to see discipleship through sponsorship that lasts a lifetime in many cases.

We study recovery literature and the Bible.   We read it out loud and discuss it in the style of a 12-Step meeting.  We try to do so in English or Recovery talk, not Christianese.  At first, many of us were learning to understand the Bible through the lense of our own experience and our understanding of the recovery literature.   We soon began to also understand the recovery literature and our experiences through the lens of the Bible as well. 

We are adamant that people don’t consider our group as a replacement for their regular 12-Step groups and meetings.   God didn’t sober us up so we can hide under a lampshade and bless each other.   We also encourage people to not use regular recovery meetings as a place to evangelize and sermonize.  It isn’t appropriate or effective.

We have had some success in our spheres of influence.  The Christians in my orbit have come around to understand why we identify the way we do, the disease concept and need for abstinence, the value of practicing the 12-Step program and going to meetings.  My “spirtitual not religious” recovery friends are more accepting of the Christian roots of the 12 Step movement.  They trust me as a “Spiritual Church Going Christian” who gets recovery and doesn’t preach at them.

Despite our efforts to bridge the gap between our “spiritual not religious” recovery friends and the church, many of them are reluctant to embrace Christianity in either its traditional or more contemporary practice or in doctrine.  Resentment towards organized religion is a barrier to entry for some.  However, most recovery people recognize resentment as the gateway to relapse, misery and death and therefore deal with it in the program.

The atheism and agnosticism of much of our culture is not much of a factor among my friends in recovery.  Our very lives depend on the power of God.  We all believe in Him and experience His Power.

The problem seems to me to be that many in recovery see their 12-Step programs and fellowships as their “church” and see no need or reason to embrace Christianity as now practiced in its traditional or contemporary form or doctrine.

Since stumbling into or upon the Emergent Conversation over the last few years, I have become convinced that it holds the key to bridging some of the gap.

I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with and unconvinced of aspects of the prevailing Christian narrative.  So much of it doesn’t line up with my experience in recovery and my understating of the Bible.  For years I have intentionally avoided certain study notes in the Life Recovery Bible we use that hammer home some of these doctrines.  Emergents are doing a wonderful service to all by holding up much of this entire narrative and its doctrines for examination.

The recovery movement points to an 80-year legacy of millions of people being transformed by the power of God.  It offers a model of discipleship that often continues for decades and only works if the sponsees become sponsors themselves.    You’ve got to give it away to keep it.  We live by a set of principles (the Steps) that any follower of Jesus would do well to emulate.

The Emergent Conversation offers a compelling way to look at religion, the Church, Christianity and Jesus.  It honors and does not ignore the Hebrew Scriptures and the Jewish Roots of the faith.  It embraces the idea of “God as we understand Him” rather than the idea of “God as we say He is according to our 6-line narrative.”  (Tip of the hat to Brian McLaren).   Most “Christian Recovery” expressions attempt to fit the 12-Steps into the prevailing “Perfection, Fall, Condemnation, Salvation, Perfection or Eternal Conscious Torment” paradigm.   Most churches attempt to present the Christian Faith along the same lines.

The Emergent Conversation affirms that Jesus instituted the Kingdom of God (Heaven) – HERE.  The Emergent Conversation, like recovery, is “always inclusive, never exclusive, it is open, we believe to all…” to quote our Big Book.  It asks questions and presents ideas about original sin, atonement theory, heaven and hell

We have started to look at the steps in light of emergent ideas.  Here is an example.  In July we had a meeting on Step 7 – Humbly asked to remove all these defects of character.

The scripture was Philippians 2:5-11.  The discussion centered on humility and transformation in light of the Solidarity Theory of Atonement.  God, through Jesus, totally understands our “defects” from the position of one who has experienced everything human including temptation, failure, foresakeness and death! He understands in the same way our sponsors understand our addiction, failure and foresakeness from actual experience.   He and our sponsors demonstrate a way to live by humble reliance on and obedience to the Father.

Later that month we discussed Step 2 – Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves would restore us to sanity.   This could have gone in the direction of  “Because of Adam, I’m a piece of crap destined for eternal conscious torment if not for the love of a God that killed his son instead of me.  If I take the steps, I’ll be pleasing to God and he will accept me and keep me sober. Also, if I pray the right prayer he’ll let me go to Heaven when I die”.  Instead, we talked about the how the Bible starts in Genesis 1 not Genesis 3.  We are already accepted as sons and daughters of God.  Sobriety, transformation and abundant, eternal life are ours already.  We take the steps to awaken to it.    

I am in looking for partners in a dialogue regarding Recovery and Emergent ideas.   

Recovery people and Emergents have much common ground from which to develop a dialogue.  My primary purpose is to carry the message of recovery to those that still suffer.  My hope is to be part of a dialogue that opens up the Church world to many of my friends in recovery.

If you would like to partner with Chris in this, please leave a comment for him. Also in the comments, share your experiences with 12 Steps and the church.

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  • Chris, I am interested in partnering with you in this mission. I am currently in seminary and also in recovery.

  • DanLambert

    I am very much in the same place Chris is, but my “addiction” is porn — one of the many taboo subjects in evangelicalism. I have been fortunate to find counselors who understand my issues and have helped a lot. A few close friends have admitted their own problems with porn and have even started a ministry to help others with porn addictions. The hard part has been finding pastors and church leaders who will even discuss it, let alone offer any helpful spiritual guidance. I have found a local church in my new location that seems to understand that real people are really messy. My experience with 12-step groups of various kinds has been a mixed bag. I look forward to continuing my journey of recovery and to helping others as I can.

    Dan Lambert

    • Chris Estus

      Hi Dan: You are not alone in the problem. Sad to say, too few find the Solution. My friends are part of SA. I pray for your continuing recovery.

    • K.S.

      Dan I know many people with long the sobriety from pornography addiction. If there are no 12 step programs in your area, I know that SAA, SLAA, SRA, SCA, and SA all have online and phone meetings. Each group is a little different, but it can be helpful to try a bunch of them. Also, getting through withdrawal is painful for pornography- the addiction drastically changes brain chemistry- much like cocaine. One day at a time. Peace.

  • Guest

    One of the strong traditions of 12-step recovery is anonymity. Anonymity is practiced differently by different people, but if you are trying to make connections withing the recovery community, you may want to provide some way to contact Chris other than through a public comment board. Is Chris willing to share an email address, or a webpage where we can submit anonymous comments, or something?

  • SarcasticLutheran

    thanks for this.

  • Guest

    Chrs E’s email, for those who want to contact him:

  • Sharla Hulsey

    I’ve been interested in the connection between the 12 steps and authentic Christian life for some time. I would like to be part of further conversation on this subject. I’ll PM you with my e-mail address.

  • Karen

    During my 30 years of sobriety I tried to get back to Church, it never took for some reason or another. Several Pastors told me I did not Need AA Now that I found God. I never lost God, I only lost the Church. Although sober my addictions got worse. I had a re conversion experience 2 months ago. God snapped handcuffs on me to set me free from my other addictions.
    I now go to a Common ground church, What was missing in my life, is now found.
    That AA is this all there is syndrome is gone. Belief in God helped me stay sober and lead a more honest life but I needed the Lords supper on a weekly basis to feel forgives and clean. I needed the forgiveness of Christ to open my ears.

    You will now find me listening to mostly to christian radio which just a few weeks ago I found offensive. There is one station that talks a great deal about porn addiction. About how jumping from bed to bed sets you up for not being able to be in a long term Marriage because you expect the first time fire works every time. and about how porn changes our ability to have marriage sex. There are preachers out there that do talk about Sexuality. I would love to talk to you Dan, Good luck.Real people are messy.

  • Ben von Ullrich

    D00d. I LOVED your article. You’re telling my story in so many ways. The Spiritual Awakening announced in step 12 takes many forms, but here in Seattle few seem to find it in Church. As you say, baggage about religion I agree is the primary blockage; that holds true for many postmoderns with dogmatic church in general, but is more acute for us AAs who are coming out of a purely spiritual community that we find exclusively in 12-step. I liked your take on the AA->church stumbling blocks very much.

    After years of sobriety I too tried conventional religion, going downstairs Sunday at my meeting’s church, where a liberal/open theology worked for a time, but I started noticing It Wasn’t Working with those in my midst there too, just as you did. Beliefs were not a problem, since this UCC church didn’t mind beliefs so much, but it was all the ignored brokenness everywhere that I was flabbergasted to see… small Earls everywhere, God rest his soul.
    I feel we AAs are MUCH more sensitive/invested/serious about our spirituality actually working than most folks are, ESPECIALLY in church! We have a keener sense of BS and dishonestly,,, or perhaps a greater fear of it and what damage it can do.

    The problem with modern religion is it tells you of a supernatural (intimidating) far-off guy with all these beliefs, and if you agree to all that you’ll be healed: belief, not connection/spiritual health/action, will save you. But what is completely missing is a real engagement with your perspective, experiences, your life as it is lived, and your real daily needs, met without judgement. Everything you need at Church is met with “follow these rules:” judgement, guilt, and worse a *strong incentive to never speak of what is really bothering you.*
    AA is the opposite! We only talk about what is really bugging us, and ALL the details are shared honestly, often with just one other person. This is why it works, we all embrace our brokenness, and share simple->profound paths out of the darkness. THEN we disciple one another and break free.

    It works better spiritually for that reason, and because if we don’t do the work, we will die. Untreated addiction ends in death or institutions. Every time. I often wish church had the same … motivation. In Church everything is rhetorical, optional, it is all an idealistic idol to be wished for, rarely obtained:

    Have you heard Peter Rollins speak of the similarities of Radical Theology to 12-step? That is where I first realized it, moreso than Emergent generally. If you aren’t familiar with Rollins, look him up on YouTube, I can’t remember which of the vids have him talking about this. (see last Pp here: ) But his idea of embracing brokenness without regard to one’s modern hangups & pretenses in a completely honest OPEN way is just breathtaking to be heard outside AA. I found this at last connecting what I have known in AA for the last 10 years to what I am trying to grasp in Christianity in half that time.

    You have founded the spiritual community I long for. I want to do or find that; neither church nor AA has the whole picture. I’ll be in touch!

    THANK YOU THANK YOU for the best article this year on Tony’s Theblogificator!!

    • Chris Estus

      DooooD! You so get it!! I might print this off and use it for our topic tonight!
      I’ll check out the Peter Rollins thing. Great tip. Email me so we can continue.

    • Melanie Storrusten

      Totally agree about the “ignored brokenness” in churches. Hidden brokenness, in fact. There is no first step in our church family.

      Also love Peter Rollins.

      Let’s start some “Sinners Anonymous” groups/churches. 🙂

  • Vicki A

    I loved that you said, “We are already accepted as sons and daughters of God.” It is so beautiful to believe that our Father cares for each child who comes into the world. No theological strings attached.

  • K.S.

    Chris- I got sober at 16 in AA/NA and have been considering starting a 12 step worship group. I have been through seminary, and am called to church planting, and prefer the emergent church “model.” I would love to connect with you about this. I am also sober for almost 8 years in another addiction, and have 19 years free from eating disorders. I need God to stay clean, sober, abstinent, and alive. I find that part of the problem in mainline churches is relevancy- people cant see how their lives depend on a relationship with God, and churches are not helping. I, too, find I need to translate The Life Recovery and Celebrate Recovery Bibles too much. I would like to see or participate in the creation of other literature connecting the Bible and 12 step. I am very excited to read about your work. Peace, Kimberly

    • Chris Estus

      Hi K.S. – Sober at 16!! Awesome. One of my friends got sober at 18 and he is 52 now. I told him last night when he is 89 and has 71 years he’ll be the last one standing at the Sobriety Countdown of the 2050 Int’l Convention. Please email me so we can connect.

  • Melanie Storrusten

    “Christians need Recovery.” DEFINITELY. I’m not in recovery, but am an addiction therapist. I am so grateful for my exposure to the 12-steps, and for me, the idea and importance (necessity) of finding a God of my own understanding was crucial (and mind-blowing). I think that one thing that the emergent church and people in 12-step programs have in common is our willingness to question things we have always held to be true. Sometimes life beats the willingness into us. 🙂 I have long wanted to create some resources for sharing these great principles of living with EVERYONE. I’m happy to be of help in any way I can. justmelanielanese at gmail dot com

  • dryan

    People headed in this direction:

    you are not alone.

    • Chris Estus

      Dr. Ryan; I’ve used your resources for years! Glad you saw this. I would welcome any comments or suggestions.

  • Tony Estus

    Your bother in Christ and your brother from the same mother, thinks your are giving grace and hope to those that need it most. God loves the great work he is doing through you, as do I. Thank you for your example of love and strength!

  • Samuel Brannon

    Sounds like you’re on to something. I’d partner with you.

  • Mike Soop

    Thank you. You expressed everything extremely well

  • Jon S Standley

    Met you at Club 12, have enjoyed your music many times. While in early sobriety in Houston, found the most awesome 12 step based church called Mercy Street on Greenbay in the Memorial area. First time there I probably knew 25% of the people in attendance. What is really unique and the one thing that makes this concept so dynamic is the ability to bring individuals from all 12 step programs together for worship. This also aids in helping one to “perfect and enlarge”. The most amazing experience was Christmas Eve Candlelight Services with 600 – 800 friends in recovery along with family members. God Bumps were plentiful that night.

    • Chris Estus

      Hey Jon: I’ve been to Mercy Street a number of times. That is the inspiration for our Pioneer at Asbury Saturday Night worship service. I’m still waiting for our crowd to “perfect and enlarge” for that one. Our Friday night Pioneer Group at Alamo Heights Methodist and Tuesday Night Pioneer Group at Haven for Hope are booming. Thanks for reading.

  • Daniel E Young

    I have been trying to figure out how to bridge the two worlds of AA and ‘earth people’ in the pews for years. As a 23 year recovering alcoholic UCC pastor in a progressive church, and having started several meetings at the church; we did experience some cross-over with folks migrating from the Fellowship Hall to the sanctuary, and all mixed quite well. But I continued to struggle with how to help regular pew folks to ‘get’ the genuine spirituality the folks from AA were bringing into our midst. I was able to do some of that via sermons, but frankly, the AA folks had it all over the non-AA folks.
    I’m now retired and have been asked by a local Episcopal church to figure out how to ‘start a meeting that offers the 12-steps and that includes folks with all kinds of issues that have power over their lives. I am so glad to see some other folks are making progress! I’d like to join the discussion! Thanks, and Blessings!

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