Recovery groups are the hottest ministry in many churches today, as well as in society at large. Some say that the recovery movement is dead, but the numbers certainly challenge that. Such groups often replace small groups and Bible studies as the place to go to become enfolded in the local church. They offer hope to seekers who have accepted the concept of a Higher Power and are now trying to find Him. They provide an efficient means of ministering to men and women addicted to alcohol, drugs, sex, food, gambling and spending, as well as to incest survivors, adult children of alcoholics and co-dependents. Recovery groups can be a boon for many of these people, but they can also create pandemonium in fragile people if not handled well.
Back in the days of Christopher Columbus, maps showed the known world. Then beyond, out in the unknown, the map-maker would draw a picture of a great monster and write, "Here there be dragons." It was a testimony to the danger, yet opportunity, that lurked in the deeps. Few had ventured beyond the known world and most were sure that by sailing into dragon territory, they risked falling off the edge of the earth.
The church today stands at the edge of another map with the opportunity of serving the wounded lambs of a fallen culture. However, the most familiar method of ministry is the 12-step program, complete with its advantages and disadvantages. Anyone trying another approach hears cries of "Danger! Here there be dragons!" How can the church serve the recovery community with good rather than with harm? How do we avoid support groups that look like every other one in the community? How do we offer healing rather than mere recovery? After years of ministering to wounded people, I believe we can sail into the deep waters and take on the dragons. But to do so safely, we must avoid the rocks.
- The Program Becomes A God: This is the biggest problem I have seen in recovery programs. Participants are enthusiastic about the power of the group to attain and maintain sobriety, a term used for abstaining from any addiction. However, many, including some Christians, give their 12-step group most of the credit for their abstinence, often to the exclusion of Jesus. I've known several who have been in 12-step programs for years and attend church faithfully, yet don't have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. It's easy to make the program into a god and Jesus into a tool, although few will admit that's what they are doing. Leaders must take care to keep Jesus Christ clearly at the center of any recovery program.
- Recovery Is Never-Ending. I was at a church-sponsored recovery program awhile back and heard several people say, "Hi, I'm ___ and I'm an addict." Each of these people has been clean and sober for over 10 years. At what point do they have the right to say, "Hi, I'm Joe and I've been healed from my addiction by the blood of Jesus Christ!"? The 12-step model encourages people to "work the program" "one day at a time" for the rest of their lives. As believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, we must seek more than a lifetime of getting by. Jesus came to set the captives free, not to offer them a program.
- Recovery Becomes Works-Oriented. Because of this ongoing, daily struggle for sobriety, 12-step recovery becomes a works-oriented program rather than an opportunity to see the power of Jesus Christ glorified in a once-broken life. The gospel is a gospel of grace, not works, and our churches must take care not to stay in the safe shallow waters of works.
- Leaders Can Bring Their Own Baggage. While this can be a problem in any ministry, it seems to come with the territory in recovery ministries. Most of the leaders are people who are simply further along in the program and who are admittedly still addicts. Often training in good leadership skills is limited. Yet these people are being asked to lead groups of the most wounded people with the fewest group participation skills. It doesn't make sense! When leaders fail or their own issues get in the way, wounded people are wounded again. We must assure that our recovery leaders are the best trained in the church, not the least trained.
- Members Are Perceived As In Need Of Fixing. Because of the emphasis on lifelong recovery, members are often devalued because they aren't as far along as the leaders. This attitude leads to caretaking and feeds co-dependency. Members become problems to be solved rather than people in process. We must develop groups that honor each person, recognizing that we are weak human beings with a lifetime of dysfunction to overcome, while at the same time acknowledging that each of us is created in the image of God and can be healed by Him. An effective group will be both tough and loving, always drawing the person to healing, while at the same time nurturing the wounded spirit.
- Confidentiality is Breached: This is one of the most important, yet most violated tenets of any recovery group — what is said in the group remains in the group and the only person free to share information outside of the group is the person who owns that information. Even in the best of groups, there will be an occasional slip of the tongue, but too many of these will create a fear of the honest sharing and accountability that leads to true healing. Leaders need to be well trained to take immediate and firm action when confidentiality is breached and to avoid being the breachers.
Each church or ministry must come to its own philosophical and theological decision about how to handle people in recovery. But may I encourage you to consider sailing into dragon territory and develop a recovery program that believes in total and complete healing based on the finished work of Jesus Christ. Yes, "here there be dragons," but beyond the dragons you will find a wonderful new land, as yet unexplored by many churches.