About a year and a half ago, a new member to our church community came with a request. He shared that he and his wife were recovering alcoholics, and that they were dedicated adherents to the AA 12 Step Movement, attending meetings almost every night. He noted that there were no meetings in our immediate area, and asked if our church might be willing to host a meeting one night a week.
I had been aware of the power of 12 step groups to bring forth personal transformation for a while, although at that time I had never attended one. I was excited about the chance for our building to be used by a group of folks we might never otherwise have contact with, and I was all in. I took the request to our Trustees and Church Council, not really knowing how they would respond because they can sometimes be pretty protective of “their” building, but to my surprise they endorsed the proposal without hesitation.
Soon after, the 8:05 Group began to meet at our church — an open meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous — with 8 people. These days, almost a couple of years later, it’s not unusual for 20 or 30 people to be a part of that group, and the group has added a second “speakers meeting” night in which someone will stand and share their story of recovery. Because these meetings are open to all, they welcomed me into the community even though I was a crazy pastor who really didn’t have an alcohol problem but was simply interested in the authentic sharing of one’s struggles found in those groups. In those meetings I learned about the power of working a process for transformation in a new way that I hadn’t really considered before even though I was a pastor in a tradition which claimed a heritage of a “methodical” faith. The group reaffirmed for me other things I was learning about the power of authenticity and vulnerability, as well as the need for confession of who we really are as we seek to walk in the way of Christ. In the first three steps I began to reflect again on my vain desire to control my life, and my need of God’s grace. The group welcomed me with open arms with a spirituality that was fresh and real — even when folks struggled with the trappings of institutional religion.
Those experiences led me toward the sermon series we are now in the middle of: 12 Steps to Transformation. In this series I am suggesting (as my Bishop, Bill McALilly affirmed for me) that the 12 Step movement is in fact the successor to the early Wesleyan class meeting, and that while God CAN bring forth instantaneous holiness in conversion, most of us have to work a process toward perfection in love. The 12 steps represent a spiritual process that can lead toward personal transformation.
It’s interesting to see where this is leading us. When I promoted the series in our local Facebook group I was contacted by a variety of neighbors who (for a variety of reasons) can’t attend worship on Sunday mornings, but who wanted to follow the series. This led us to start posting the sermons on our web site each Sunday follow the service. This also led to the forming of our first LIVE! Group, which is a small 12 step related group “for the rest of us.” We are still working out the details of how that group will function, but so far there has been a willingness toward openness and authenticity not usually seen in the traditional Sunday School class.
I share all this to set the stage for a further conversation about the possibility of the 12 steps serving as a model for communal transformation. While my focus has been their place in personal metanoia, it’s occurred to me along the way that congregations (or even denominations) could benefit from a good dose of working through the steps as they seek change. After all, for many traditional mainline congregations like the one I serve, there is a deep and abiding sense of helplessness, that our congregational lives are unmanageable and unsustainable, and that we need God’s help in experiencing change. However, rather than surrendering to God and working through steps to transform us, we tend to try and control our losses through the creation of new programs and tweaking our church structures. We need to let go and let God work, but instead we think that we have the knowledge and skill to make everything right on our own. We are like alcoholics who think that we don’t have a problem, when in fact we have an enormous problem that we have no control over. And for many of us, we aren’t that far from lying in street absolutely confronted by the reality of our addiction to the way things have always been.
We as a church need to be transformed — and there is a process that has brought forth healing and transformation in millions of lives — the 12 steps of AA which offer a vision of a different way of being.
My hope in the days and weeks ahead is to think about how these steps might apply to the life of a traditional church in need of transformation. The plan is to reflect on each step as it relates to the church’s need for change. I make no claims of actually working this process through the congregation that I serve, but rather this is a clarifying of my thoughts about whether this process would actually have meaning for my church leaders. I hope you will consider following along and helping me think through what it might mean for a congregation to be transformed through an application of the 12 steps.