The AA Model of Church


Last night, as is my usual practice, I headed over to the local “8:05 Group” of Alcoholic Anonymous for my weekly does of 12 Step education.

For the record, just in case anyone is wondering, I don’t have the disease of alcoholism. I understand that God has allowed me the ability to have a beer or two and stop, unlike me friend who reminded me that if I took her out for a beer she’d drink 10 and throw up on my shoes. While there is some alcoholism in my extended family, enough to suggest that Al-Anon probably isn’t a bad idea, I’m not “qualified” to attend AA. However, I’ve been blessed to enter into relationship with a local group that has adopted me, knowing that I am using the 12 Steps to better understand Christian discipleship. And so on Saturday nights, when I should be finalizing the details on my sermon, I head over to a church basement to listen and learn.

While most of the time our Saturday meetings involve a speaker telling their story (making me come to a new appreciation for the power of testimony) we recently started a new format on the 1st Saturday in which we read one of the testimony stories in the back of the “Big Book” and then discuss it. While folks who hang out in the AA world are very familiar with the first half of the Big Book (the sections that describe the process of recovery), very often they miss out on the wealth of personal stories in the back which offer insight into the nature of our powerlessness and denial, and the power of AA to bring forth transformation. Last night we read together a story titled “Crossing the River of Denial” in which a woman shares her own story of thinking that alcoholism was someone else’s problem, not hers, and documenting  all the ways she stayed in denial about her situation.

It was in the course of that story, a story that resonated in our own inability to recognize our own brokenness and weakness and need for God’s grace, that a sentence jumped out at me that encapsulates what AA can teach the church. It was at the point where the woman had began her recovery, losing her job and status in the course of her transformation. She wrote:

I think that God knew that He had to show me early on that there was nothing a drink would make better. He showed me that His love and the power of the steps and the Fellowship could keep me from picking up a drink one day at a time, sometimes one hour at a time, no matter what.

The words in bold above seem to me to represent one of the clearest and most easily understood descriptions of Christian discipleship in the context of a local church that I’ve experienced. As I read the sentence again and again, I realized that this threefold pattern represents how true discipleship (that is, discipleship that leads to transformation, wholeness, and serenity) is to be lived out in the world today. Moreover, as a person in the Wesleyan tradition, this pattern represents the practical successor to the Wesleyan Class Meeting, and is something that must be regained in our life together if we are to truly engage in making disciples of Jesus Christ.

Of course, it all begins with God’s love — the amazing grace of Jesus Christ — which forms the foundation of our belief and practice. That is the starting place of everything we do — the love of God — which (according to Paul) is inseparable from us (Romans 8). While the 12 Steps represent a process for transformation and healing, the first steps are built on a belief in a God (Higher Power) who deeply loves us and is doing everything He can to reconcile us to Him. Our ability to admit our powerlessness and to surrender our lives to the power of God can only be done when we believe in a God who wants the best for us, a God who isn’t out to get us, yes a God whose love is more powerful than we can imagine.

But while God’s love is the foundation of all that comes, true healing requires a process for transformation. Certainly I believe that God has the power to miraculously transform all of us in an instant (instant sanctification, to use a term from the Holiness tradition). But for most of us, personal change comes through some sort of process. For alcoholics, addicts of all stripes, co-dependents, and still others that process involves working one’s way through a series of steps which lead one to recognize the need for surrender, address in tangible ways the consequences of our past actions, and grow personally through both an inward (meditation and prayer) and outward (service to others) focus. In the early Wesleyan tradition, this process involved holding fast to a set of “General Rules” which call followers of Jesus to avoid bad things, embrace doing good things, and engaging in a series of practices that helps one grow in the love of God and love of neighbor. In both cases, the process represents a means by which we cooperate with God (another good Wesleyan notion) to embrace our identity as beloved children of God and to cast aside those things which keep us from being fully who God created us to be in the first place. One of the reasons I remain a United Methodist is likewise a reason why the 12 Steps grab me — the belief that we are on a journey, moving on to perfection, in which a process or series of practices moves us along.

The third aspect of recovery/discipleship is something that the church has generally lost in the course of our personalized faith which lays out a Horatio Alger narrative in which one is supposed to be able to grow and succeed based on their determination and personal character rather than some sort of connection to a community. More and more in our modern world we’ve lost the value of what we Methodists call “The Connection,” that is the core belief that we are interconnected to one another and that our ability to be transformed is connected to your ability to be transformed. While we in the church seem to believe that discipleship is just about “me and Jesus,” our friends in the AA community know from personal experience that there is power in “the fellowship,” that is the coming together to authentically share each other’s experiences and grow and learn from them. An alcoholic that wants to quit quickly learns that the road to healing doesn’t come through locking one’s self up in a room with the Big Book (although, there are probably worse things to do!). No, new members of AA are often encouraged to do a “90 in 90,” that is, to attend 90 AA meetings in 90 days, recognizing that simply participating in the meeting has a power that facilitates transformation. New members of AA are encouraged strongly to obtain a sponsor, a mentor who has been through the process and can be a sounding board when one finds one’s self tempted from sobriety. AA understands and recognizes that transformation rarely happens alone, for it’s hard work and we need the support of one another along the way. Likewise, true discipleship requires an understanding that we need one another to truly grow in faith, and that presence with the community of faith may be as important as the daily prayer practice in the back room of your house. Howard Thurman, the pastor/theologian and mentor to Martin Luther King Jr., once described church as the place where we share one another’s experiences of God, testing them against one another, and in doing so we obtain a fuller picture of God’s nature. That my friends is exactly what happens in the fellowship of AA, as people share from their hearts. They affirm this at the end of every meeting, in which they challenge one another to “keep coming back, it works if you work it!” What would it mean for the church if we likewise not only sent folks to serve, but included a reminder to return, for in returning we gain the grace and knowledge that allows us to go again and again?

Christian discipleship, for me (and I would suggest for all in the Wesleyan tradition) involves these three aspects: 1) A rootedness in the love of God; 2) an active process of practices which leads us to grow in the knowledge and love of God, and helps us to better love one another; and 3) a recognition that we are not in this alone, and that fellowship is a key practice which empowers us to help others.

It doesn’t get much simpler than that. Certainly our friends in AA get it. I wonder when we might fully get it as well?

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