Are 12 step groups more like the Church than church?

Two strange things that happened to me in the last 24 hours…

1. I went snowshoeing on Mt Rainier with with my shirt off… January…and was quite warm. But that’s not the weird thing. The weird thing was that some guy called my name out and I looked over and he said his name was Paul. “Paul?” “Yeah Paul, from Costa Rica.” In 1994 I went on a mission trip with my church and we visited the Robinsons in Costa Rica. Fifteen years later I run into this guy on the mountain. I wouldn’t have recognized him at all.   When I asked him how he recognized me he said that his brother was showing him pictures of me on Rainier 3 weeks earlier that he had pulled off of Facebook.  Weird.Rainier no shirt

2. I went to a sexaholics meeting on Monday at noon. Usually I go to one that meets Sunday at 7am but I wanted to check one out with a different format. Anyways, they meet at a church in Bellevue and when we got there the building they normally meet at was locked. So, after a little bit of discussion about alternative locations and realizing there were none they decided to meet… the parking lot. Weird.outdoor-sa

It got me thinking. There’s been a post that I’ve been meaning to write for  a while that revolves around what I have learned from programs that involve and include society’s rejects. In many ways it seems like they have this whole church/Jesus thing figured out more than I ever had growing up attending and working in churches.  This is not, in fact, a new concept. Philip Yancey wrote about finding God in the most unexpected of places like in AA and SA meetings. If you ask anyone who consistently attends a meeting they will say that they see their meeting as “church” and in fact most do not feel comfortable  being “themselves” in a “real church.”  I am not interested in creating a Therapy Group vs. Institutional Church discussion here but I would like to post some thoughts and experiences that I have observed and learned since hanging out with the crowd that bears the label of society’s “losers.”

Here are some observations about Sexaholics Anonymous which I think would probably be true about other “support groups” as well.

  • People are drawn by their brokenness and weakness not their strength or their moral  flair.
  • You can go to any number of meetings/locations and accomplish the same thing using different people, modes, and cultures.The only thing they have in common is the issue that they are trying to fix. Some drive their Mercedes Benzes and others take the bus. People are dressed in suits dry-cleaned daily and the homeless arrive in their seasonally changed outfit. There is no ethnic or demographic trend. This does not impede the purpose of them meeting. Actually, it facilitates it.
  • You know why people are there. The purpose is very openly stated and the structure is very clear. They know they are broken. Because they come, you know that they need help. You do not get any brownie points for coming in fact, most will actually look down on you.
  • It is not dependent upon any one particular leader. The groups are self-led and new secretaries are elected every 3 months. If a leader doesn’t show the group carries on without skipping a beat.
  • And evidently, it is not dependent upon a location. Most of the locations consist of a circle of folding chairs in a basement. Locations and times change constantly and if for some reason the building disappears you can just meet in the parking lot.

Like I said, I don’t just want to be critical and church bash but I think that this brings up a series of questions that any responsible church attender/Chrisitan is forced to deal with.

These are my questions:

  • Who are the “heroes” at church? Is it the weak or the strong? Is it possible to look up to the strong and still teach/believe that Jesus wanted us to be weak?
  • Realistically, can our church services cross culture? What happens when you combine the rich and poor or even people who have different tastes in music? When I see a homeless person at our church, why do I notice it right off? And why does part of me thinks that he’s in the wrong place?
  • Why do many broken people not “fit in” at church?
  • What would happen if one week the leader didn’t show up? What if all the leaders didn’t show up?….for 6 months. Would the church survive?
  • What if the building disappeared? What if the church is no longer able to afford any building? OR what if we lived in China and were not allowed to gather in large public groups? Would the church survive?

I want to be clear. I don’t think any one of the above questions is the problem or the solution. I have found it interesting observing the very different structures found in a typical church and many of these groups. It has merely led me to ask the question:

Are we content with the product that our structure is producing?

I would love to hear your thoughts.


5 thoughts

  1. I have no opinion about this but you might be on to something…….

    (okay, that’s a lie, you know I have an opinion, but you said, so I won’t, I don’t think I, what was the?, oh yeah, content with the, structures we’re producing, no, content produced by our structures, um, that’s a good, well maybe, actually, oh shoot, what is that funny smell?, what if what?, oh yeah, structures, wait, I left a burrito in the microwave….)

    Now I’m beginning to wonder if that’s what you meant by “hear your thoughts”….

  2. Very interesting post, Ben. Reading it over, it speaks to me. Sometimes I feel like at church there is an “A” List group (the leaders and the more visible members) that I am not part of. I’ve often wondered–especially during what I think of as the “morning cocktail hour”* between services–what the people would think if they knew that brothers and sisters with emotional struggles (depression/OCD) are in their midst.

    *This is something I thought of some months ago. Instead of martinis and appetizers, we have coffee and doughnuts. But I sometimes feel as out of place as I would if I was at a real cocktail part

  3. Ben… I attend Alcoholic Anonymous and have asked myself the same question… is this not more like what Church could be?

    The reason I believe 12-step groups of whatever kind reach us at such a deep level is because of our singleness of purpose. We are really not there for too much more than our sobriet/recovery.

    Churches on the other hand have taken on so many agenda. The basic purpose of churches I feel is diluted with programs and agenda. While they may all be great ideas, it complicates the basic purpose right out the door some times.

    Also, since many of us are in crisis in 12-step programs, we are hungrier for God and more open to connecting with him. Again, less time or energy for a lot of complicating issues.

    I believe the Bible deeply but do not attend church currently. I attend a number of AA meetings weekly which is where I spend time with God and receive from him.

    The whole program was based on the Bible in the first place and is a fabulous track to run on to live a Christian life.

    Church in my experience has had a lot of pretentions and unrealistic performance expectations. And just too much “stuff” for me!

    Until I feel a direction otherwise, AA is my fellowship for now. Similar to what you are experiencing in your fellowship.

    Ciao. Chaz

  4. there’s a sign-in sheet at my meetings and one of the things you are supposed to fill in is a column that asks “how do you feel right now?” and after much deliberation yesterday I put down “powerless.” I felt a little embarrassed to write that and pass it on so others could see it, but the next lady turns to me and said “That’s a good place to be.”
    It was so cool.
    Can you imagine telling a stranger at church that you felt powerless? Pffft.

  5. My SA meetings seemed like what church was supposed to be back when I was a believer. There aren’t many churches where an avowed atheist will be genuinely welcomed. In fact, my SA friends are the only ones I feel safe enough with to share that with.

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