Why Can’t Church Be More Like an AA Meeting?
And Other Questions Christians Ask about Recovery
By Stephen R. Haynes
Introductory Caveat. I am an alcoholic, currently in my twenty-fifth year of sobriety. However, I did not do this through the Alcoholics Anonymous program. I’m aware that countless people have entered and remained in sobriety through that program, and for this I truly give thanks to God. Over the course of time, I have gone to meetings with friends who were just getting underway with sobriety, so I do have some knowledge/experience of meetings and how the program works. It was the first principle of AA that always stopped me; I had issues with the “Higher Power as I understand Him” language (as it was expressed at the time), and how the vision of the program and the relationships among its members emerged from that. Though I have certainly called on God in prayer for strength and grace in dealing with my addiction, my own way of working it out was that this was but one way I could regain control over my life, including control over my substance abuse.
Who’s it for? Anyone who is looking for a model of successful community/fellowship building. The basic dynamics of AA meetings (commitment to its goals and to other members, unfailing acceptance, regular forgiveness of failings, insistent expectation to continue or improve) are set forth as those which could be utilized by Christian communities to encourage and continue to promote healthy community and interpersonal relationships. As the author points out, many of these meetings take place on church sites (though he does not claim this is integral to or essential for their success).
Why is this book important? It is likely that anyone who is a member of a church community (and especially people who work in or minister to these communities) knows somebody who is, or who ought to be, in an addiction recovery program. Many lives have been touched in this way, and there is much information and insight contained in this volume to point a way forward, or to keep in forward motion in a healthy manner. The knowledge contained in this book could help many, many people.
Is this book practical? Though, as mentioned above, many lives have been touched—directly or indirectly—by the presence of AA and other recovery programs, Haynes does an excellent job of exploring familiar terms and realities more deeply than usually happens with just a casual or surface encounter. Even probing the term “addiction” and what it means and implies (or doesn’t) will be helpful to many. He also explains some of the pre-existing and organic connections between addiction/recovery, Christianity, the life of faith, scripture, and so on.
What is most helpful? This will likely be answered differently by different people. Some will find their lives being narrated in these pages (whether or not they are in, have been in, or need to be in, recovery). Others will gain knowledge that might be useful in dealing with an addict in their own lives. Still others may have their personal spirituality deepened by the many recovery-religious connections made herein. Each chapter is titled with a question (and a brief answer in parentheses), so readers can peruse the particular topics that may be of most interest.
Shortcomings. First: The chapter in which he attempts to answer what the church can bring to recovery programs (answer: theology) was not completely convincing to this reviewer, though it is solidly theological and broad in scope. The resonances between religion and recovery (addiction as sin, recovery as sanctification, the role of witness in AA meetings) are thoroughly surveyed, but what makes a religion a religion—faith and/or belief in . . . —is not truly expressed. Some alcoholics do indeed try to find “God in a bottle,” but how to avoid the danger of making AA (or any other recovery program) a replacement for God, how to avoid that idolatry seems to be evaded by the author.
Second: A brief chapter at the end delves into the matter of sexual addiction, largely via the areas of pornography and the internet/cybersex world. Though the similarities (and differences) of this addiction are noted, the author struggles, it seemed, not to be overly limited by the relationship of church/religion and sexual morality. Additionally, the book pays no attention to the increasingly common matter of cross-addiction, in which alcohol is one among several substances abused. (Some AA chapters have struggled in dealing successfully with cross-addicted people, who often need a level of psychological and/or physical intervention that is far beyond the scope of AA and its members.)
Overall. This is a well-researched and well-thought out book. It contains much material for reflection as to how the church can find models for its own communities within the people and communities of AA and other recovery programs.
Epilogue. During the time I was reading this book for this review, I assisted two people in finding and joining AA chapters that are explicitly non-religious or atheistic. Both had found the first principle with which I struggled twenty-five years ago to be problematic, even though for different reasons than I had. This seems to have been a growth area for AA recently, following the larger move of society away from [organized] religion/belief. It may be something of a mixture of coincidence and causality; only time will tell.
Haynes, Stephen R. Why Can’t Church Be More Like an AA Meeting? And Other Questions Christians Ask about Recovery. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2021. 195 pages. ISBN: 9780802878854.
REVIEWER: Alan Hommerding