A Review of “The Recovery Minded Church” by Jonathan Benz and Kristina Robb-Dover

recoverymindedShe did not fit the stereotype of an addict. This 24-year-old girl was articulate, intelligent, and pretty. She seemed smart and full of potential, but she was also addicted to meth. It was an important realization in those early days of my ministry: every addict is an individual with a unique story. As she told me hers I felt immense compassion. It was a major turning point in my career as I began to feel the need for the whole church to be prepared to compassionately care for individuals just like this girl. Jonathan Benz and Kristina Robb-Dover feel the same way. The Recovery-Minded Church is a wonderful call to compassion, but sadly the book has little more than compassion to offer. While compassion is essential to “ministering to people with addiction,” we need more than compassion to become “recovery-minded churches.”

The book is broken down into two sections, summarized as: (1) Tools for loving people with addiction, and (2) Tools for creating a recovery-friendly church. The book’s biggest selling point is its call to greater compassion. Jonathan Benz, in particular, has been ministering to and with addicts since he was a child, watching his father do similar work. Now as a professional in the field of behavioral health and substance abuse (since 2008) he focuses heavily on this struggle. With such a background he is quick to dismiss myths about addicts being particularly “bad people.” He demonstrates a level of sensitivity and compassion that the church desperately needs.

Regularly readers will be reminded of the similarities between their own stories and those of the addict. The authors write:

When addicts are not just the heroin pushers or prescription pill junkies “out there,” but are in our pews and among us, we are in the right position to begin helping addicts step into recovery…So getting addicts into recovery means first standing in solidarity with addicts, recognizing that their plight and their stories are hitched to our own and in many ways are similar. (23)

I’ve often told people that we are all addicts. None of us is free from the enslaving power of sin and the overwhelming struggle with temptation. We have much more in common with the substance abuser than we care to admit, but Benz and Robb-Dover are right to encourage us to admit it.

The authors give us some great help in cultivating compassion, but also in thinking through particularly tricky situations. Should you give financial support to someone? How should you handle someone who shows up high or drunk to your church service? How do you respond to a staff member who is showing signs of addictive behaviors? They also give some wonderful suggestions on conducting a successful intervention, or at least being involved in one. There’s much to commend in this first part of the book.

In part two they also contribute some wonderful counsel on cultivating a healthier culture for addiction care. They encourage the role of community in sustaining an individual’s fight for sobriety. They also point out specific ways that the church has treated addiction like a worse sin (though they refuse to call addiction sin – more on that below). They encourage a better approach to ending shame and stigma associated with addiction in the church. Various testimonials from interviews conducted by the author show just how much work the church has to do to promote support and compassionate care among its body for addicts.

I loved this book’s focus on encouraging compassion. The author’s themselves regularly assert how essential this work is for ministering to addicts. We need to become recovery-minded churches. Sadly, however, the authors often fall short of comprehensive engagement. Their views about the nature of addiction, and the process of engagement, have led to what I believe is a deficient model of care and support.

Ultimately the authors are convinced of a “disease-model” of addiction. Such a view immediately limits what they believe the church can do. Because addiction is a disease and because the church is not full of clinical professionals the bulk of our role is simply in referral. The authors attempt to suggest we should do more, and they do offer some good practical tips on cultivating compassion, but ultimately the real help comes from those outside the church. So we are told:

Connections with trusted Christian recovery programs in your area, AA groups and therapists are essential (22)

Every pastor should therefore have an addiction recovery referral list on hand. (31)

Regularly the authors point to AA, NA, or therapy as the solution to addiction. They advise, of course, the church’s support of individuals in these programs, but ultimately the real help of recovery is found there, outside the church.

I am less convinced of this view and of the argument that the church must refer. The very fact that the disease model does not recommend a pharmacological solution suggests that the church can play a much more vital role in the recovery process than just support and referral. We can be involved in the active counseling stage.

There are other problems, however, with the authors’ adoption of the disease model. They insist that we cannot call addiction sin. They authors very harshly warn:

To equate [an addict’s] resulting chemical dependency with sin or to seek to localize that sin somewhere along the path of its development into a full-blown disorder is senseless, cruel and pharisaical. (66)

They even go so far as to state that sinful behaviors flowing from an addiction should not be labeled as sinful. They write:

If an addiction has led to sinful behaviors, labeling these behaviors as sin (even if they are) is also not helpful to the addict. (53)

This is very disheartening to read. The Scriptures themselves testify that calling sin “sin” is one means by which we find help, hope, and healing. The apostle James writes:

Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. (James 5:16)

Furthermore, Kent Dunnington has done a tremendous job of validating the theological language of “sin” in the conversation about addictions (see Addiction and Virtue). He does this without losing any sense of the compassion we ought to have as we care for others. In fact, I would argue a comprehensive doctrine of sin helps us to develop the appropriate balance of compassion and responsibility. We are robbing our friends of the help they need by denying them the opportunity to identify and confess their sins.

Three is so much about the heart and the attitude of this book that I love. The authors’ desire to make the church more aware of its responsibility to love the addicts among us, to identify with our brothers and sisters, is to be commended. Sadly, however, their adoption of the disease model of addiction has turned them away from the counsel of Scripture and limited the role the church can play in their approach to treatment. I believe we do need to become recovery-minded churches, I just don’t believe The Recovery Minded Church will get us all the way there. We need more than referrals and compassion. We need a church engaged in the process of counseling, treating, and supporting. We don’t need to send people outside the church for help, we need to equip the people inside to be more helpful. That is what my own book is going to argue.

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