Tim (not his real name) has struggled with going to church for most of his adult life. He wants to go. He feels that it is what God wants of him, yet he is very fearful of church people. Having come out of the LGBT community, and having been involved in a life of drugs and alcohol in his past he has not always been treated kindly. If people knew his story he is certain that they would be hate him and be cruel. “It’s happened before,” he says. My heart breaks for Tim. I’ve come to love and appreciate him. I’ve come to enjoy his company and his kindness. I desperately want for him to feel safe and welcomed at church. The church needs to revisit how it thinks about community within the body. We need to become expand our view past family-friendly and comfort-focused ideals and see the value in becoming recovery cultures. My final desire for the future of Evangelicalism centers around becoming recovery culture churches.
Recovery Culture churches are places where everyone is able to acknowledge both our brokenness and struggle, and where we acknowledge our responsibility to help point one another towards the hope, help, and healing of God’s transforming grace. Both pieces of that definition are vital as the shape a church culture for the better. They not only help to cultivate communities of compassion and sensitivity, but the also cultivate communities of support and care. This ought to be the goal of all churches.
It’s not just Tim who needs to feel welcomed and safe at church. There are many more people like him in our communities who want to come to church but fear judgment. There are others among us already who hide because they are fearful of expressing their struggles. Far too many churches have settled for playing the polite church game. In such communities we cannot be honest about struggles, we cannot tell people how we are really doing, we cannot voice our failures. To do so is to be less than perfect and to stand out among the sea of “perfect people” in way that invites shame and judgment. Often, even churches that want to be different settle for accepting and acknowledge some sins as okay to confess, but not others. Confess that you struggle with selfishness or pride and people will applaud you for your honesty. Say that you have an addiction to pornography and people won’t know what to do. They’ll awkwardly thank you and then never mention it again.
Most Christians, and especially pastors, want to be better at confession and vulnerability, but most of the time we are not willing to be made uncomfortable at church. Concerns about safety, finances, “growth” (by which we mean numbers) consume us. If we start acting like a recovery culture we risk losing a lot. Yet, however valid some of those fears may be, they are keeping people from finding hope and help and healing. We need to strive for a bigger vision. We need to recognize our solidarity with one another. All of us are broken, some wear it more graphically on their sleeves, but we are all equally broken. We have no room to pretend that our sins are better. God does not have “respectable sins” in his church, we shouldn’t either.
Furthermore, we need to see more clearly our responsibility for one another. The Scriptures are replete with “one another” commands. We are commanded to “rebuke one another,” “love one another,” and “bare one another’s burdens” (just to name a few of our responsibilities). God does not give us the option of passing this role off to some other organization or group. It is our responsibility. We need then not only to increase in compassion but to increase in counseling-competency. We need to be able to speak the truth in love, to encourage and build up one another. We need to see that the heroin addict is our brother and we have a responsibility to help him find hope and help. We need to believe that God can equip us to care for that broken marriage in our small group, and empower us to help that couple on the verge of divorce. Recovery culture churches are not just compassionate places, they are places of activity. Where we bear one another’s burdens and take part in one another’s spiritual growth.
I have spent the last eight years working with addicts in varying degrees and roles. I have come to learn much about them and us through those relationships. I have benefited immensely from those friendships and, I hope, been a help to others. I believe that the church needs to work harder to be the kind of community that invites people like Tim into fellowship and points him to the hope, help, and healing of God’s transforming grace. It is because of this passion that I am writing my first book on Recovery Culture Churches, and attempting to outline a plan for church-based addiction counseling. I am hopeful that it will start a greater conversation on this specific aspect of the future of Evangelicalism.