She was in her 60s and had been an alcoholic for many years at that point. To know her was to know a sweet, kind, and godly woman. She served in our congregation, she always smiled, and she worshipped with passion and intensity. Yet, underneath these layers was an addictive habit that was consuming her life. I would never have guessed it if she hadn’t confessed it. It was an important lesson for me to learn about addictions. Addicted individuals hide among the church all the time.
When I worked in a small church in rural Southern Ohio, in an area with a nationally recognized drug problem, it was easier to see those who were struggling. Often people wore their struggles on their sleeves and, because the town was small, their sins were well documented and known. When I moved into a larger church in a major metropolitan area I assumed that the problems would be worse, but frequently less evident among the congregation. That is, to some degree true. What I was not prepared for, however, was the amount of addicted individuals hiding among the general congregation. Addiction does not own one demographic, social class, economic position, or type of church attender. What I have learned from serving in a larger church is that addicted individuals are better at hiding their struggles, but they are not any less present.
This is important for all of us to remember as we seek to love one another well. Paul tells us plainly that there is “no temptation…that is not common” (1 Cor. 10:13). I’ve argued elsewhere that we are not really any different from those who struggle with substance abuse, that in fact there is an element of the “addictive personality” in us all (see here). It’s important, however, to remember that there are those who struggle with substance abuse among us. Many pastors and fellow church members are reluctant to accept this as a possibility. “Not at our church,” we tell ourselves. Such an attitude, however, will keep those who struggle from being honest and asking for help. Maybe your church really doesn’t have that problem, but it should aspire to have people coming through the doors who do have that problem. If we act like substance abuse could never happen among our members then either those who struggle will remain enslaved in secret, or those who do struggle will never come to your church. Our churches must think and communicate differently.
We want to say: Addicts Welcome! Not because we love addiction or because those who struggle can remain in their sin, but because church is a place for sinners to find love, hope, and healing. Paul urges the Galatians:
Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. (Gal. 6:1)
We have a responsibility for one another! And because of the pervasiveness of addiction we should assume that there are those struggling with addiction among us. If we assume they are there then several key things will happen: (1) those who struggle will come forward; (2) more will start coming to our church; (3) we will be more prepared to help them when they do.
The church is the best place for addiction ministry to take place. The more informed, educated, and prepared we are the better we can serve. Strive to be a church welcoming to addicted individuals and you will be a church that ministers to them well. They are among us – they are us – and we have a responsibility to one another. Are we and our churches prepared?