God’s 12 -Step Group

I would encourage you to attend an open AA meeting. There is nothing like personal experience and knowledge of the program to convince you that there is a unique benefit to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.  For those of you who have never had an experience with AA, here is an account by a well-known Christian writer, Philip Yancey (1998), who had an opportunity to visit an open AA meeting with a friend of his:

I once visited a “church” that manages, with no denominational headquarters or paid staff, to attract millions of devoted members each week. It goes by the name Alcoholics Anonymous.  I went at the invitation of a friend who had just confessed to me his problem with drinking. “Come along,” he said, “and I think you’ll catch a glimpse of what the early church must have been like.”

At twelve o’clock on a Monday night I entered a ramshackle house that had been used for six other sessions already that day. Acrid clouds of cigarette smoke hung like tear gas in the air, stinging my eyes. It did not take long, however, to understand what my friend had meant with his comparison to the early church.

A well-known politician and several prominent millionaires were mixing freely with unemployed dropouts and kids with needle marks on their arms. Introductions went like this: “Hi, I’m Tom, and I’m an alcoholic and a drug addict.” Instantly everyone shouted out warmly, “Hi, Tom!”

The “sharing time” worked like the textbook description of a small group, marked by compassionate listening, warm responses, and many hugs. Each person attending gave a personal progress report on his or her battle with addiction. We laughed a lot, and we cried a lot. Mostly, the members seemed to enjoy being around people who could see right through their facades.

There was no reason not to be honest; everyone was in the same boat.

AA owns no property, has no headquarters, no media center, no staff of well-paid consultants and investment counselors who jet across the country.

The original founders of AA built in safeguards that would kill off anything that might lead to a bureaucracy, believing their program could work only if it stayed at the most basic, intimate level: one alcoholic devoting his or her life to help another. Yet AA has proven so effective that 250 other kinds of twelve-step groups, from Chocoholics Anonymous to cancer patient groups, have sprung up in conscious mimicry of its technique.
The many parallels to the early church are no mere historical accidents.

The Christian founders of AA insisted that dependence on God be a mandatory part of the program. The night I attended, everyone in the room repeated aloud the twelve steps, which acknowledge total dependence on God for forgiveness and strength.  (Agnostic members may substitute the euphemism “Higher Power,” but after awhile that begins to seem inane and impersonal and they usually revert to “God.”)

My friend freely admits that AA has replaced the church for him, and this fact sometimes troubles him.  “AA groups borrow the sociology of the church, along with a few of the words and concepts, but they have no underlying doctrine,” he says. “I miss that, but mainly I’m trying to survive, and AA helps me in that struggle far better than any local church.” Others in the group explain their ecclesiastical resistance by recounting stories of rejection and judgment. A local church is the last place they would stand up and declare, “Hi, I’m Tom. I’m an alcoholic and a drug addict.”

For my friend,  immersion into Alcoholics Anonymous has meant salvation in the most literal sense. He knows that one slip could- no, will- send him to an early grave. More than once his AA partner has responded to his calls at 4:00 A.M., only to find him slouched in the eerie brightness of an allnight restaurant where he is filling a notebook, like a punished schoolchild, with the single sentence, “God help me make it through the next five minutes.” I came away from the “midnight church” impressed, yet also troubled that AA meets needs in a way that the local church does not- or at least did not, for my friend. I asked him to name the one quality missing in the local church that AA had somehow provided. He stared at his cup of coffee for a long time, watching it go cold. I expected to hear a word like love or acceptance or, knowing him, perhaps anti-institutionalism. Instead, he said softly this one word: dependency.

“None of us can make it on our own;  isn’t that why Jesus came?”  he explained. “Yet most church people give off a self-satisfied air of piety or superiority. I don’t sense them consciously leaning on God or on each other. Their lives appear to be in order. An alcoholic who goes to church feels inferior and incomplete.” He sat in silence for a while, until a smile began to crease his face. “It’s a funny thing,” he said at last. “What I hate most about myself, my alcoholism, was the one thing God used to bring me back to him. Because of it,  I know I can’t survive without God.  I have to depend on him to make it through each and every day. Maybe that’s the redeeming value of alcoholism.

Maybe God is calling us alcoholics to teach the saints what it means to be dependent on him and on his community on earth.  (Yancey, 1998, pp. 48–51)


Robert R. Perkinson,  PHD
Helping Your Clients Find the Road to Recovery

Alcoholism - Treatment.  I.  Title.
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