It is so hard to be real. Not only do we not want people to know who we are, we often don’t know who we are. The old maxim “Know thyself” is not as easy as it sounds. There are many reasons for this, but the foremost of all is that we are never really given the freedom to be ourselves. From an early age we are taught to talk a certain way, eat a certain way, dress a certain way, and think a certain way. Many of these are much needed and necessary acts of discipline to help shape us. But embedded in this is the teaching that we can’t really be ourselves, we have to be what other people want us to be, living up to their expectations, for good or ill. Our whole lives are built around the idea that I am not what I am, I am what other people think I am.
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As I have attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings over the last couple of months (about 30 of them) due to my pain pill addiction, I have been challenged, spiritually, at a deeper level than at any other time that I can remember. I have entered into a group that is real . . . I mean really, real. This does not mean that they are comfortable with who they are, but they know who they are . . . at least more so than I have ever seen in a church setting.
I have longed for a community of people who can be transparent. And when I say transparent, I mean the type of people who are raw. They have truly been able to look in the mirror and, (as the forth step of AA says) have taken a “fearless moral inventory of themselves” and have gained the courage to share this with others. They, as Isaiah did when he stood before the Lord, said “Woe is me” . . . “I am undone.” Some translations of this say “ruined,” but I like the word “undone.” It carries the idea that the self-pride which held me together has been stripped away and I have no adhesive to keep from falling apart. It is only at this point that we have the ability to call upon God’s grace to heal us.
[Tweet “The moment that Adam and Eve sinned, they covered themselves up and hid their shame. We have followed suit ever since.”]
I have searched in churches all over and never found this kind of community. Even the best of churches that I have seen always required a veneer of protection, a mask, if you will, that we are handed at the door. This mask keeps us from really being ourselves. Once we walk into church, we clean up our speech, polish our shoes, dry our eyes, and lift up our countenance, fearing what people would think if they saw us just one hour ago. It very well could be that the church, in general, is the fakest (if that is a word) place on the planet. The moment that Adam and Eve sinned, they covered themselves up and hid their shame. We have followed suit ever since.
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There is nothing perfect about AA. And, mind you, I am still green in this whole thing. I am just letting out musing along the way. However, maybe AA has learned the secret of transparency and maybe, just maybe, the church could learn from it.
Here are some things I think the church could learn from Alcoholics Anonymous:
Being Intentional About Transparency
The church needs to be intensional about allowing transparency. This can’t be providing some optional group for a select few who have this or that problem. This quickly turns into some type of “special needs” ministry reserved only for the “lepers” in recovery. There has to be a top-down realization that we are all lepers. We all have “special needs”. Every one of us, every day, lives and breaths only because of the unmerited grace of God.
This intentionality, as I have said many times, must be well-placed, and must start a top and work its way down. It is well-placed in the sense that you are not vomiting all of your life’s problems and sins all at once and in every circumstance, but that there are times when we can confess our sins to others in safety (James 5:16). And this all starts at the top. Pastors teach it and exemplify it at appropriate times (as hard as that is). Elders, Sunday School teachers, small group leaders, and all others in leadership wisely, rawly, and intentionally lift their shirts and show their scars and open wounds.
Certainly, I have seen AA meetings where this is done wrong and without tact, often glorifying the sin they are confessing. But the best of these meeting display at honest tactful story seasoned with sorrow for their sin.
Being Structured in the Intension
I don’t know exactly what being structured in our intention looks like in the church; I am still working through this. But I know that AA has a structure they have followed for nearly a decade and they really do believe they have discovered the formula. “Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path” is what they say at every meeting. And, from what I have seen and heard, this is the truth. No matter what AA group you go to, no matter where it is, they are structured the same way, following the same pattern.
I have yet to find this in the church: “Here is the pattern to dealing with sin . . .” Throughout the church today and throughout all of church history, it has been a mixed bag. As a community, we really have not known what to do to help people to bring sin to a mortification (Rom. 8:13).
The church can learn from the structure of AA (and this goes well beyond appending Celebrate Recovery to the back of the church). More in the next point . . .
Being Insistent on Discipleship
This is perhaps the most important of all the things we could learn from Alcoholics Anonymous. Discipleship is nothing new to the church. However, the idea of having a mentorship as an essential part of our growth in Christ has been very loosely applied since the first century. When one attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, all that is required is a desire to stop drinking (or substance abuse). But the very next step is to find a “sponsor” that will hold you accountable and “work the steps” (meaning, going through the 12 steps of AA with that mentor). And it is not as if you get a mentor, finish the steps, and then are finally on your own. No, while one may (and often does) change mentors, the mentorship never ends. Each person is always under someone else. These mentors are older people who have more sober time under their belt. They are always there for you and always helping you to work through the “Big Book” of AA. They will encourage you in your life and call you on any BS you try to give yourself and others.
We see this type of program in the early church. Christ had 12 “disciples.” He was there “sponsor” or mentor until he died. Paul carried this on with his mentorship of many, including Timothy. In the early church we find a similar program of discipleship. This is one-on-one directing, correcting, rebuking, teaching, and encouragement. In such a mentorship, the mentor gets to know the mentored as well as he or she knows themselves.
We don’t do this much in the church. Much less, are we insistent upon this being a next-step. Normally, we get people to come to church on Sunday morning and feel as if we have done enough. If the sermon does not change them, nothing will! is our thought. We are placing them under the preached infallible word of God, not under a fallible person. At best, we might try to get them into a fellowship, home group, or Sunday School class.
This sponsorship/mentorship/discipleship idea is so stressed at AA meetings that one cannot attend long without feeling the pressure and/or excitement about finding a sponsor. Often, during the AA meeting it is asked of the who group Who is available to be a sponsor for someone new? They will make phone lists of willing mentors and give them out to new people.
Can you imagine if the church emphasized mentor-led discipleship the way AA emphasizes sponsor-led recovery? Can you imagine a mentor program where, say, 75% of your congregation was under someone and, eventually, had someone under them? Can you imagine the mentor and the mentored going through a book that summarized the Christian life (like, say, Now that I’m a Christian) and working through the Scriptures together?
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I’ll bet there are many in your church that would love to get this opportunity. Just ask them who is available to mentor someone who is new to the faith. I’ll bet that you will be surprised how many raise their hand.
As I said before, these are only musing about what the church can learn from AA. I am not fully convinced about everything they do and have more than a few theological problems with some of what they teach. In a month, I may even run away screaming “It is a cult! It is a cult!” (but I seriously doubt it). In reality, I realize the formers of AA were church members and they structured their program after Biblical principles. They did their best and their best has lasted a long time. The deeper I get in AA, the more impressed I am with what they have accomplished. But, more importantly, I have become jealous for the church concerning what they have done, only wishing the same for us.
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]