When I was 28 years old, I realized I was an alcoholic.
In my desperation, I was willing to do anything to stop the train wreck my life had become. I went to an AA meeting, and I went to church.
The only reason I went to church was to keep my calendar booked with “good” things. I prepared myself to receive dirty looks and whispers from the churchy people. So I got out the Yellow Pages (it was 2005; the iPhone wasn’t around yet).
I randomly picked a church that turned out to have free coffee and an auditorium that looked more like a movie theater than the Catholic sanctuaries I had seen as a kid. The sermon I heard that day was everything I needed to hear. It was like God put the whole thing together just for me. I cried in the back row and left excited.
I was “all in” on church and God after that first weekend. I wanted as much as I could get, and I did my best to be involved. I tried serving. I tried to find a group. I even went on a mission trip. But it took me eight years of going to church before I would make my first real church friends.
It felt like everyone knew everyone else already, and I struggled to find where I fit in. As an introvert, I struggle with making small talk. I was also a freaking mess. I was self-centered and insecure. Church people made me nervous with their perfect lives and fancy words (they still do). I was immature in both my faith and my emotional capacity. I could barely stand to be around myself and didn’t expect other people to want to either.
AA, on the other hand, was different. It kept me busy. I was just trying to quit drinking and get my life together, but those people invited me everywhere. We went out to eat after meetings. We went to other people’s kids’ football games. We went to jails and treatment centers to tell our stories. We went on road trips together to see AA meetings in other cities. I was volun-told to help people move. When I didn’t have a driver’s license, people picked me up. When I didn’t have money, people paid my way. When I didn’t answer my phone, people knocked on my door. For the first time in a long time, I felt like people wanted me around. It was exciting. It was the greatest sense of belonging I have ever experienced. I didn’t even know I was craving that, but I deeply did.
We were all just following what The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous tells us:
You are going to meet these new friends in your own community. Near you, alcoholics are dying helplessly like people in a sinking ship. High and low, rich and poor, these are the future fellows of Alcoholics Anonymous. Among them, you will make lifelong friends. You will be bound to them with new and wonderful ties for you will escape disaster together, and you will commence shoulder to shoulder your common journey. Then you will know what it means to give of yourself that others may survive and rediscover life. You will learn the full meaning of “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” (Pages 152-153)
Which is kind of crazy, because the Bible gives this picture of a community in Acts 4:32-33:
The whole congregation of believers was united as one—one heart, one mind! They didn’t even claim ownership of their own possessions. No one said, “That’s mine; you can’t have it.” They shared everything. The apostles gave powerful witness to the resurrection of the Master Jesus, and grace was on all of them.
When I was struggling, I found a community like this in AA. I believe it saved my life.
This might sound crazy, but sometimes I worry about those who do not struggle with alcohol. Where do they find this acceptance, help, and purpose?
I accepted Jesus 13 years ago. Six months later, I took my last drink. Now, I even work at my church. And I long for the Church at large to experience the unity and intimacy the Acts 2 church had—to experience what I found in AA.
I pray for the Church to wake up and tap into the level of desperation that addicts know. The kind of desperation that makes people willing to give up anything—however culturally acceptable or normal it may be.
The kind of desperation that pushes us out of everything we’ve ever known to seek community, be vulnerable, and to receive the acceptance and love that we crave but are too scared to ask for. You may not struggle with addiction, but we are all equally broken and desperate for true community. Some of us are obviously struggling, and others look like they have it all together. But we’re all in need of something we can’t fix on our own. The more we tap into that need, the more it wakes us up to do and be the kind of people we were made to be.
Here’s what I learned in AA that maybe we could all benefit from:
Get a mentor now. In AA, everyone asks, “Who’s your sponsor?” when you’re new. It’s annoying. If you say “I don’t have one yet,” they start introducing you to people. It’s your first priority—get a sponsor. It felt weird and incredibly vulnerable to ask someone to be my sponsor, but I got tired of explaining to people why I didn’t have one yet. So I did it. My new sponsor wanted me to call her every day for 30 days so that I got in the habit of asking her opinion before acting on my own. I did it even though I hated it. In the church, this is called discipleship. What if we were this insistent about mentoring others spiritually? What if we didn’t view the church as a place go and get filled up, but a place to meet people and show them how to get filled up? What if we made it a first priority to make sure everyone was connected to someone who really cared to see them fully free and strong enough to do the same for others?
The new person is the most important person in the room. Alcoholism and addiction is a physical life and death situation. When a new person comes to a meeting, we do whatever we can to make sure they are welcomed and feel like they can keep coming. We stand at the door and greet people. We introduce ourselves to anyone we don’t know. We invite people to sit with us without hesitation. This responsibility is shared by everyone, not just people with name tags. People coming into a relationship with Jesus is actually a life and death situation too. What if the members of the church felt that desperation for the people coming into their gathering? If you’ve been to church once before, you can start introducing yourself to people who look lost. Help them find the bathroom. Ask them to sit with you. Ask if they’d like to sit with you again next week. Learn their names. You don’t have to fix them, just acknowledge them.
Look for the similarities in people. I was desperate to prove that AA was not for me. I looked at every person I met and found a reason I was different from them. This guy had been to prison, that lady had never been to college, this chick liked Indian food—all reasons I didn’t belong there. But when I started looking for similarities, I found them. After practice, I found them more quickly. That guy who’d been to prison really loved his mom and was trying to be a good son. That lady that didn’t go to college does have a job. That chick who liked Indian food also liked cheeseburgers. At first glance, I wrote people off because they had different experiences, likes, or lifestyles than me. But when I became intentional about finding something in common, I stopped being so lonely. Jesus prioritized all people from all backgrounds, not just people like him. The early Church attracted all kinds of people to Jesus. The more diversity we have in our buildings on Sunday, the more we’ll grow as individuals and as a movement.
Principles over Personalities. We all have a lot of junk we need to fix in every area of our lives. We are created uniquely by God, and you won’t be attracted to everyone you meet. There will be people you cannot stand to be around. It’s hard, but AA taught me to get over it. It taught me to put my personal preferences aside because the mission is more important than my comfort level. You don’t have to be best friends with everyone, but don’t be a jerk. One time I heard a pastor say, “Churches love before and after stories, but we’re not real good at the ‘during’ part.” People are messy, and everyone is unique both in their personalities and in their maturity. In a span of 10 years, I went from being an alcoholic, skeptical of church people, to working at a church and even speaking at mom groups. I was a mess. God didn’t fix everything at once or even make me aware of everything that needed to change right away. If we don’t embrace people who seem messy, we’ll miss out on witnessing the miracles God does in them. And maybe they need to see what God is doing in us.
Both AA and church are designed to be gathering places, but an institution cannot provide community. AA didn’t show me all of this because someone at headquarters organized something from the top down. I experienced it because every single person who showed up at a meeting chose to live it out.
Big meetings or church services can fill you up and help keep momentum, but to experience all that God has to offer, we have to act less like customers and more like family—a really good one. When the sh*t hits the fan, who can you call for help? We need people who know us and know our stories and our struggles. People who can remember our favorite ice cream and bring it over when our boyfriend breaks up with us. People who will do our laundry after we’ve had a baby. People who will lend us a car when ours breaks down. People who will buy groceries when you lose your job. People who don’t wait for you to ask for help but just bring it.
The answer isn’t calling your church and telling them what they need to do differently. The only way to be a part of this sort of fellowship is to be a good fellow. The first move is up to each of us.