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Principles for reaching addictions support groups

This article outlines some key ideas to consider when seeking to reach addicts in the 12 step support groups. These groups provide a great gospel opportunity for those who attend and for those who know addicts who attend. How do we go about reaching these people?

Christians need to stay

A lot of Christians who have attended 12 step meetings like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous stop going. Often that is because they don’t like the fact that they can’t speak about Jesus freely. Sometimes it is because they feel more comfortable in churches. Other times it is because they don’t feel they need them anymore. Jesus calls us to ‘deny ourselves’. He does not call us to do the most comfortable or easy thing (Philippians 2:3–4) – especially while thinking of others and their salvation.

Jesus calls us to ‘deny ourselves’. He does not call us to do the most comfortable or easy thing…

Encourage Christians who attend these groups to stay put; over time it will bear fruit. I have been going to a meeting in my local area for about five years. It’s been hard to keep going every week. Some people won’t be interested but some people are spiritually hungry. I once put up a poster about a BBQ and addictions testimony evening we were running at our church addictions meeting. A few girls read it and one of the lads told them I ran the group. And off the back of that lots of them came. So keep at it.

Learn about the 12 steps

If you were going to try and share the gospel with a Muslim you would learn about the Qur’an. If you want to share the gospel with addicts you need to learn about the 12 steps. It is explained in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. All 12 step programmes come from this book. Listen to Christians like Dr Mark E. Shaw talking about the 12 steps to learn more. Another way to learn more is to speak to people in your communities or churches who have attended the meetings. You can also attend 12 step open meetings or public information evenings for non-addicts.

Learn their language and understand it biblically

People who attend 12 step support groups speak a different language. They get catechised in the 12 step literature and slogans. They may not use the word sin but they acknowledge that the root problem of addiction is ‘selfishness’ and ‘self-centeredness’. They use the word ‘higher power’ instead of God. They call the devil the ‘lower power’. They talk about the two voices in their head. Proverbs tells us that this is the voice of folly and the voice of wisdom. Get to know their language and speak their language, so they feel understood. Addicts are used to being misunderstood. Understand what they are saying biblically.

Get to know their language and speak their language, so they feel understood.

See the good in 12 step support groups

I’ve had bad experiences with some Christians who are anti-12 steps. When a few lads from a Christian rehab came to my church and I told them that I went to AA, they started slating it. If your church is like that you won’t reach 12 step people. But to be honest, I think there are lots of things that they do better than churches. So be humble and willing to learn. There is a culture of openness; people are so honest about themselves. They don’t try to hide the ugly stuff. They recognise that confession is good for the soul and practise it (James 5:16; Ephesians 4:25). They know the importance of accountability, which is why they have a sponsor (mentor). They realise that people need help 24/7 and so there are meetings every day, in some places twice a day. They know that we forget and it’s important to remember (Hebrews 3:12–13).

…I think there are lots of things that they do better than churches. So be humble and willing to learn.

Speak gospel truths that have helped you

I don’t tell the whole gospel message when speaking in a 12 step meeting. But I share gospel truths that are relevant to what people are talking about in the meeting and things that have helped me. For example, often in the groups people will say stuff like, ‘I don’t know who God is and it doesn’t matter, I don’t want to complicate things.’ Many times I have said, ‘I wouldn’t trust someone unless I know them. In the same way, I’m not going to trust God unless I know him.’ I then talk about how the way to get to know someone is through speaking to them and by having a conversation with them, and that we get to know and trust God through his word, the Bible.

…I share gospel truths that are relevant to what people are talking about in the meeting and things that have helped me.

I have also talked about the resurrection by saying how it helped me. I tell the story of being at my Mum’s funeral. At the graveside the minster read out Jesus’ words, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die’ (John 11:25). And then I talk about how this helped me deal with my worst fear, my Mum dying. And how the hope Jesus offers us helps in dealing with our biggest fears. I find talking about things that have helped me is a natural way to share gospel truth. As they say, ‘What comes from the heart reaches the heart.’

Start a gospel support group

By starting a gospel support group you can bridge the gap between 12 step addiction support groups and church. The way I run my gospel addiction support group is by bringing together an understanding of the addict and an understanding of what Scripture has to say about these things. I use Ed Welch’s Crossroads material and have adapted it to my context. You can get addicts in your church or who you know to invite their mates. Some people who come from 12 step groups won’t like your meeting because it’s different. But others will like it because of that.

Our group is a discussion group where we look at four or five questions in an hour. I find it helps to be upfront about the difference between the way you run your group and how 12 step groups are run. For example, the group is run by me, a former alcoholic and some church members who haven’t had a substance abuse addiction. We say that it helps us grow by being around different people. (As opposed to 12 step groups who are run solely by substance addicts.) We are also clear that we believe that authority, when it comes to addiction, is the Bible.

I hope some of the things I’ve learnt over the years can help your church to reach addicts in 12 step support groups.

David Hughes

David Hughes has worked for Trinity Church, Everton, for the last seven years. He helped to start and now runs a church-based addictions ministry called ‘Crossroads’ which has been going for over six years. His passion is to see addicts set free and changed by the same grace that has transformed him. If you would like to be in touch with him and potentially connect with others who are involved or interested in starting an addiction ministry, please contact: david@trinitychurcheverton.org

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