America is turning to substances to mask the disillusionment of a society without substance. Campaigns by politicians, professors, and publications to eradicate Christian influence from America’s history are having exactly the effect we would expect. Rooting identity in self and happiness in materialism is leading to record levels of depression and dependence. Not surprisingly, of the 46.3 million people with a substance use disorder in 2021, the highest percentage falls between 18-25 years of age.
Churches and Christians are the sole purveyors of absolute, eternal truth. God’s Word is the only firm foundation in a shaky, post-modern world. Therefore, we must engage and even lead the way in stemming the rising tide of addiction in our nation. The only question is how best to assist in prevention, intervention, and recovery. Our approach should differ based on whether the individual is willing to come clean, get clean, or stay clean…
- Eric is an alcoholic but doesn’t think there’s a problem and has no interest in recovery. He delusionally believes no one else notices but his lame excuses for missing events, work, and church aren’t fooling friends, colleagues, or pastors. Living in denial, Eric doesn’t recognize how his addiction is causing others to suffer while also putting his career and relationships in jeopardy. Awakening Eric before it’s too late will require an intervention.
- You’d never guess Valerie was once the life of the party. She was outgoing and engaged in school, work, and church. An abusive boyfriend and death in the family sent her into a downward spiral that cost her good friends and a great job. Now living alone and isolated, Valerie wants to get sober but an overwhelming sense of hopelessness makes her hesitant to even leave the house, much less reach out to those she disappointed and seek the help she so desperately needs.
- Frank is married with two young children, works as a financial advisor, and serves as a deacon at his church. However, all is not as it appears. Frank tried for years to hide his addiction to opioids stemming from knee surgeries after playing college football. Dependency and deception had been eating at Frank, keeping him from being the dad and husband he needs to be. So he proactively sought counsel and willingly started treatment to avoid losing everything, before hitting rock bottom.
C.S. Lewis wrote, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Eric, Valerie, and Frank are enduring and causing pain that could lead them and their loved ones closer to the Lord, but only if Christians don’t miss the opportunity to point them back to Him.
What Churches and Christians Do Today
Despite the critical role churches could and should play in America’s substance abuse crisis, few are raising awareness, experiencing awakening, taking action, or enforcing accountability…
- Addicts like Eric, in the Precontemplation stage, rationalize and justify their usage. With nearly 17% of Americans struggling with alcohol or drug dependency, how many sit each Sunday, undetected, in the pews of our churches? However, even if pastors were trained to recognize the warning signs, contemporary church growth models discourage confronting sin within our congregations. Scripture calls us to keep the church holy by holding each other accountable. Yet despite church leadership’s suspicions for months that Eric had a problem, it was his coworkers who finally mustered the courage to surface the obvious.
- Valerie was in the Contemplation stage, open to recovery but not ready to walk the path. Years ago, when she lost her job and ran out of money, she asked her church for assistance. They paid an electric bill to keep her power on but offered nothing further, and no one followed up to see how she was doing. Now alone and seemingly forgotten, Valerie has no intention of asking that church (or any other) for help with her addiction. At this point, a church would have to go to Valerie on a search and rescue mission, venturing out into “Judea and Samaria” (the community) to “seek and save the lost”. But no call, email, or text ever came.
- As a deacon at a church with alcohol consumption stipulations for leaders, Frank felt shame and the stigma of his opioid addiction. It never occurred to him to confess his substance abuse issues to pastors or other leaders there. He knew them well enough to anticipate their response – compassion, but little understanding of how to help. Opioids are about pain alleviation, and Frank’s physical ailment had evolved into emotional and spiritual suffering. His church should have been able to bring healing in those areas, but addiction was seen there more as a sin to avoid than a problem to address. So when Frank reached the Action stage of his recovery journey, he turned elsewhere for support.
In 2018-2019, I led strategic planning for a collaboration between the University of South Florida and Humana (as part of its Bold Goal initiative) designed to engage faith leaders in the mounting opioid crisis in Tampa Bay. We made headway in awareness building but had limited success in convincing churches to work (at some level) with addicts rather than quickly refer them to external agencies.
Why Don’t We Do More?
Why didn’t those churches step up to help Eric, Valerie, and Frank? Pastors are shepherds and caretakers for their flocks, responsible for their congregation’s spiritual health. Yet few take a holistic, integrated view of “health”, instead decoupling the spiritual from the physical, mental, and emotional. The pain those hooked on alcohol or drugs are trying to remedy involves all four of those receptors, with spiritual health impacted by physical or mental anguish, emotional health dependent on spiritual and physical illness, etc. In other words, churches should be concerned about and attend to all four dimensions of their members’ welfare.
However, that’s rarely the case today due to the prevailing definition of church as a place (not as you and me), and therefore members are treated as “customers” to attract and retain, not Kingdom “employees” to train and deploy. Customers shop, coming and going as they please – if some become problematic (i.e. addicts), churches may not mind if they take their “business” elsewhere. But employees are under contract, mentored, given health insurance, and held accountable for performance. If their (spiritual, mental, emotional, or physical) health suffers, so does the church’s “productivity”. Employees are expected to be loyal to the mission and tasks given by the Boss (Jesus). They wear the “company” brand proudly and act as a united team, doing what’s in the best interest of their fellow “colleagues”. All rally around a “coworker” suffering pain or addiction because the relationship is long term, the church has invested heavily in that individual, and there’s an important job to get done. On the other hand, “customers” are expendable, as long as the revolving door keeps spinning.
What Should Churches Be Doing?
Churches are in a unique position to provide addicts what no secular organization can – alleviation of the pain of hopelessness and loneliness behind the escapism that fuels substance abuse. Hope in Jesus Christ and community in a family of believers aids in addiction prevention, intervention, and recovery, as well as reconciliation and redemption…
- Jesus extends the offer of forgiveness to those like Eric who live in denial. He pursued Peter to give him the opportunity to repent – professing his love for Jesus three times, once for each denial. Since Eric (and many congregants like him) suffer in silence and conceal sin, his church should follow Jesus’ example…
- Understand the facts, share statistics, and discuss dangers in today’s world
- Address addiction more often and openly given its prevalence
- Survey members to assess the extent of substance abuse in their families
- Train staff and lay leaders to notice the flashing lights signaling addiction
- Track challenges members endure that cause physical or emotional pain (e.g. surgery, divorce, death) and proactively get ahead of the issues
- As loving, trusted confidants, ask the hard questions when no one else will
- The Bible says Jesus “had” to go through Samaria as if He were on a mission to meet a woman deep in sin and ostracized. Valerie fits that same description and likewise wants liberty from her lifestyle, but won’t pursue recovery unless it meets her where she is. Valerie’s former church and other local churches should…
- Conduct an Awareness Sunday service addressing the crisis biblically
- Equip members with resources to assist coworkers, friends, and neighbors
- Appoint an (internal) leader for this cause and issue a call to action
- Convey the message to the (quietly) hopeless that healing is possible
- Offer a Celebrate Recovery program to the community onsite at the church
- Serve as a compassionate “family” and community for those in recovery
- Jesus healed many demon-possessed people who were having seizures and convulsing, not unlike those overdosing on opioids. Frank was addicted to painkillers, but didn’t have the comfort or confidence to approach his church to exorcise that demon. Rather than shun or refer elsewhere, his church needs to…
- Remove the stigma of addiction, encouraging confession and transparency
- Foster a new perception of churches as a “safe”, trusted place to seek help
- Be prepared to counsel and walk alongside members to the extent possible
- Provide practical support to families in crisis as a result of substance abuse
- Research and maintain a vetted list of providers to refer when necessary
- Acknowledge overcomers and share success stories of recovery journeys
In 2021, nearly 22% of Americans (over 12 years old) used illicit drugs and 94% of addicts received no treatment. Given the magnitude of our nation’s substance abuse crisis, moving the needle hinges on collaboration and engagement of all churches – working together in prevention, intervention, and recovery inside and outside their “4 walls”.
It’s Your Turn…
How else could pastors get involved in reducing stigma, offering acceptance, equipping churchgoers, mitigating risks, and serving families impacted by America’s addiction to drugs and alcohol?