What A.A. Taught Me About Church

by Anneliese Wahlman  |  September 14, 2018

Note: some names and minor details in this post have been changed to protect privacy.

Lots of people complain about millennials: we’re shallow, entitled, lazy, we don’t know how to do anything useful. We’re pretty much the equivalent of a generational menstrual cramp for the human race, from which recovery is doubtful. (Cue “The problem with young people these days” speech.) Within the church, people are especially freaking out about the fact that these young people seem to be leaving faster than we can bribe them with a latte.

I’m a millennial and, yeah, I’m lazy. And there are definitely lots of practical things I don’t know how to do. (Sometimes I wonder if this whole adulting thing is gonna work out longterm.) But when it comes to church, I feel like a bit of an outlier. I’ve attended church all my life. I grew up knowing that I should have a relationship with Jesus and bring people into the church. I heard Scripture-based sermons and marked prooftext studies in my Bible that clearly showed the dead weren’t in heaven and that Saturday is the Sabbath. I went to youth conferences where pastors gave strong, emotional appeals for young people to “finish the work,” (accompanied, of course, by soft piano chords in the background). I participated in outreach activities in which my friends and I shared literature door-to-door.

I wasn’t used to putting myself in the shoes of someone who didn’t know Jesus or had never been to church.

Now I’m an adult and I’m still in the church, and I don’t plan on leaving. (Though, if I’m honest, for a long time leaving was never really an option in my mind because I was just too scared of being destroyed at the Second Coming, which is not going to happen in secret, by the way. But that’s another story.)

However, I have friends and family members who don’t do the church thing anymore. And I wonder what could make a difference.

These shoes don’t fit me

When I look back on my own spiritual upbringing, I can’t help but see a great irony that I think has something to do with the issue of church and young people. It’s this: though my whole life revolved around the organization that is trying to tell the world about Jesus, the churches I attended didn’t attract regular visitors. Maybe some were there, but I don’t recall my attention being drawn to them. Though I knew, in theory, that being part of the church meant reaching the unchurched, the weekend event itself didn’t have much to do with the unchurched, and we never really expected them to show up. At least nobody acted like it.

It actually wasn’t until about a year and a half ago that I started attending a church that—though it has its issues like every other church I’ve ever been part of—regularly has visitors from outside my denomination.

And I hate saying this, but it was a weird transition for me. I wasn’t used to putting myself in the shoes of someone who didn’t know Jesus or had never been to church. I had to remember that when I helped out up front, I couldn’t just assume that the people I was speaking to thought like me, because they didn’t. I couldn’t assume they had the same background, needs, worldview, or understood my own faith’s cultural insider jargon. I had to realize that church isn’t just for people like me.

And as I’ve been thinking, been influenced by church leaders, and met people from outside my faith, the conviction has started to grow that something major is missing. My contribution to church needs to look a lot different if I really want church to be a place where people who don’t know Jesus can get to know Him, as it was in the book of Acts.

I found a place in the circle

An intense picture of what that contribution should look like recently came from an unexpected place.

On a drizzly, rainy day, my friend and I went to pick up a girl named Kelly. She had just completed a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program and her first A.A. meeting was that night. We were going to support her. When we arrived at the meeting, a kind-looking man welcomed us at the door and then directed us to a big room filled with tables. Groups were forming. There were old men in ball caps, young women sporting ponytails, people who looked “sketchy,” and people who looked like they came from Mr. Roger’s neighborhood. Wow, all of them are alcoholics, I thought.

While in the kitchen getting water, I met a girl who looked about my age. I mentioned it was my first time.

“Oh, welcome! What meetings do you normally go to?”

I felt awkward right away and wasn’t sure what to say. Was is it weird for me to be there if I wasn’t an alcoholic? Would it make people upset?

There were old men in ball caps, young women sporting ponytails, people who looked “sketchy,” and people who looked like they came from Mr. Roger’s neighborhood. Wow, all of them are alcoholics, I thought.

“Oh, I don’t… uh… go to meetings. I’m here with a friend.” Despite my fumbling, the girl was warm-hearted and gracious. I immediately liked her.

“Well, hopefully we’ll see you around.” She gave me a smile as warm as the hot chocolate in her cup.

Soon everyone sat down, and the meeting began. The woman at the front called things to order in a voice that made you wonder if she had worked as a school teacher before. She asked one of the attendees to read the Twelve Steps to recovery. The reader introduced herself and said she was an alcoholic. In unison, everyone responded with, “Hi, Suzy!” At the end, we all thanked Suzy, again in unison. Then someone else read the Twelve Traditions. We thanked them too.

The school teacher then drew everyone’s attention to the woman sitting next to her at the front, who didn’t look much older than me. The girl began to tell her story of becoming an alcoholic. Sometimes her voice was tense as she shared her family background and how addiction had ravaged her life. At the end, she told us how she was finally breaking free and would soon celebrate two years of sobriety. Everybody cheered, like she had won a gold medal at the Olympics or something.

A group sharing time came next, and I was blown away by the openness and vulnerability. This was a large group of people—fifty or something, not four or five close friends—and yet they were willingly sharing the ugly parts of their lives with everyone. And it was helping them to stay sober.

Sometimes the sharing was simple.

“This week was hard. I’ve really been wanting to drink lately.”

Sometimes it was heavy as people talked about making amends or shared their goals.

“I want to be able to be there for my son.”

A woman got one for being sober a mere 24 hours. Everyone was clapping as she stood up to receive her chip. You could feel the pride swelling in the room.

Always the focus was on recovery.

Soon they announced that they were giving out chips—small coins—for periods of sobriety. A woman got one for being sober a mere 24 hours. Everyone was clapping as she stood up to receive her chip. You could feel the pride swelling in the room. Someone else stood up when they asked who’d been sober for two months. Someone else for five years. Ten years. No matter what amount of time was called, everyone always cheered.

One of the last things they did was to ask if anyone needed a sponsor. My friend Jonathan, who was an addict for years, tells me that a sponsor is someone who keeps you accountable to your goals and helps you in recovery outside of meetings. You’re not just a nameless face in a crowd. You’re connecting with someone one-on-one. People who were available to be sponsors raised their hands, so if you were new, you knew who to talk with.

At the end, everyone got up and formed a big circle around the room, holding hands. I didn’t know exactly what was happening, but I found a place in the circle. Everyone began reciting the Lord’s prayer. I knew how that went, so I joined in. Then, while holding their hands up in the air, they all chanted, “Keep coming back! It works!”

After that, we put our chairs away and went home.

What if…

As I sat through the clapping, the cheering, the sharing, the thought came to me, I wish church could be like this. And the more I thought about it, the more parallels I saw between what we read in the book of Acts about the early church and what I experienced in A.A.

There’s a lot you could say, but two main comparisons stood out to me.

1. At a recovery meeting, as soon you walk in the door, you know exactly why you’re there, even if you’re new. Everything is centered on recovery. I think church should be that way too.

From the greeter at the door to the sharing time to the talks to the readings, everything in the meeting was focused on one thing: helping alcoholics get sober and find recovery. I found it so refreshing that they were so concentrated on their goal. Everything they did stemmed from their mission.

A couple years ago, I reconnected with a childhood friend. We had attended church, camp, and Pathfinder Club together as kids. Over time, though, we lost touch and she drifted from the church. Not too long after I moved back to our childhood town, we started hanging out together. I found out she was trying to quit drinking and reconnect with God. So, naturally, I invited her to come to church.

Sabbath morning, we walked into the young adult study and sat down. As the discussion got underway, my heart started to sink as I realized I picked the wrong day to bring her to church. I felt myself cringing inwardly. The lesson was on—of all things—music and practicing instruments. [Insert crickets chirping.] I don’t even remember exactly what was said, but I do remember the awkwardness I felt as the conversation continued and I realized that none of this was going to be particularly meaningful or relevant for someone trying to find God again. I felt embarrassed.

Thinking about this experience and how we do church reminds me of something the apostle James said. When the early church was struggling to know if Gentiles who wanted to join the church needed to be circumcised or not, the church leaders had a council. During their discussion, James stood up and said something incredibly meaningful: “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” (Acts 15:19, NIV).

I don’t even remember exactly what was said, but I do remember the awkwardness I felt as the conversation continued and I realized that none of this was going to be particularly meaningful or relevant for someone trying to find God again.

When I think about how I’ve contributed to church, I think I’m guilty of putting Jesus on the top shelf. I invite people to meet Him, but I haven’t always made Him very accessible, because I’m talking about all sorts of irrelevant stuff, like whether certain numbers in the Bible are literal or figurative or what gender you have to be to be ordained or what kind of music is appropriate to listen to, and honestly, now I don’t think it really matters that much. Wouldn’t it be awesome if everything we talked about in church was clearly connected to our mission? Wouldn’t it be great if every day was a good day to bring someone to church?

I feel really dumb saying this, but maybe when it comes to church, I need to remind myself what the point is: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15, NIV). In her book The Acts of the Apostles, Ellen White describes the purpose of church this way: “The church is God’s appointed agency for the salvation of men. It was organized for service, and its mission is to carry the gospel to the world” (The Acts of the Apostles, p. 9, emphasis added).

I’m no pastor, but I have a strong hunch that this means if you go to church and you don’t hear the gospel—you walk in the doors and you’re not really sure what the thing is about because people are talking about haystacks and practicing instruments and things that would totally confuse a newcomer—something is wrong. I wonder if people are coming into church, trying to reach Jesus, and then leaving because, well, maybe they just couldn’t find Him. Wouldn’t it be beautiful, though, if, when people come through our doors, they could immediately tell, This thing? Ah, this is about Jesus.

In some sense, I feel like I’ve contributed to church in a very narcissistic way. But I’m learning more and more that church isn’t about me. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The church is the church only when it exists for others.”

2. At the recovery meetings, there’s a radical sense of community I haven’t experienced before. I think church should have that too.

The power in A.A. meetings is in finding recovery together. Observing this part of the program really hit me hard. As much as it feels like something from a Barney movie to hold hands and chant, “Keep coming back! It works!” It really does work. And I’m beginning to believe that kind of community and relationship is the foundation of the gospel.

There used to be a part of me that thought saying Christianity was “all about relationships” was a fluffy reduction. It was for people who didn’t care about the “straight up truth.” People who just wanted to hug each other and sing Kumbaya. That part of me is dying though. The more I get to know people, the more I’m realizing that, as a pastor and friend of mine, Shawn, says, “Truth can never be fully transferred apart from embodiment.” And that embodiment is the most beautiful and simultaneously the most difficult thing we can ever do.

There used to be a part of me that thought saying Christianity was “all about relationships” was a fluffy reduction. It was for people… who just wanted to hug each other and sing Kumbaya.

An alcoholic can decide to quit drinking but providing a safe space to talk about their struggle, a community that can support and believe in their recovery, and personal connection outside of group meetings is what keeps them sober. These things make people grow and thrive, and they’re the things I want to bring with me to church.

Far from being fluffy, embodying the truth in community is probably the hardest thing we’ll ever do. As much as I love the church I’m part of now, we don’t have the community thing figured out. But we’re working on it. Community is a slow, gritty, unsexy work. It’s a lot easier to just get people to believe all the same information that you do and leave it at that. Personally, there’s a part of me that would be really happy if that’s all God wanted me to do. I love checklists. I can complete them and then throw them away and feel great about myself. But you can’t build community on a checklist. People are not projects. You can’t just do your duty and get back to eating veggie meat and watching sermons. Real community requires vulnerability, time, acceptance, presence, and honesty. These are things we can’t just check off the list. But when we truly give them, we find life.

There are a lot of ways Jesus could have used His time while He was here on earth. His mission was to show the human race the Father’s heart, so what did He do? He said, “OK, I’ll pick 12 dudes, and we’re gonna hang out together for the next three years.” Sounds like a pretty strategic evangelistic plan, right? The crazy thing is it actually was. Mark 3:14-15 says, “He appointed twelve that they might be with Him and that He might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons” (NIV).

They were with Him. They ate. They talked. They worshipped. They did life together, the thrilling and the mundane. God gave the disciples the good news of who He is through—of all things—His friendship. Not a ten-day mission trip. Not a book or a podcast or a conference. The gospel was given in the context of a long-term relational investment, because that’s how we humans work. We can’t fully encounter God until we’ve encountered Him in each other.

One of my favorite authors, Donald Miller, wrote in his book Blue Like Jazz,

“Sooner or later you just figure out there are some guys who don’t believe in God and they can prove He doesn’t exist, and some other guys who do believe in God and they can prove He does exist, and the argument stopped being about God a long time ago…. I don’t believe I will ever walk away from God for intellectual reasons…. If I walk away from Him, and please pray that I never do, I will walk away for social reasons, identity reasons, deep emotional reasons, the same reasons any of us do anything.1

I wanna sing

In talking about my limited experience with recovery meetings, I want to be careful not to romanticize addiction at all. It’s not a glamorous struggle. However, as I’ve been learning about church and as I’ve sat with Kelly in some of her meetings, I couldn’t help but see the parallels. Church is not a glamorous place either. It’s full of messy, broken people who cannot save each other and yet simultaneously can’t find healing without each other. It’s full of people who hurt each other and who relapse again and again and again. People who are all looking to a Higher Power for recovery.

Community is a slow, gritty, unsexy work.

My sister and her husband have three kids—Gabriel, Isabelle, and Nathaniel. Nathaniel is two months old, so he doesn’t do much other than cry, eat, and poop. Gabe and Isabelle, on the other hand, are six and three and they love to sing. My sister is always posting videos on Facebook of the kids singing and dancing, and they really make me happy. The kids aren’t always in tune. My niece can’t keep a beat very well. But it’s cute and what she lacks in rhythm, she makes up for in passion. And as she and Gabe are getting older, they’re getting better.

Really, all I want to say is that I’ve been thinking about my part in the song my church is trying to sing to the world. Maybe you’re thinking about your part too now. I’m realizing I want to do a few things differently, because it’s a beautiful song and I want to sing it well. I want to sing it better. And maybe, if we all do, it might help the others who’ve stopped singing to join in once again.

  1. Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz, Nashville, Tennessee, 2003, p. 103.
Anneliese Wahlman Editorial Intern
Light Bearers
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