15 Things AA Can Teach the Church

by | Jul 20, 2017 | 7 comments

Alcoholics Anonymous has forever changed the church.  And it has done it right under our noses.  Or better put, in our church basements, classrooms, and meeting rooms.   AA introduced the concept of spirituality apart from religion.  It took away the middleman.  It has put into place the most successful self-duplicating, small group model in recent history.  And it has done it by emulating the model of the early church.  On June 10, AA turned 80 years old.  From extremely humble beginnings, an estimated 23 million people in the US now live with long term recovery from alcohol and other drugs.  Here are the top 15 things AA can teach the Church.

  1.  Stick to your primary purpose.  AA doesn’t try to be all things to all people.  It’s primary purpose is to help other alcoholics achieve sobriety.  That’s what it does, and it does it very well.  If someone wants to apply the 12 steps to overeating, smoking or hoarding, a new fellowship is formed.  This laser like focus allows for great success.  What if the church kept the main thing the main thing?  Such as making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world?
  2. You can’t keep it unless you give it away.  AA’s know that in order to maintain their sobriety, they have to work with others and share the message of recovery.  That’s how Bill W. and Dr. Bob got sober.  And it hasn’t changed since then.  Evangelism is built right into the 12 steps.
  3. Get a sponsor.  Sponsorship is the key to success. Every AA who hopes to remain sober gets a sponsor to help them work the 12 steps.  Then they turn around and sponsor someone else.    What if churches focused on creating sponsors or disciples who disciple the next person?
  4. Insist on experiencing God.  God is very loosely defined, if at all in AA. Each person works on their own concept of God, and it changes and grows as they change and grow.  The church has made much of trying to define God instead of helping people to experience God.
  5. Promise a spiritual awakening.  It’s the results of working the 12 steps.  The church is short on this promise and long on trying to get people to join.
  6. Focus on spirituality.  Deepened spirituality is the marker of growth among AA members and groups.  Is that what drives your church growth?
  7. You don’t need a building.  AA has an estimated 2 million members worldwide I 115,000 groups.  Most of them meet in someone else’s space, paying rent instead of mortgage and repairs. That frees up a lot of time and energy to stick to their primary purpose.
  8. Don’t sponge.  AA has a tradition of being self-supporting through its own contributions.  Is your church looking for someone else to foot the bill?
  9. There are no stars.  Anonymity, not celebrity, is the key to the success of this program.  Humility is also a characteristic of Christ.  How about your church?
  10. Don’t shoot your wounded.  Relapsers are welcomed back with open arms.  Judgment, or the perception of judgment, is often felt in churches.
  11. Have fun.  Lots of laughter emanates from AA rooms as people laugh at their former follies.  “We absolutely insist on enjoying life” is an oft-quoted line from the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. Laughter keeps people coming back.
  12. Let the hierarchy serve the local group, and not the other way around.  The General Service Office of AA exists only to serve the local groups.  Denominational offices sometimes give the opposite impression.
  13. Share your story.   Early Christians had stories of salvation and they shared them.  This also helped them stay strong in the faith and hold one another accountable.  AA is all about sharing their stories.
  14. Focus on the newcomer.    The newcomer is the most important person in the rooms of AA.  They are actively welcomed, told to keep coming back, and encouraged to get a sponsor.  Their transformation begins immediately. Churches too often stay focused on the longtimers, and are reluctant to make space for newcomers.
  15. Expect resurrection!  People come back from the dead all the time in AA rooms. It’s what AA specializes in.  New life is expected and demanded.  How about in your church?

This article first appeared in June, 2015.

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  1. Chesie Lee

    I like this. AA is a good model. A problem for churches is that the building has become the church and then how to maintain and use the building becomes the mission. I would like to challenge churches that every time they raise capital for building improvement, they require that at least an equal amount be raised for a mission that has no doors.

  2. Tim Gossett

    Very intriguing article with a whole lot I certainly agree with. At the same time, I would say there’s some significant question that has been raised about the effectiveness of 12-step programs at actually bringing about recovery. See for example http://www.salon.com/2014/03/23/the_pseudo_science_of_alcoholics_anonymous_theres_a_better_way_to_treat_addiction/
    AA certainly does do a better job than many churches at building community and helping people to make significant connections. For that reason I think your #2-15 are certainly true.

    • Rebekah Simon-Peter

      AA has not only changed the lives of millions of people for the better, it has transformed the entire culture in which we operate. Words like recovery, and the hope of it, wouldn’t even exist without AA. Can improvements be made? Absolutely. Bill Wilson himself said, “We know only a little. More will constantly be revealed to you and to us.” In the meantime, AA provides a model that has been duplicated again and again, then spun off of. I am grateful for it.

  3. David Childers

    Great observations! I’ve long believed that the church could gain a lot by using the 12 step model of confession, forgiveness, acceptance, mentoring, and encouragement. After all, we’re all addicted to selfishness and sin. The hardest part is admitting we have a problem — step 1.

    • Rebekah Simon-Peter

      Step 1 is always the hardest, David, and the most freeing! Thanks for weighing in.

  4. Kent Schuyler Sr.

    I have to say being both a member of Alcoholics Anonymous and my home church going on 12 years now here in Las Vegas attending several AA meetings weekly as well as my church I’d strongly disagree with a few facts stated in this article.Early AA had a very high recovery rate due to (everyone) involved working a Born again Christian Oxford group 6 step program.The 1944 official AA sponsorship pamphlet on the 12 steps released by Clarence Snyder still had Jesus Christ as the higher power and the folks in Ohio had a much higher recovery rate than the pick a God folks in New York at that time who weren’t focused on Christ or sponsorship = discipleship.Unfortunately today in 2021 AA has a 2-5% recovery rate and has shown declining membership numbers for decades.Very few folks ever work the 12 steps = especially the daily maintenance steps 10 , 11 and 12..Very few people have Christ as their higher power and almost nobody I personally have met sponsor anyone or even work a program as outlined in our literature.I work the 12 step program as well as my sponsor but we get a lot of cross talk at meetings from the new age cult meeting makers that just do meetings and are 90% of the folks at AA in 2021.As far as the church goes I get it but fortunately for me I have a really great church and I wish the folks at AA were like most of them sadly , but I go to AA hoping to find folks who are desperate enough to work the 12 steps vigorously.



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