The first time I attended a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, I went – or so I told myself – solely for research purposes: I was writing a sermon on addictions. Based on my relationship with active alcoholics in my family, I expected to find loads of people whingeing and blaming others for their problems.
But when I arrived, it was the atmosphere of a party. Someone welcomed me; someone else poured me a coffee; someone else helped me find a seat.
The meeting started, and the leader asked if anyone was celebrating anniversaries. People stood up to announce: “today I’ve got a year sober”, or a month, or a decade, or “today it’s been a week without a drink”. These celebrations were micro-testimonies, and as each person announced their day count, the crowd clapped and whistled and shouted out. It was like people crying “alleluia” at a revival. It felt like good church.
As this went on, I started to cry. The ink of my sermon notes got smudged by tears. The woman next to me reached into her purse and offered me a tissue. “Thanks,” I said, “I don’t know why I’m crying! I’m just here for research purposes.” And she looked at me with the eyes of love, compassionate yet deeply seeing. She knew – and in that moment I knew, too, though I wouldn’t fully acknowledge it for a while – that it was personal for me, not just professional.
The meeting continued and someone shared a fuller testimony of their recovery. They told the truth about what had gone down in their life – the stuff they’d done, the stuff that had happened to them, the losing, the falling, the failing. But also how they’d been found by a Higher Power they didn’t expect and a community that guided them into the process of spiritual transformation.
One of the prerequisites for getting sober is hitting bottom. That’s when you finally accept that there’s nothing else you can do to get better except to admit that there’s nothing else you can do. You’ve reached the end of your own power. But there is another power. At least that’s what AA says. Does that sound like anything else we’ve heard before, Church?
I wonder what it would look like for the Church to get into recovery? Perhaps our ecumenical movement would experience new spiritual power if we came together around our common need to admit failure. To confess the egregious stuff: our propagation of material and spiritual capitalism, our infection with racism (at once lifting up white people and oppressing people of colour), our homophobia. And more generally, to confess our need to let go, to relax and release the damned control freakery, to bless the flourishing of new forms of Christianity.
One effect of the pandemic is that we’re all hitting bottom in different ways. And as we sit there at the bottom of the sea, every church and disciple has an invitation to feel afresh our own desperate need for God, to confess the sin that clutters our mission, to remember what we’re for and to live differently.
If together we find the humility to do that, maybe we’ll be surprised by God. Maybe we’ll experience “the joy of being wrong”, to use the language of theologian James Alison. Maybe we’ll rediscover discipleship as a process of actual transformation not just for newcomers but for all of us as we undergo God together.
In AA, people are getting real and therefore people are getting healed. And that’s the discipleship invitation to me, to you, to the whole Church of Jesus Christ, too. It’s never just for research purposes; it’s always deeply personal, whether we’re just beginning the journey or have been on it for a long time.
The Rev Trey Hall is the Director of Evangelism and Growth for the Methodist Church in Britain. He’s a pioneer, ministry coach, American expat, marathon runner, and (terribly) failed improv comedy student. He lives in north London with his partner (also a Methodist minister) of fifteen years. He is passionate about helping diverse Christian leaders discover and engage in authentic evangelism that reaches new people in new places, brings spiritual joy to those who practice it, and centres us all in God’s love and power.