One of my former youth approached me in the fall of 2010 and said, “Hey, I’ve been thinking I need to get into a program or something.” McKenna was 19 at the time.
We had never discussed his drug and alcohol use previously, but it wasn’t a secret. I didn’t know much about his options, but told him I’d look into it.
I looked up the Alcoholics Anonymous website and found out about the weekly Barely Legal meeting at a church in midtown Little Rock, Arkansas.
He didn’t drive at the time and I wanted to be supportive, so later that week I picked him up and we attended together.
We sat in the back of a room of about 60 people. I realized that as a 28-year-old I was one of the oldest people in the room.
And yet that night I heard more honesty and wisdom from people 10 years my junior whose lives were a mess than I’d heard in a while.
Since then I’ve received regular updates from McKenna on his progress in the program, and I often think about what we as the church can learn from AA. Here are five lessons:
I was in a room full of strangers, but I heard their deepest pains and toughest struggles. They knew there was no use in hiding it because they were seeking healing, and healing comes from being honest with yourself.
How could the church be transformed if we stopped trying to hide our scars but instead put them out there, letting others know they don’t have to hide theirs either?
“Hi, I’m Jim and I’m an alcoholic.”
Tagging along with transparency, it’s hard to be phony when you start a comment by naming your brokenness. Yet all who do are accepted by the group with a simple return greeting.
I think worship, business meetings and other church gatherings would feel different, and maybe be a little more holy, if we spoke this way.
“Hi, I’m Phil and I’m greedy/prideful/power-hungry.”
“Hi, I’m Marie and I’m image-obsessed/unkind/envious.”
You’re both still welcome here.
It was a rough go for McKenna at first. On the wagon, then off, then back on for six weeks, then off for two months.
I was still talking to him regularly, but it wasn’t the same as having someone who had been there before and was available day or night.
McKenna got a sponsor who told him to call him daily for the first 30 days, in addition to any other time he was needed.
This sponsor was serious about the 12 steps and spent long hours going through each one of them with McKenna. He assigned reading and watched over him diligently.
In addition, McKenna and his sponsor have sponsor brothers, a Grand Sponsor (sponsor’s sponsor) and others to support them. It’s a whole family on mission of love and support for each other.
Could the church benefit from structures like this? How much are we really willing to be involved in each other’s lives?
When I reviewed steps 4-10 on AA’s website, I was overwhelmed. If most of us were honest, this list sounds like the least fun thing that has ever existed: “fearless moral inventory,” “removing all these defects of character,” “make direct amends.”
Yet, as Christians, it’s our call to be more like Jesus and allow God to renew our minds and transform our hearts.
Being open to this transformation and practicing these techniques could transform individuals and congregations.
5. Giving back
For those able to make it to step 12, it’s now their duty to help others along the way. You don’t find healing and keep it to yourself.
Instead, it becomes your obligation to give others the same support and encouragement provided to you.
McKenna learned how to sponsor others well from his sponsor. The same is true for Christians: We are fed to feed, and we are led to lead.
Before we look outside and criticize anyone else, the local church needs to take a good hard look at ourselves and see what needs to change.
We’re often afraid that our transparency, honesty and accountability might be too much and could drive people away from us, but in a world filled with the fake and phony, it might just do the opposite.
I’ve seen it work in one life, and he’s four years sober today. Praise God.
Logan Carpenter is minister to youth and families at Second Baptist Church in Little Rock, Arkansas. A version of this article first appeared on the Second Baptist staff blog and is used with permission.