The challenges of a church-based addiction ministry

February 21, 2018

I firmly believe that the church should be on the front lines of addiction ministry, but such ministry is not easy. Working with addictions and those enslaved to them is complicated, time-consuming, and painful. It can be tempting for churches and Christians to romanticize this type of ministry, to talk about it with lots of poetic and dramatic language and yet fail to consider the cost of entering into this work.

So, the church needs to engage the addiction community, but it needs to do so without any romantic blinders. Here are some of the most significant challenges facing a church that enters into this ministry:

It can hurt church growth. Inviting addicts into your church community is a good way to upset people. Those who want a “family-friendly” church environment can struggle to accept the inclusion of men and women with these kinds of serious problems. There will be some who worry about the legal issues (which are important) and who fear what might happen if things don’t go well. “What if they steal things?” “What if they use drugs or drink on church property?” “What if they have committed serious crimes?” These are all legitimate questions and concerns, but for some, the concern is enough to halt the entire ministry.

Furthermore, there are those who simply don’t want to do church with “messy” people. In one church I served, we would often get phone calls, emails, and remarks about the number of addicts we had attending our services. “We like what you’re doing down there, but we just think you have too many addicts coming.” Others remarked that they couldn’t believe all the men smoking cigarettes outside the church building (I was mostly relieved they were just smoking cigarettes!). Inviting addicts into your community is a way to ensure that some people will leave your church, and others will never visit. You have to count whether it’s worth the cost.

It’s not a simple program. Addiction ministry is not a program. It’s not something you can quarantine to one night a week, in one corner of the church, and within the confines of some six-week class. It can be great to have some kind of starting place, reference point, and guiding tool to help those struggling, but that can never encompass your whole ministry to addicted individuals. Caring for addicts is long-term and time-consuming. It will require much of your members and leadership, and it will often fail to produce compelling and attractive results that you can parade around as statistics of success. The churches that choose to enter into this field of work must be prepared for hard labor, and limited results.

It comes with loss and grief. The addicted individuals I know are some of the kindest and most wonderful people you’d ever meet. I have grown to love them dearly, and count them as friends. I desperately long for them to overcome their addiction and grow in their spiritual lives. Some do, praise God; some do not. The hurt and grief of watching people run head-long into destruction is a tremendous weight to bear. Some have died from drug abuse, some have gone to jail, and some have simply disappeared and never returned to us. Churches must be prepared to carry the load of this grief and sorrow over the “lost sheep.” We always refuse to let anyone go without a fight, but many times our fighting seems to make no difference.

It is complicated by a myriad of issues. One thing that makes this type of ministry so complicated is that it is never simply a substance abuse problem. Healing addicts requires patient navigation of a host of interrelated problems. People use substances as a means of coping with other problems. The addiction is often a surface-level response to a deeper heart issue. Helping people learn to address relationships, stress, insecurity, worship, and overall life, while also helping them address an addictive habit, is extremely complicated. It requires many hands and much patience. It also requires education and growing awareness of the basic issues involved in addiction counseling and practical care.

It has liability implications. When you start inviting addicts into your church, you are bound to have problems. What happens when something goes wrong? We have had things stolen, fights break out, and volunteers threatened. Liability is a real issue, but we can’t ignore broken people because of financial and legal fears. I do understand the concerns. The threat of legal consequences can be crippling, but there are some things we can do to help alleviate some of the risks. Speak with your insurance providers and know your coverage. Speak with parole officers and learn about expectations. Speak with medical professionals about referrals and detox (detox should always be left to medical professionals since it can be life-threatening).

It requires balance. Working with addicted individuals requires us to be tough and loving. Churches don’t usually handle this balance well; we tend toward one extreme. We are sometimes so tough and so determined that we are ready to enact church discipline on every person who relapses. There is a place for church discipline, but we must use it sparingly and only after we have exhausted all other help. Addictions are hard to break free from, and relapse is common (though not inevitable).

On the other hand, love is not naive and simplistic. Loving addicts well means helping them grow and learn self-control and self-discipline. This means setting boundaries and expectations. They should be communicated clearly and frequently, and they should be both reasonable and yet require some effort. Growth comes as we seek to practice all the one-another commands with addicted church members. This is not an easy balance for the church to strike, but we must strive toward it.

There are, of course, many more challenges, but these are some of the more common ones that I’ve encountered but that don’t get talked about often. I encourage churches to engage in this work. It is hard, but it is extremely rewarding. Consider the cost, but take up your cross and follow Jesus in ministering to those most in need. In doing, you may be offering a cup of water, a meal, clothing, shelter, and friendship to Jesus, as well.

David Dunham

David serves as pastor of Counseling and Discipleship at Cornerstone Baptist Church in the Detroit metro. He is the author Addictive Habits: Changing for Good (P&R, 2018), and co-author of Table for Two (New Growth, 2021). He earned his M.Div. from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24