Article  Human Dignity  Substance Abuse

The challenges of a church-based addiction ministry

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.

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