By / Apr 18

Prior to the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, the opioid epidemic was the healthcare crisis that grabbed and held our attention. In the State of Tennessee, where I live, deaths related to drug overdoses increased by 18% from 2018 to 2019.12021 TN Annual Overdose Report, p. 30 

In Wilson County, local law enforcement was speed-tracking resources and training to curb overdoses induced by Fentanyl-laced opioids. African American pastors, particularly, were conducting more funerals of congregants who lost their battle with addiction. And initiated by the county mayor’s office, a task force was established in 2018 to bring addiction awareness, education, and prevention practices to our affluent, upper-middle class community.

The COVID pandemic, however, did not curb opioid use and abuse. It merely moved it out of plain view, but only temporarily. Substance abuse and overdoses continue at alarming rates along with other mental health challenges affecting neighbors of all ages. In our community, for example, local middle school administrators are forced to call an ambulance almost daily due to suicidal or homicidal ideations from middle school students. Social-emotional challenges not only hinder a student’s ability to learn, but create a difficult environment for both students and faculty in our public schools. 

The opioid crisis is a devastating symptom of a profound spiritual, emotional, and relational  brokenness that affects far too many of our closest neighbors. Loving our neighbors, then, calls the church to move into this brokenness to both restore those already trapped by addiction and to build a robust, comprehensive disciple-making model that prevents the likelihood of substance abuse and addiction from ever beginning.

3 steps your church can take 

Consider these three steps your church can take to break your community free from the opioid crisis:

1. View substance abuse and addiction as a Great Commission issue.

Spiritual lostness produces brokenness, and too often that brokenness is called addiction. Pastor Robby Gallaty said that many pastors view people with addiction as “those drug heads.” The implication is that those who battle drug addiction exist in a separate category of humanity — perhaps a category Jesus cannot or will not redeem.

Many religious people during Jesus’ ministry viewed the lame, blind, and demon-possessed in a similar way. But Jesus made the most marginalized people in the community central to his ministry offering them both spiritual life and physical healing. 

Our Great Commission mandate means the marginalized are not marginalized in our church or in our ministry. It means we remove the stigma of addiction, and invite those who are suffering to come near. 

It means pastors preach on the subject and that our evangelism training, small group ministry, and disciple making strategy include practical help and lasting hope for every neighbor carrying all kinds of sin and brokenness, including that of substance abuse, addiction, and other mental health challenges. 

2. Respond to substance abuse and addiction in collaboration with community partners.

Local churches should be a place of healing for those who struggle with addiction, but no one church alone can provide all the resources necessary. Some churches offer a recovery program, but not all can. Some churches provide counseling, but not all can. Sometimes the need is acute, and a church is simply not prepared to provide the assistance needed.

But when churches collaborate with other church and community partners, including healthcare providers and social services, they have access to more resources that can help them help their neighbors in crisis.

Through the State of Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, for example, churches can join the network of Recovery Congregations. As a Recovery Congregation, a church agrees to be a place of help and healing. Few churches can do everything, but every church can do something, and in turn connect to other churches and local agencies that offer more specialized assistance. 

In our community, the organization called DrugFree Wilco provides awareness, education, and opportunities for churches and other community groups to serve our vulnerable friends and neighbors well. There could be similar organizations near you. 

As churches walk with people who are struggling with addiction, community partnerships allow us to serve our neighbors more effectively than we ever could alone.

3. Prevent substance abuse and addiction through an incarnational disciple-making strategy.

Much of our efforts related to the opioid epidemic are reactionary. We meet someone struggling with addiction, and we respond by giving practical help and sharing the gospel. That is the correct response, and there will always be a need for us to minister to human needs in this way.

But for long-term progress, perhaps churches can evaluate how we take on the task of disciple making. In addition to teaching the next generation already in our student ministries, perhaps we can consider efforts that prepare, encourage, and send out believers to live as missionaries among people who have not yet attended our church or the programs we offer.

As we root believers in the riches of God’s Word equipping them to make disciples, we can also incentivize them to build significant relationships with neighbors outside of our church.  

I’m honored to lead a coalition of churches working together for the transformation of our community. As we give believers the opportunity to serve in the public schools, in addiction recovery programs, in poverty alleviation initiatives, and in foster care programs, we move God’s people into the public square. These are not programs the church must manage or can always measure, but they help believers live present with people in their brokenness in order to serve, teach, and influence them to follow Jesus with us. 

This incarnational approach to disciple making is less programmatic, and more personal. It’s also less measurable in the short term, but perhaps creates long-term, sustainable transformation for our closest neighbors and in the social structures of our community. 

  • 1
    2021 TN Annual Overdose Report, p. 30
By / Mar 31

I recently celebrated one year of sobriety from alcohol — a goal I’d been working to accomplish for several years. I’d felt I had an unhealthy relationship with alcohol since the first time I took a sip as a teenager, and I often thought of my grandfather, who died of liver disease related to alcoholism. I knew it was unhealthy for my body, my choices, and my faith. It was a barrier in my relationship with God. Rather than water and refresh my heart, it dried it up or drowned it out. 

To quit a substance one is physically or mentally addicted to is no small feat, and the support of friends, family, and community can make all the difference. There are likely more people in your life struggling with addiction than you realize. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found that 25% of people 18 and over regularly engage in binge drinking. During COVID-19 specifically, excessive drinking increased by 21% overall.  

The truth is, addiction doesn’t always present itself in stereotypical ways. Women, especially, are often high-functioning and successful, masterfully hiding their strongholds behind the highlight reels of social media and accomplishments. Interestingly, alcohol consumption among women rose by 41% since March 2020, according to a Harvard health study

An addiction of any kind is toxic to the body and the soul, and it’s important to know how you can best encourage friends who are struggling. As for me, the process was a journey. After years of asking the Lord to help me quit drinking, I was finally able to do it, knowing that I had been sinful in so many ways with my alcohol consumption. The Bible provides countless warnings about the substance. For example, Ephesians 5:18 states: “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit.” What I recognized, finally, was that one cannot be filled with the Holy Spirit when one is filled with wine. They are like oil and water — unable to mix — and that is one of the best reasons I found to finally walk away. 

This year, I am most grateful for my sobriety and how it allows my faith to flourish and my family to take priority. I am thankful to be rid of mental games and broken promises, feelings of rampant hypocrisy and powerlessness. As 2 Corinthians reminds us, “When I am weak, then I am strong.” It’s only in the strength of the Father and the beautiful community he surrounded me with that I was able to overcome this stronghold. 

Helping a friend with alcohol addiction 

Based on my recent experience, I want to suggest five things you can do to help a friend or family member struggling with non-life-threatening and non-life-altering alcohol addiction:

1. Offer to be a safe place to talk. One of the hardest things about early sobriety is the fear that you will fail and look weak or irresponsible. It’s important that your friend knows you will not berate them if they slip up. A safe relationship opens the door for honest conservation whenever it’s needed. The moment someone feels they may be shamed, they will probably close off. The more vulnerable someone can be in a community, the more likely they are to succeed in the end. 

2. Invite them into community. God has designed us for relationships, and people need community to walk in sobriety. That’s part of the power of Alcoholics Anonymous; it’s a band of men and women who stick together through thick and thin. So, it’s vital that you don’t alienate your friend who is struggling with alcohol addiction. One of the ways you can be most supportive is by inviting them into community. Surround them with the safety of friendship in Christ. Be willing to have a mindset focused on others and how you can best serve your friend as she seeks to overcome her dependence on alcohol by the grace of God. 

3. Pray for them diligently. When someone is giving up an addiction, spiritual warfare is in full force. I used to say that the only thing Satan had to do to keep me away from God was keep a drink in my hand. The enemy doesn’t want your friend to give up alcohol. That’s why we must pray regularly for their strength and ability to overcome. Understand that sobriety is a journey and it’s not always a one-and-done situation. Sometimes people start again and again before it sticks. Never give up on your friend, and be there for then every time they fall. The consistent support is like a safety net that helps them feel they can get up again. 

4. Educate yourself. When you understand addiction, you can be a better support for someone. Sometimes the well-intentioned help by Christians fails to take into account the holistic nature of every individual. There are many sobriety memoirs out there that can help you get into the mind of a person struggling with alcohol. Read the stories of other people and study up on science behind an addicted brain. It can be easy to wonder why someone can’t just “stop drinking,” but it’s usually not that simple. Our brains are actually re-wired when they become addicted to alcohol, so quitting is far more difficult than you can imagine. In addition, know what God’s Word says about addiction, forgiveness, and walking in Christ. 

A solidly supportive friend or family member can be what it takes for someone to overcome their addiction. Without a community to help fuel them, it’s easy for someone to fall into isolation and despair regarding their addiction. Your job as a friend and as a Christian is vital, and I encourage you to take it seriously. God has put you into someone’s life for such a time as this. Be the vessel that they need to to get to the other side. I can tell you from experience that the freedom awaiting them is priceless. 

By / Mar 18

In this episode, Jill Waggoner and Lindsay discuss the number of Ukrainian refugees increasing to 3.1 million and President Zelenskyy’s address to Congress. They also talk about substance abuse within the church, the call to foster care, and why cohabitation is a bad idea. In addition, Lindsay interviews Jill, a pastor’s wife, about church, COVID, and the importance of pregnancy resource centers. 

ERLC Content


  1. Axios: UN: Over 3.1 million refugees have fled Ukraine since Russian invasion began
  2. CNN: President Zelensky addressed U.S. Congress on Wed.


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By / Mar 18

Over the past two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected every family in America. Some are still dealing with the aftermath of the disease. But the problem of substance abuse exacerbated by the pandemic might be a problem that lasts longer than the coronavirus.

The pandemic — as well as related policies to mitigate the spread of the virus — aggravated a host of factors that tend to increase the risk for substance abuse. For example, many people experienced sudden loss of income and employment and an increase in time spent at home alone or with dependents, leading to increased levels of stress. The result, as the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) notes, is that researchers have observed increases in substance use and drug overdoses in the United States since the pandemic was declared a national emergency in March 2020. 

Increased abuse of alcohol

The National Institute on Drug Abuse looked at the monthly per capita sales of alcoholic beverages in 14 states and compared sales in 2020 or 2021 compared to the 2017–2019 3-year average. They found that the percentage change in sales for all alcoholic beverages peaked with a 15% increase, and sales of spirits peaked at a 30% increase. 

This increase in sales is reflected in the surveys on consumption. A survey sponsored by RTI International conducted in May 2020 showed overall increases in alcohol consumption, with women, people with minor children in the home, and Black Americans disproportionately increasing their drinking in the short term after COVID-19 started. Compared with February 2020, average monthly consumption in April and November 2020 increased by 36% and 39%, respectively. Corresponding increases for the proportion exceeding drinking guidelines were 27% and 39%, and increases for binge drinking were 26% and 30%.

Using the estimated 166,052,940 people aged 21 or older nationally who drank in 2019, this translates to an increase from February to November 2020 of 1 billion more drinks per month, with 14.6 million more people exceeding drinking guidelines, and 9 million more people binge drinking in November 2020 compared with February 2020. 

According to the survey, the proportion exceeding drinking guidelines between February and November 2020 increased by 54% for women and by 32% for men, with more women than men exceeding recommended drinking guidelines between April and November 2020. The proportion of binge drinking between February and November 2020 also increased by 42% for women and by 32% for men. The largest increases in consumption during this period were for Black and Hispanic women (173% and 148%, respectively), Black men (173%), men of other races (209%), and women with children younger than age 5 (323%). 

The percentage of respondents with mental health issues who reported drinking to cope increased from 5% in February to 15% in November, and the percentage of those who drank for enhancement increased from 6% in February to 16.5% in November. 

Increase in drug overdoses

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), a reporting system called ODMAP found that the early months of the pandemic brought an 18% increase nationwide in overdoses compared with those same months in 2019. The trend has continued throughout 2020, and more than 40 U.S. states saw increases in opioid-related mortality. 

In an interview with the APA, Mandy Owens, a researcher at the University of Washington Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute, says she’s observed a spike in substance use that includes an increase in both quantity and frequency of drug use during the pandemic. There also appears to be a substitution effect, as the quarantines, lockdowns, and other restrictions made access to certain substances such as heroin more difficult. For example, Owens says Washington state has seen an uptick in the use of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that’s increasingly produced illicitly, due to a shift in drug supply availability. 

According to the American Medical Association (AMA), the “nation’s drug overdose epidemic continues to change and become worse.” That AMA finds that one prevailing theme is the fact that the epidemic now is driven by illicit fentanyl, fentanyl analogs, methamphetamine, and cocaine, often in combination or in adulterated forms.

A survey published in the International Journal of Drug Policy found that 47% of respondents indicated their substance use had increased during COVID-19, and 38% said they believed they were at higher risk of overdose due to supply disruptions that made drugs more expensive, harder to get, and of unknown origin. Seven percent of survey respondents also indicated they had relapsed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

How to find help

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has a National Helpline that is free, confidential, and provides treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders. SAMHSA’s National Helpline can be reached by calling 1-800-662-HELP (4357), via text message at 435748 (HELP4U), or TTY at 1-800-487-4889. 

As Christians, we should be ready and willing to care for those who come to us with a substance abuse problem. We can point them to the forgiveness and hope found in Christ while walking with them along the hard road to sobriety. Let’s pray that those who are struggling would get the help they need, find community in the body of Christ, and find freedom in the Savior. 

By / Mar 14

The stress of pandemic living seemed to exacerbate and bring to light several struggles common in our society — and even within the church. While some like loneliness were to be expected, the issue of substance abuse may have been a bit more surprising to some, especially because it’s happening among church leaders. Josh Vaughan, senior pastor of Columbus Avenue Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, has come face to face with this reality. A fellow pastor on staff confessed to an alcohol addiction, and Vaughan shepherded him and the congregation through the process of seeking help and restoration. Below, Vaughan answers questions about what Scripture teaches and how Christians can begin to respond to substance abuse issues. 

It’s important to note that the information, counsel, and path for restoration laid out below is for substance abuse and addiction and does not apply to other ways pastors might sin that may be disqualifying from ministry. In particular, this path of being restored to ministry should not be applied to sexual abuse.

Elizabeth Bristow: The issue of substance abuse is prevalent in our culture and is present in every church congregation. How do we reconcile this reality? How does the Bible inform how we should think about it?

Josh Vaughan: Addressing substance abuse in the church is something we all want to do. We know it’s there and needs to be taken care of, but very few want to start doing the work. At some point, facing the problem requires taking one step at a time. 

While the Bible does not use terms such as “addiction” or “substance abuse,” the issue that these terms describe is evident within its pages. Whether described as “folly” in Ecclesiastes 2:1-3 or as “slavery to sin” in Romans 6:12-20, the controlling power that a human can find him or herself subjected to is not a new phenomenon. Nor is the destructive pattern of addiction a new phenomenon either. Proverbs 23:29-35 describes the sadly familiar progression of appeal, irrational choices, seemingly irresistible craving, and failure to change despite negative consequences. The prevalence of substance abuse in our culture and congregations should really be no surprise because it has plagued humanity across time and culture. Folly continues to cry out, and even Christians are prone to answering (Prov. 9:13-18).

In our cultural context, the Bible does provide a hopeful perspective that is desperately needed. The most common way our culture views substance abuse is through the lens of “sickness.” This view emphasizes physiological or psychological dependence as the main problem and turns to deal with these issues solely on a medical and/or therapeutic basis. Moral culpability can be minimized  or removed altogether, and consequently, confession, repentance, and the accompanying opportunity for forgiveness and reconciliation can also be removed. A view of substance abuse informed by the Bible does not reject the physiological or psychological factors at play since it affirms that we are embodied beings. The Bible insists that human behavior is complex and these issues must also be viewed in light of our brokenness as moral creatures before God.

The will can be bent toward selfishness and foolishness, and when a human acts accordingly, the Bible describes this as “sin.” The Psalmist prays, “keep your servant from willful sins; do not let them rule over me” (Psa. 19:13). While it is not popular to retain the category of “sin” in describing substance abuse, it must be a central aspect of a biblical approach to these issues.. Accounting for “substance abuse” as an expression of sin provides a basis for hope. If sin is the problem and not just sickness, then there is both the responsibility to confess and repent and the possibility for forgiveness, proper help, and restoration. Both the substance abuser and the myriad of people harmed by that substance abuse have the chance to make sense of what is happening and find a way forward.

EB: Why is it hard for Christians to be open about and repentant of substance abuse and addiction?

JV: At the most fundamental level, I don’t believe that openness about substance abuse and addiction is more difficult for Christians than non-Christians. I think it is difficult for all humans to be open. The natural inclination is to hide the truth about our sin from God (see Genesis 3:8), from one another (Proverbs 9:17), and even from ourselves (Ephesians 4:17-19). Christians are not exempt from this natural inclination, yet the only hope for repentance is to first bring the problem into the open.

I do believe that pastors, ministers, and ministry leaders do find it very difficult to be open for fear of losing influence and/or even their employment. To some degree, the fear is justified in that leaders are rightly held to a higher standard by virtue of their increased influence. However, the danger of that “high standard” is that ministry leaders will not confess the early steps toward addiction such as appeal and/or experimentation and take steps to protect themselves from temptation. By the time experimentation has hardened into addiction, many other compromises have been made eroding or destroying the trust that confession is designed to preserve.

EB: When Christians confess their addiction and bring it into the light, what is the path to hope and restoration?

JV: While confession is the necessary first step toward restoration, it is only the first step. The next steps are determined by the severity and duration of the addictive behavior but could include accountability mechanisms, addiction recovery and/or support groups, and professional intervention in a rehabilitation context. Since substance abuse is often used to cover up and/or escape from other mental health concerns, professional counseling and medical help is often an appropriate step to take as well. In all of this, the most important source of hope is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Self-condemnation hampers all efforts at restoration for both the substance abuser and their families, friends, and church. Returning to the hope affirmed in Romans 8:1 that “there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus” is one of the most important practices on the road to restoration.

EB: In your tenure of pastoring your church in Waco, Texas, you’ve walked through a situation with a fellow pastor on staff who came forward with an alcohol addiction. How did you navigate this season as the leader of your congregation, and what important lessons did you learn?

JV: Years before this particular occurrence, my father-in-law gave me some leadership advice that I have returned to often in difficult management moments when appropriate. He said, “If you are going to err, err on the side of grace.” His words rung in my ears as I interacted with the pastor, his wife and children, our church leadership, and our congregation. While guided by a basic disposition toward grace, I was also keenly aware that grace requires truth telling. Before I could extend grace to the pastor, he had to decide to tell the truth about what was going on. Before the church could extend grace, we had to truthfully account for the damage done. This was a painful and uncertain process, but guided by grace and truth, we were able to navigate even the mistakes we made as we helped him.

I learned very quickly that lurking behind the substance abuse were other significant issues in the pastor’s life. This makes recovery a complicated, slow process with many ups and downs along the way. When my church was made aware of what had happened, it provided opportunity for many others experiencing varying degrees of addiction to share openly and get help. In addition, many who had been quietly carrying the weight of a family member struggling with addiction were also able to share their experience, connect with others, and know that they were not alone.

EB: What is the path to restoration for a pastor or church leader who struggles with substance abuse that your church has followed?

JV: Though it will be different for each instance, the path that we established and have used in a variety of situations includes the following four steps:

Step 1: Accountability will be provided as necessary to protect the gospel ministry, the church, and the minister involved. Accusations against a minister must be substantiated (1 Timothy 5:19), and appropriate accountability provided impartially (1 Timothy 5:21).

Step 2: Confession will be the responsibility of the minister committing the offense. The appropriate setting will be determined based on the nature of the offense and the scope of the minister’s work (1 Timothy 5:20).

Step 3: Forgiveness will be the responsibility of the church to express and to enact both verbally and relationally. The aim of the steps to restoration is both to maintain holiness in the church and a relational context for restoration. Forgiveness does not mean that consequences such as employment termination, license revocation, etc., are removed. Forgiveness allows the church and minister to begin healing and rebuilding trust.

Step 4: Restoration will require the commitment and follow–through of both minister and church. A “Restoration Plan” will be agreed upon as outlined below. Each plan will be shaped by the willingness, needs, and opportunities presented by both the church and minister.

The elements of a restoration plan may include any or all of the following:

  • Professional counseling. The minister and family (if applicable) will need focused help in addressing the presenting issue as well as secondary issues — for example, anger and bitterness — that surface related to the presenting issue.
  • Mentor pastor. A pastor not affiliated with the current church will serve as accountability and discipleship supervisor. Quarterly reports from counselor, therapist, and/or psychologist will be delivered to the mentor pastor during duration of restoration.
  • Job support. Assistance in securing secular employment for the minister will aim to provide stability for the family. Childcare and affordable housing may also be considered as part of a plan.
  • Church family. Prayer, encouragement, and a supportive Christian community will be provided by the congregation and/or a small group during the restoration period.
  • Regular review. At six-month intervals, the minister’s progress will be checked by sponsoring church leaders. At the end of two years, the sponsoring church leaders in consultation with the mentor pastor and applicable counselors will either recommend readiness for leadership service (relicensing) or further restoration steps.

The duration of a restoration plan depends on the severity of the harm done and issues related to that harm. If the circumstances involve potentially addictive substances or behaviors, the Personnel Committee (or leadership team) reviewing the specific circumstances will seek to identify one of five stages of involvement with a corresponding duration of restoration recommended.

  1. Curiosity: recommend three months professional counseling.
  2. Experimental: recommend six months professional counseling
  3. Regular: recommend one year professional counseling and a three-month suspension of credentials.
  4. Habitual: recommend one year professional counseling and an 18-month suspension of credentials
  5. Addictive: recommend two years of professional counseling and two-year suspension of credentials

EB: What is the role of the church in walking through this journey when its leaders struggle with addictions?

JV: The first responsibility of the church is to faithfully and consistently pray for their leaders whether or not there is a struggle with substance abuse present. The propensity to stumble and the attacks of the enemy are ever-present dangers, and prayer is the church’s chief resource. When an addiction becomes known, the church and its leaders have the responsibility to protect the integrity of the gospel both by providing appropriate accountability and by extending grace to the leader. This will require an exercise of prayerful wisdom to discern what response a particular circumstance will warrant. If the leader is willing to submit to accountability and repent, then the church is responsible to forgive and provide an open door for restoration. That may or may not mean restoration to a position of leadership, but it should include restoration to relationship with the church.

EB: On a personal level, what encouragement would you give to someone walking through an addiction with a close friend or family member?

JV: I would strongly encourage them to find a support group with others who are walking the same road. Al-Anon groups are available in most cities and provide a specialized support that goes beyond what caring Christian friendships can provide. The unique cycle that accompanies addiction relapse is particularly devastating to families and close friends. Without appropriate support, care can quietly turn into resentment causing even further damage spiritually and relationally.

Church members may find themselves in one of two extremes when a leader they respect has a public failing related to substance abuse: They may feel angry and betrayed, wanting to punish the leader personally (i.e., “if I did that, I would be fired”; “I’ve endured hard times, but I didn’t turn to a bottle/pills”; “he needs to feel the pain of what he’s done to this church”, etc.). Or they may rush quickly to grace to forgive and work toward restoration for the leader while skipping over a period of grieving the seriousness of the sin and its consequences (i.e., “what’s the big deal, we all sin?”; “God’s just gonna do great things [while those close are still hurting]”, etc.) What wisdom would serve these two groups well as they seek to respond biblically?

Both responses are legitimate but incomplete by themselves. The failure and harm are real, and it is right to be angry. The need for forgiveness and restoration is real, and it is right to be gracious. Only God himself is able to perfectly experience both justice and grace at the same time, and he did it at the cross of Jesus Christ. The wrath of God against sin met the grace of God toward sinners in the death of Jesus. Knowing this truth frees us from trying to do what only God can. 

Practically, this means that church members must avoid demonizing others who are responding in a way differently than they are. Our understanding about the nature of God is displayed when those who are feeling the need for justice partner with those who are feeling the need for grace to decide how to express both toward a particular person. Church members should resist only interacting with others in their camp and/or retreating from the church altogether. Both responses temporarily relieve the tension but also remove the possibility for everyone to encounter God’s presence in a transformative way through the crisis the church is facing.

I am deeply grateful for the leaders and people of Columbus Avenue Baptist Church because they remained together in the tension of both seeking justice and extending grace. Consequently, we have grown as a family of faith through a public leadership failure. What was intended for evil, the Lord intended for good (Genesis 50:20).

EB: What does lived repentance look like during the process of restoration for a church leader or member who has struggled with substance abuse?

JV: I can only answer this in a limited manner since I have not experienced this particular struggle. However, all sin has the possibility of becoming controlling. Living repentance looks like daily returning to the gospel truth that there is no condemnation for the one in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1). It looks like walking in regular confession with a trusted group of Christians (1 John 1:7). It looks like replacing the old habit and response to stress with a new one (Col. 3:5,12). Ultimately, it looks like death — and initially feels like death as well (Rom. 6:6-7). Finally, it looks like a new life of joyful worship and service as the Holy Spirit accomplishes transformation (Rom. 12:1-2).

By / Mar 19

Honesty may be more difficult than sobriety.” I love that insightful quote from Brad Hambrick. Addictions require deception. In order to maintain an addiction, you have to become skilled at lying, representing yourself and your life in a different way. You have to become adept at hiding so that others don’t interfere, life can still be managed, and addictions still enjoyed. Of all the struggles that addicts have to overcome, learning to tell the truth is at the top of the list. Practicing truth-telling, then, becomes an important part of recovery.

The role of deception

Deception allows an addicted individual to maintain their habit. Exposure will require those who love them to intervene, take steps to help, confront, and issue consequence. But, secrecy, hiding, manipulation, and outright lying become necessary if an addict hopes to keep up the habit.

Tommy, for example, was an alcoholic. Pretty much everyone knew it, but he had developed a series of lies that kept people from being able to confront him. He missed his son’s ballgame because he had to “work late.” He said hurtful things to his wife because he was “tired from working late.” He drank a “little bit,” but that was just to take the edge off of the long day. If his wife had any compassion, then she wouldn’t have picked that fight with him when he got home. These were the sort of distractions that Tommy could throw around to keep people from talking about his alcohol consumption. He was just good enough at it that others, despite knowing he had a problem, could never find the avenue to confront him.

Self-deception is, of course, the biggest form of lying in which the addict participates. He convinces himself that he is in control. “This isn’t that big of a deal. Other people are being dramatic and blowing things out of proportion. I can stop whenever I want.” Wendy regularly used the excuse that her doctor had prescribed her pills, so they were medically necessary. She was taking more than she was prescribed, but that was a non-issue since she had a script that proved her need. 

Self-deception is a common and necessary preservation tactic for developing and maintaining an addiction. It’s not that the addict doesn’t know that there is some level of a problem, but the deception is a form of denial that allows them to keep engaging in the habit without guilt or recognizing the responsibility to change.

Deception, while common enough, will always keep people stuck in sin. Until an addicted individual is ready to take personal responsibility for their desires, attitudes, and actions, they will remain stuck. Honesty must occur, but it is hard to cultivate

The hardship of honesty

Honesty is hard for several reasons. Deception often arises from a place of fear. We don’t tell the truth because we are afraid of the consequences, we are afraid of change, and we are afraid of letting go of something that brings us comfort. Learning to tell the truth, therefore, requires confronting our fears.

Addicted individuals have often turned to substance abuse because they do not have good life management skills. When you don’t know how to manage your emotions, resolve conflict, develop relationships, or work hard, then drugs and alcohol provide an escape. They become the means by which a person “resolves” problems. Using substances to avoid addressing problems, however, simply compounds them. The consequences begin to mount up. If Bill drank to avoid dealing with his wife, his drinking often meant that he dealt with his wife in destructive ways. If Sarah used drugs to escape her failures, using only prompted more failures. The consequences are real, and honesty requires us to deal with them.

At other times, deception prevents us from facing disappointment. Change is hard, and overcoming a substance abuse problem is notoriously difficult. Many addicted individuals have tried, in small or sometimes great ways, to break the habit. Yet, every time they have relapsed. There is something unbelievably discouraging about trying and yet not actually changing. Sometimes the fear of disappointment is so great and we fear that it means we simply can’t change—we are just too broken to ever quit drugs and alcohol. So, rather than be disappointed yet again or face the supposed reality of brokenness, some individuals simply don’t try. Deception allows them to avoid hopelessness.

Finally, honesty is hard because addiction is pleasurable. The longer you indulge in a substance abuse pattern, the more your addiction dominates your life. Addicts have let go of many other healthy outlets of fun, pleasure, and joy, whether friends, hobbies, or social outings, in order to engage in drug use or alcohol consumption. Furthermore, substance abuse changes their experience of the more commonplace fun in which they used to engage. The “high” they get from using makes all other pleasure seem mundane. Being honest about an addiction means letting go of the only thing that makes them feel good. That’s how Derek felt when I first began meeting with him: “If I give this up, I am giving up the only good thing I have left.” He was scared.

Practicing honesty

Understanding these dynamics about honesty and deception allows us to begin to point beyond addictive habits to hope. God gives grace to help us face our consequences (2 Cor. 4:8-10); he gives us promises to guarantee our eventual change (Phil. 1:6); and he ensures that joy is possible as we grow in his Spirit (Gal. 5:22). But honesty is still hard and is going to require cultivation. Just as addictions formulate over time, so too can honesty become a habit as we practice it over time.

Lying can become its own “addictive” habit. Addicted individuals may find that they are so used to lying that they do it even when it serves no immediate advantage to them or their addiction. It becomes part of their routine. Likewise, honesty is going to have to be practiced. They will need to learn to tell the truth with regularity.

Jesus is the truth who sets us free from being enslaved to our sin (John 8:31-32). He call us to walk in the truth. And the Bible is clear that God hates a lying tongue (Prov. 6:17). Cultivating honesty means that we must begin to evaluate what we say and how we live according to biblical standards. The following three questions can help to serve as a grid for evaluating our statements:

  1. Is it true? In other words, is it factual?
  2. Is it the whole truth? Are you trying to leave anything out, or are you declaring the full reality?
  3. Is it nothing but the truth? Are you embellishing or adding to the facts?

We can use these questions and begin evaluating general statements we make about events. Practice it. Pick one thing that happened to you in the last 24 to 48 hours (it can be anything). Share what happened and how it made you feel, filtering the event through these three questions.

If you’re an addict, practice, this and then discuss this exercise with a friend. How did this exercise make you feel? Was any part of it challenging? Did you struggle to answer any of the three questions? Were you tempted to be deceitful in any of the three questions? How will practicing this exercise help you to be more truthful?

Do this again and again. Start with the more routine aspects of your life, describing them honestly. Cultivate the habit of truth-telling. Eventually, however, (and sooner rather than later) you want to increase the gravity of the events you describe. Progressively select events that are more important, that you would be more likely to lie about, and those with consequences. Keep practicing.

Addiction and deception go hand in hand, but you can learn to tell the truth about yourself and your problems with the Spirit’s help. By practicing truth-telling, you are already beginning to change. By continuing to do it, you are growing. Truth telling won’t solve all your problems, in fact, it may mean that you have to deal with more problems initially. Eventually, however, the truth will empower you to fight against sin and to get the help you need. Those who lie and deceive will stay stuck, but the truth will set you free.

By / Mar 18

Free, downloadable bulletin insert for use by your church on Substance Abuse Prevention Sunday.

To see additional SBC event dates, visit

By / Mar 15

This weekend many churches in America will observe Substance Abuse Prevention Sunday. In preparation for the observance, here are five facts you should know about the most commonly abused drugs in America.

1. More than 70,000 Americans died of a drug overdose in 2017, the last year for which complete data is available. The rate was 21.7 per 100,000 population, a increase of nearly 10 percent from 2016. Opioids were involved in over two-thirds of overdose deaths, with death rates linked to synthetic opioids increasing more than 45 percent. The rates of overdose deaths involving cocaine increased by more than 34 percent, and the rate of overdose deaths involving psychostimulants (e.g., medicines often prescribed for people with ADHD) increased by more than 33 percent.

2. An estimated 1.7 million people in the U.S. suffer from substance use disorders related to prescription opioid pain relievers, and 652,000 suffered from a heroin use disorder (the two categories overlap). About 21 to 29 percent of patients prescribed opioids for chronic pain misuse them, and between eight and 12 percent develop an opioid use disorder. Of those who misuse prescription opioids, an estimated four to six percent transition to the abuse of heroin. About 80 percent of people who use heroin first misused prescription opioids.

3. Alcohol is the most commonly drug in America—and remains the most deadly. Although opioid abuse leads to more direct overdoses, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that more than 88,000 people die from alcohol-related deaths each year. Excessive drinking is also responsible for one in 10 deaths among working-age adults aged 20-64 years. Alcohol-impaired driving also accounts for more than 30 percent of all driving fatalities each year. The abuse of alcohol is the third-leading cause of preventable death in America.

4. Binge drinking is the most common, costly, and deadly pattern of excessive alcohol use in the United States, notes the CDC. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines binge drinking as a pattern of drinking that brings a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 grams percent or above. This typically happens when men consume five or more drinks or women consume four or more drinks in about two hours. One in six U.S. adults binge drinks about four times a month, consuming about seven drinks per binge. This results in 17 billion total binge drinks consumed by adults annually, or 467 binge drinks per binge drinker. Binge drinking is most common among younger adults aged 18–34 years, but more than half of the total binge drinks are consumed by those aged 35 and older. Binge drinking is more common among people with household incomes of $75,000 or more and higher educational levels. Binge drinkers with lower incomes and educational levels, however, consume more binge drinks per year.

5. After alcohol, marijuana (cannabis) has the highest rate of dependence or abuse among all drugs. About one in 10 marijuana users will become addicted to the drug, and for people who begin using younger than 18, that number rises to one in six. Despite being treated as rather harmless by legalization advocates, cannabis has been proven to have severe detrimental effects on health and society. For instance, there is a consensus in the medical community that use of cannabis increases the risk of psychosis/psychotic disorders, including schizophrenia. The drug also increases risks to children. A recent study by the Texas Department of Child and Family Services found that marijuana was the substance most identified as an active substance in child abuse and neglect-related fatalities, representing over half of the cases. 

By / Feb 21

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.