The 12 Steps—a natural bridge to the corps church?

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I thanked God as I glanced down from the podium at the dozens of men kneeling—praying before the mercy seat. Eyes squinted, lips moving in mumbled and silent prayer, they were spread out like a ripened field ready for the harvest. I thought, “Oh, how I love these men! Oh, how God loves them!” Moving among them—clasping their shoulders and praying with them—I realized how much I miss this ministry.

Before my transfer to Crestmont College in 2003 I served for 14 years as an ARC officer; therefore, when Captain Beau Perez, San Bernardino ARC administrator, invited me to preach, I jumped at the chance. There is certainly something special about working with recovering people.

Recently, I started pondering: considering the huge ministry which The Salvation Army has in working with them, why is it that we do such a poor job integrating recovering addicts into our corps? Only a tiny proportion, after all, chooses to make The Salvation Army corps their church home.

This issue cries out to be addressed—especially today! At a recent meeting of the Territorial Vision Action Team, Major Kathy Reed of the ARC Command announced the closure of the four ARC recovery corps in the Western Territory, two of which I had opened. Considerable discussion followed on how existing corps might rise to the challenge of “churching” this particular population.

The Twelve Step Program, I believe, should serve as a natural bridge to the corps church—ideally the first should feed into the other. “Addiction and the Twelve Steps often open people up to their first awareness of sin,” wrote Reid-King in the Christian Century journal (June, 1991). “Recovery, when appropriated by a church, can be a kind of side door to the church and the faith.” However, surveys show, this seldom occurs.

Martin Luther asserted that a man must experience damnation before he can experience salvation; addicts can understand this truth at an extremely basic level. In recovery they come to see that they made the drug their god, their “higher power”—their whole life had revolved around it. This “god,” however, had backfired on them, and they are told through the Twelve Steps to find a new “God of their own understanding.” The addict then goes on a determined, urgent quest for God and takes a whole, new look at organized religion, for to continue to use drugs or drink alcohol is to die.

I vividly remember Forrest Lacey, CSM of the now defunct Denver ARC Corps, as he was preaching a sermon, placed a beer bottle on a table, pointed at it, and shouted: “You say you don’t believe in a Higher Power? —there’s a higher power! Consequently, I need desperately a higher Higher Power, and I found him in the Lord Jesus Christ!”

Cadets Cory and Paula Paine, 1999 graduates of the Oakland and San Francisco ARCs, respectively, offered me their views on why more ARC graduates do not join Salvation Army corps (although many ARCs bus the men and women to the local corps during their first weeks in the program).

Cory asserts: “Many corps members treat recovering people like (how can I explain it?), well, like they’re not saved enough, that the blood of Christ somehow does not apply to them the way it does to those not in recovery.” Paula adds: “When visiting a corps for the first time, I would want to be treated like any other sinner seeking God’s grace or growth in grace. It’s all about feeling like we are accepted and fit in.”

“If corps members want recovering people to feel welcome they shouldn’t look down on them, ” emphasizes Cory. “Their souls are just as important as anyone else’s.” One reason for this attitude, he surmises, is the discomfort that many feel when they see addicts “taking a hard look at themselves, really desiring change. [Remember the powerful testimonies in ARC chapel services?] This is not always the same in the lives of John and Jane Q. Christian. It’s difficult for many people to watch others being so real with themselves and transparent before the Lord. It challenges the comfort zone of lukewarm Christians. Recovering people just want to be treated like anyone else who comes to the corps, to have the same opportunities.”

For this to happen, however, asserts Reid-King, “the church may first need to undergo a recovery of its identity as a church…the rationale is simple and persuasive: the church needs to address the needs of hurting people the way Jesus did.

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