The corps church and the addict: failure to connect

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by Glen Doss, Major – 

“God brought me to AA, and AA brought me to God,” stammered the startled, disheveled man from where he lay outstretched in the early dawn on the steps of the ARC administration wing. He was responding to my question: “What brought you here?” Aware suddenly that he was blocking the door, he pulled his lanky frame erect and stepped to one side. Gazing deeply into his eyes, I recognized the glimmer of spiritual hunger mixed with great desperation. “I need to learn more about God,” he stressed. “I’ll do anything to stay clean and sober.”
“Me, too,” piped up a younger man, emerging abruptly from the shadows.

Shaking their hands, I told them, “You came to the right place. Welcome.” I held the door open as they shuffled into the waiting room followed by a half dozen more materializing from the gloom. My chest swelled. “Oh, how I love these men!” I thought. “And how God loves them! For he ‘came to seek and to save what was lost.’ ” (Luke 19:10)

I argued in a previous column that the Twelve-Step program should ideally serve as a natural bridge to the corps church. There is a reference to God (or a direct euphemism for him) in six of the twelve steps. The text of Alcoholics Anonymous (often referred to as the Big Book) contains the following summary:

“Our description of the alcoholic, the chapter to the agnostic, and our personal adventures before and after make clear three pertinent ideas:

• That we were alcoholic and could not manage our lives.
• That probably no human power could have relieved our alcoholism.
• That God could and would if he were sought.” (p. 60)
And so they come to the ARC seeking God, and there these anxious men and women find something new and special. For the serious seekers, the ARC puts a face on God—the face of Jesus Christ!—and, most importantly, they learn how to worship him in a communal setting. The tragedy is that they often don’t find the same experience elsewhere. They may visit other churches, including the local corps, but they fail to connect. It was for this reason that the ARC recovery corps were born—and it is for this same reason that recovery-centered churches have sprung up across the American landscape, for the phenomenon is by no means unique to The Salvation Army. But the big question still remains: Why do they fail to connect?
“I think the nonjudgmental atmosphere is one of the biggest assets of this [recovery-centered] church,” observes New Freedom Fellowship member Michael Rauling in the December 2000 issue of Christianity Today. Is it possible that recovering addicts also view Salvationists as judgmental? I included quotes to this effect in a recent column, but what I did not mention was that when I personally pastored an ARC corps I often heard the following remark: “The thing I like about this church is I don’t feel like the people judge me here!”
When I brought this topic up for discussion recently in a class I was teaching at Crestmont College, the students (who were mostly Salvation Army officers) insisted: “That isn’t the way it is! It’s just the perception!” But no one argued that the perception isn’t present in the minds of the recovering addicts in the pews.

“I keep attending meetings in The Salvation Army that strike me as patronizing and condescending toward those people whom many of us refer to as friends…,” observed Dion Oxford, a homeless shelter director, in this year’s July/August issue of Horizons. “I hear so much ‘us’ and ‘them’ language that I find it difficult to believe we are actually invested in people’s lives…”

The time has come, I believe, for all of us to prayerfully, realistically do a self-assessment, to take our own personal “moral inventory,” so to speak. If we dare to see ourselves as we really are, we can change. It is painful, but such fearless honesty makes it possible for us to go home again. Then, to begin remedying the problem, I suggest we admit our ignorance and seek seriously to understand—to get a good grasp on the truth.

The following revealing observation appears on page 74 of the Big Book: “Though we have no religious connection, we may still do well to talk with someone ordained by an established religion. We often find such a person quick to see and understand our problem. Of course, we sometimes encounter people who do not understand alcoholics.” The implications for the Salvation Army officer (or any clergyperson, for that matter) are obvious.

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