The 12 Step Program: An Invitation to the Church

The 12 Step Program: An Invitation to the Church


Barbara L. Gilliam, D. Min.



“For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.” – 2 Corinthians 5:14-15

“We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” – 2 Corinthians 5:20


kathy-hillacre-8240Church attendance continues to decline in America, while 12-step group attendance continues to grow. A surge of opiate abuse, the increase of deaths from heroin overdose, and the legalization of recreational marijuana in many states is an appeal for the Church to offer a compelling alternative to the addicted life. The Church plays a major role in prevention, counseling and referral services to those suffering the effects of addiction. Despite significant collaboration between the Church and the 12 step movement, the massive expansion of recovery groups exposes the Church’s inability or failure to deal honestly with people’s brokenness. Yet within the Christian view of recovery is the hope for discovering a person’s true nature and identity, and the freedom to enter the process of reconciliation and sanctification.

Alcoholics Anonymous derived much of its inspiration and focus on spiritual development from the Christian faith. The Church can be revitalized by some of the insights and practices found in the 12 step program.

First, nobody gets anywhere till he/she recognizes a clearly defined need. People come to AA because they are desperate. They are not respectable people looking for a religion, but hopelessly looking for redemption.

Does the Church function in relation to the standards of a holy God, expressing a desperate need for him? Has the Church become so self-reliant or competent that it no longer lives in the realm of John 15:5 where Jesus states, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit: apart from me you can do nothing.”

vinicius-amano-145607Second, the founders of AA believed recovery could only occur in a life changing community of honest and transparent relationships. After a person enters the doors of AA, the man or woman is strongly urged to get a sponsor who works the 12 steps with them and remains in close contact. This process includes ongoing confession and testimony.

Is the Church intentional about creating a place for transparent relationships to develop? Whether in a small group setting or another context, is discipleship, mentorship, and testimony offered?

Third, the big book of AA states on page 60 “The principles we have set down are guides to progress. We claim spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection. AA does not adopt a “theology of arrival.”

Is there an emphasis in the Church on quick fixes; is the seductiveness of a speedy deliverance or healing valued more than a slower, more painful process?

Though other 12 step practices and beliefs could be compared and contrasted with the Church, only the gospel of Jesus Christ offers forgiveness of sin, discovering a God-given identity, and worship of the God of Scripture.

Many people in recovery declare they are “spiritual but not religious.” Christianity is neither spiritual nor religious, but relational and dependent on the triune God. Following Jesus Christ is a totalizing lifestyle that demands everything in a person’s life be under his Lordship.

The popular term “spirituality” is vague, and the modern view of “sin” often defines sin as principally about human acts, and not the human condition. The addiction paradigm often critiques and rejects the Christian doctrine of a sinful nature.  Augustine claimed that “acquired” virtues rather than “infused” virtues serve to underwrite the sinful assumption that we may establish a coherent self apart from dependence on God. In Christian worship we encounter God not as we understand him, but as he is revealed to us in the Bible.

harry-miller-106042People cannot know their true identity and purpose apart from a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. The Church offers an environment of fellow prodigals who have been forgiven, and where the Holy Spirit works the will and wonders of God in the life of individuals and the Church corporately.

To the church that is open to the power of the Holy Spirit and the love of Jesus Christ, addiction is not a danger to fear, but an opportunity to welcome and embrace. Showing Christlike love to those suffering the effects of addiction is not only a challenge, but an opportunity. Instead of a mindset that we have to show love to brothers and sisters ensnared by addiction, today’s church can realize that we get to minister to this group, perhaps becoming more Christlike and compassionate in the process.




Dunnington, Kent. (2011) Addiction and Virtue. IVP Academic: Downers Grove, IL.


gilliam_barbaraBarbara L. Gilliam, D. Min. is an ordained minister with the Assemblies of God and pastored an urban, multi-cultural church for eighteen years in Long Beach, California. She is also a therapist, and has worked in the field of addiction, hospice, and healing for over twenty-five years. She teaches at schools of ministry and universities, and in 2013 founded Compassionate Wisdom Works. Compassionate Wisdom Works is a ministry dedicated to providing resources and options to churches, organizations, and individuals suffering the effects of addiction and other barriers that restrict freedom and transformation.  She is a noted speaker, and has published numerous articles on addiction and the Church.