Though it typically is thought to be in reference to alcohol, drugs, and, lately, pornography, the term addiction truly refers to an almost unlimited list of habits that negatively affect a person and/or the people around him or her. In addition to these, people in your pews may also be suffering, knowingly or unknowingly, to addictions such as gambling, romance, sex, shopping, exercising, eating, video games, Internet browsing, social media, smartphones, technology, and work. That’s right—the person who can’t ever put down her phone or get off of Facebook is suffering from just as much addiction as the one who never leaves the office or loses daily battles to Internet pornography.
Whether you have twenty people in your church or twenty thousand, your congregation is undoubtedly dealing with addiction in some form, including substance abuse and sex-related addictions, the ones the church typically does not hide its disdain for but rarely makes known its grace to those suffering from them. So how can you as the leader of your church help make sure your church is a grace-filled church that those suffering from addiction can find refuge in?
Do not ignore cries for help or go into denial mode. “Addiction” is simply another term for “spiritual bondage.” Do you believe that “the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour”? Do you believe that he is constantly looking to hold believers in your church in spiritual bondage? You absolutely better. And you absolutely must learn to keep your “addiction radar” up and tuned in to looking for the signs.
Of course, you are only one person and probably do not have personal interaction with everyone at your church. So enlist your staff and small group leaders to be in alert mode looking for their brothers and sisters being pounced on by the “roaring lion.”
However, being aware of flock members suffering through an addiction does not make you a grace-filled church just on its own. What matters is how you respond . . .
Avoid at any cost having an “us versus them” mentality. Those suffering through addictions—whether alcohol, pornography, shopping, or any other—already feel they are alone in this. They must know that they are not. Do your best—from the pulpit, in written communications, in personal communications—to acknowledge your own brokenness. Doing so is not justifying sin; it is celebrating the amazing grace of our Savior that covers our sin.
People dealing with their own addictions must at all times find refuge and grace in your church, not judgment and condemnation. And that begins with not passing off the illusion that “once you were lost, but now am found” and are perfect. No, as the song goes, you are still a “wretch.” Those suffering through addictions certainly feel that about themselves, and it is important that you and other leaders in the church do not set yourself apart from them in that way.
Put out a call among church members to form ministry teams. Just as surely as there are people suffering silently through addictions in your church pews, there are also plenty who have silently recovered from their own addictions. And they need to be encouraged to share that same grace God had for them with those who need it now. This will no doubt take the right person to boldly share their experience among the church, but having them discuss aloud their specific addiction, destigmatize what everyone “thinks they know” about the addiction when they don’t, educate everyone on the addiction’s real impacts, and present their open arms to anyone currently suffering through something similar is perhaps the most valuable step you can take in helping your church members find refuge in your church from their addiction.
Put your money where your mouth is. If there is not one yet in your community, begin a Celebrate Recovery program at your church. And if there is one already, then intentionally join up with them and make sure your church news how much you believe in and support their program. Perhaps at no other time in your church than at an addiction recovery meeting will you find a gathering of such extremes as people from executives to homeless, dealing with addictions ranging from pornography to shopping to alcohol. They are all broken and looking for the refuge and grace you can offer. This is exactly the group Jesus would have come to be a part of.
Kevin Harvey is the author of two books, his most recent being All You Want to Know about the Bible in Pop Culture. He also writes at BibleInPopCulture.com and can be found on Twitter under the handle @PopCultureKevin.