A few nights ago I attended an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting as part of a Mental Health assignment for my nursing program. I will come back to this.
As the son of missionaries, I was practically raised in a church building. But with time I’ve grown to really dislike that kind of environment. It’s hierarchal and often antagonistic to honest lines of spiritual inquiry. It’s sterilized and polished, full of people who won’t hesitate to say “We’re all sinners” but aren’t really willing to get around to how exactly they’re included in that category. Going to church is like sitting in someone’s living room when they’ve been expecting you: they’ve had time to put away the dirty laundry, pick up the kid’s toys, stack the magazines on an end table, and even vacuum the carpet. What you’re seeing isn’t really their living room; it’s what they want their living room to be.
To use a similar analogy, going to church is like scrolling through a Facebook news feed; studies have shown that having too many friends on Facebook can decrease levels of personal satisfaction, since everyone’s digital self-representations falsely portray their lives as better than they really are. You’re less likely to see a post about your friend tripping up the stairs or getting bitten by mosquitoes than you are about them having a great workout or a good grade on a test. So when you fall up the stairs you’re more likely to think that you are less fortunate than everyone else, even though you had the same good workout and made the same good grade.
In the religious congregation, people feel comfortable mentioning prayer requests about sick loved ones or upcoming job interviews - but not so much when the topic is about undoing the damage from a gambling addiction or fighting a deep and secret depression. Even though churches are supposedly founded on honesty and accessibility, there’s nothing honest about hiding your worst flaws and there’s nothing accessible about an unwritten dress code that mandates one’s “Sunday best”.
And of course one can’t forget the doctrinal nitpickers, the zealots who seem to miss not only the point behind religious rules but also that Christ is depicted as an ultimate rule-breaker. I once lived in a city that had two congregations only a couple of miles apart, and the only difference in the two was that one believed it was a sin to have a kitchen and serve meals in the church building and the other one thought that it was perfectly fine and natural. Ugh, right?
If church members clean up their living rooms before the arrival of guests, the members of Alcoholics Anonymous leave the living room as is and lead you through the house and into the messiest of closets. Inclusion in the group demands by necessity an open admission of a very specific flaw, one that all the members share in common. For the program to work, participants must be honest with themselves and others, not only about their addiction but also about the many consequences thereof. They must also acknowledge their own personal weakness and vulnerability, as well as their need for a supportive community. Somehow – and Christians could learn from this – the admissions made with frank honesty by the members of Alcoholics Anonymous don’t come across as revolting or horrendous. Rather, they are refreshing in their utter truthfulness, so transparent that anyone listening can appreciate the bravery involved.
Most people have heard of the 12 steps, but Alcoholics Anonymous also has a set of 12 traditions that some religious groups would do well to adopt: common welfare should come first; anonymity works as a spiritual equalizer, reminding members to place principles before personalities; there is but one “ultimate authority – a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience”; groups ought never to endorse or finance any outside endeavors, which could distract them from their primary goal of reaching alcoholics; each group ought to be self-supporting; and so it goes. There was so much wisdom in that list.
Group leaders were not placed on a pedestal. They merely directed announcements and initiated the discussion, a nice contrast to church services. Anyone present who felt the desire to contribute to the discussion could do so, and the variety of voices was enriching. Though the topic under discussion was always serious, many found humor in one comment or another and helped liven the mood. A sense of loyal camaraderie pervaded. As one member said after the meeting in the parking lot, “We’re not a dull bunch, no sir.” He later mentioned that 150 people had attended his birthday celebration the week before.
In a paradoxical way, attending that meeting almost made me want to become an alcoholic just so I could be a member of Alcoholics Anonymous. Almost.