Throughout history, there has been a connection between addiction and morality. Beginning in the 1920s and likely earlier, the thought that addiction was a moral failing—and not a medical condition or genetic predisposition—prevailed. Instead of welcoming those struggling, churches often judged them as possessed by evil spirits or weak-willed and unable to control their sinful behaviors.
Fast forward through the first opium, morphine and cocaine epidemics of the WWI era and the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s[i] to today when in 2020 alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 93,300 people have died from drug overdose fatalities.[ii] Addiction continues to devastate despite stigma decreasing, support from faith communities increasing, and countless vocal recovery advocates sharing our stories of healing and hope.
Sherry Combs Barnett from Good Samaritan Ministries in Johnson City, TN states that recovery advocacy is:
Showing others they are not alone. Making them comfortable to just "be" in your presence. A connectedness that slowly darkens fears and sheds light on hope. A way to teach others the importance of empathy.
Today, there are also many pathways of support for individuals seeking help for addiction. From medication-assisted treatment, recovery support services like recovery housing, and an increase in the creation of peer-led programs. While all of these things are positive ways to support a shift in the understanding about addiction and the ability for people to access treatment, there continues in many areas of the country to be a division between addiction recovery and the church.
How Do We Bridge the Divide?
For many like me (a Christian in recovery), I’ve had to navigate my own doubts, disconnection and shame—isolated from a recovery and faith community. While recovery advocacy encourages support of “all pathways”—and should—because of many people’s experience of religious trauma or judgement, the faith pathway often has less visibility. If God is talked about, it’s done in a subtle way. The concept of “higher power” is promoted, instead of focusing on a specific God. The name of Jesus is only whispered in some recovery spaces, if spoken at all.
The State of Tennessee has a unique model of support funded through the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services called the Faith-based Initiative.[iii] This statewide program was created in response to the opioid crisis. Leaders in the health department found an innovative way to leverage the incredible asset of support in faith communities, almost 12,000 across the state with 85% of the population attending at least one of them regularly.[iv] The Faith-based Initiative provides free trainings, certifies congregations so that they are “recovery-friendly” and employees people in recovery as a network of peer support throughout the overwhelmingly rural counties.
As Jesus said, “…if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”[v]
In our broken world, a world that is suffering and hurting on a larger scale every day, it is imperative that we learn how to bridge the gap between addiction and faith. The Bible is clear: the mountain of addiction can be moved.
We have a voice that needs to be heard. We are not mistakes. We do recover. We go from mess to messenger from test to testimony. - Susan Battah-Horn, recovery advocate in Florida
4 Ways for Your Church to Support Addiction Recovery
There are simple ways that you can help support or encourage your faith community to support addiction recovery in your community. Like the innovative model outlined by the state of Tennessee, much can be done to address this issue that continues to plague our country.
(1) Support a Recovery Ministry
Your church may already have a recovery ministry. If this is the case (awesome!), you can learn about any needs the ministry might have. Volunteering to serve meals or provide childcare during meetings can be a tremendous blessing.
If your church does not have a recovery ministry, find out if there is anyone else interested in addiction issues that you can connect with. Pull together a small group of people, with the support of church leadership, to explore the issue.
(2) Connect with a Local Recovery Community Organization
All across the country, recovery advocates are speaking out about addiction recovery. People in recovery often participate in state-wide recovery community organizations or associations that help to create recovery support services like recovery residences or advocate on the policy level with legislators and others. You can learn more about your states’ Recovery Community Organization (RCO) and support their mission in many ways. Check out Faces and Voices of Recovery Association of Recovery Community Organizations for more info.
(3) Provide for an Identified Need
Even if your church doesn’t have a recovery ministry, you can provide one thing that all recovery support services need: space! Many recovery advocates and professionals need space for a community center, job training, recovery meeting, or family grief support group. Talk to your church leadership and find out if there are needs for space in the recovery community in your local community. You can also conduct a needs assessment to find out more about other areas that your faith community can support.
(4) Host an event
Work with your local Recovery Community Organization to host an event like a Recovery Month event in September that can help address stigmatizing attitudes. Provide a platform for people in recovery to share their stories to increase opportunities for others to be moved to action in their own lives. Research shows that sharing stories and increasing someone’s personal contact with someone in recovery helps to decrease stigma.[vi]
While there still exists a divide between much of the addiction recovery and faith worlds, there is hope on the horizon. Countless faith-based communities are stepping up to help meet the needs of those impacted by addiction. Learn more about how you and your church can be part of healing the wounds of addiction today.
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? – Isaiah 58:6
[i] Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Opportunities in Drug Abuse Research. Pathways of Addiction: Opportunities in Drug Abuse Research. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 1996. B, Drug Abuse Research in Historical Perspective. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK232965/ [ii] Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/vsrr/drug-overdose-data.htm. [iii] Retrieved from: https://www.tn.gov/behavioral-health/substance-abuse-services/faith-based-initiatives.html. [iv] Retrieved from: https://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/state/tennessee/. [v] Matthew 17:20 [vi] Retrieved from: https://www.drugabuse.gov/about-nida/noras-blog/2020/04/addressing-stigma-surrounds-addiction.