I had just had an impactful cup of coffee with a recovering alcoholic. We talked a lot about the daily/weekly rituals of being an AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) member. One more time I was struck by how much like a church (or what a church should be) the AA community is. I asked myself “why could this man enter an AA meeting so easily, yet found it so difficult to connect with our gathering?”
I contend a church gathering should be like a good AA meeting. An AA meeting gathers people together who are admitted alcoholics. They bring their full awareness of themselves before one another and engage in a ritual of “being present” one with another in their sin. When they gather, they recite the first step: that they are powerless over alcohol. It is not unlike the corporate confession in the Christian gathering. They acknowledge that they must surrender to a “Power greater than themselves” if they are to regain sanity. They hear from one another. Often like a good sermon, they receive a challenge from the AA Big Book. They commit to a total practice of reconciliation (similar to what Christians do before the Eucharist). They encounter this reality in all its brute force. And then in this moment they gain the sustenance to live life faithfully for another day.
To me this is what Sunday morning in a nutshell. It should be like this except intensified by the “real presence” of Christ that locates in the Eucharist. We gather with similar dynamics, to confess our sin, reconcile, commit to this life, hear from the Word of God (his voice, his presence through the proclamation) and then surrender to the Eucharist and receive complete forgiveness and renewal in the Spirit.
The interesting and perhaps problematic issue for Christians is the choice of words in referring to God as “your higher power.” The cultural derivations (specifically in Western N American culture) of this word choice however are fascinating. How it shapes our view of God and our posture towards God is even more fascinating. The potential, I would argue, is for both good and disaster. Yet because of the brokenness by which each person comes to AA, it can easily become the entry gate to an experience of God whose (I would argue) completion can eventually be found in Christ. But I digress.
What interested me in my conversation with George (I’ll call him that) was how the rituals of the AA meeting could connect with him whereas the rituals of our Sunday morning were so much more difficult. And yet as I saw it, the Sunday morning gathering was every bit the same as an AA meeting, except intensified exponentially by the real presence of Christ in the Word and the Eucharist. The Eucharist is an AA meeting intensified by the real presence.
I feel we have lost this dynamic through either A.) over-ritualized decontextualized liturgy or b.) mega churches that strip us from being “present” with one another and with “the presence” of Christ Himself in our midst.
Things We Can Do To Recover the Church Gathering as an AA Meeting
- Recover true corporate confession of sin. Recover corporate confession of sin but then resist the over ritualizing of. Yes, provide words just like the AA groups. And be present as one confessing sin alongside. Let us together own that we are sinaholics in need of God for sustenance and life. This is the secret of a good AA meeting.
- Contextualize liturgy. Too often we allow the words of our rituals to become rote. The leaders forget that our job is to usher (be a good director) people into His presence. We need to ever be translating our language. We need to lead “with presence” ushering people to be “with” one another in total submission to the living God as revealed in and through Jesus Christ. This is what (often) makes AA meeting such a powerful formative encounter.
- Preaching as one among. In our proclamation, the preacher must be among us as one of us leading us to the Table. He or she should not be a star set above the community. The preaching should proclaim the reality over us of Jesus Christ as Lord which takes us out of the position of control of our lives. It should not be only presentation of information that allows us to take something for our own benefit. This practices the listener in keeping in control. An AA meeting practices the listener in dependence upon God.
- The Eucharist should the place for surrender to God in Christ. Here is where we corporately encounter Christ to receive forgiveness and sustenance. It is real, it is Himself present to us, meeting us. We must be practiced in the approach of surrender. It should be more than an individualist time to cognitively remember what Jesus did. Instead, this remembrance should transport us into its reality for us here and now.
I am afraid, most often, our Sunday gatherings have lost the wherewithal to be a AA meeting either through a.) over ritualized decontextualized liturgy, or b.) sensationalized mega church spectacle. Meanwhile, dare I say? AA has become the single best expression and most alive form of church in N. America.
Agree? Is AA an excellent (and viral) form of church? How does the AA meeting challenge you in the shaping of your worship gathering?