The Church Gathering Should be Like a Good AA Meeting

imagesThe other day I tweeted that “the Eucharist can be likened to a good AA meeting intensified by the Real Presence.” What did I mean?

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?

Posted in Ecclesiology, Incarnational, Missional Leadership, Uncategorized, Worship and Mission
27 comments on “The Church Gathering Should be Like a Good AA Meeting
  1. Mark Copley says:

    I had a similar experience when I was introduced to AA several years ago. I found myself weeping in the presence of Christ in a smoke-filled converted garage full of confessing alcoholics.
    I’m not sure if you are familiar with Celebrate Recovery, but it is an attempt to bring the best of both traditions (12 Steps/Christian Worship) together. I have been leading this ministry for about six years, and have found there the most joyful worship, and the ability to welcome broken people and lead them to be part of a healing community.
    We do not, however incorporate the Eucharist. But, I’m thinking we should.
    Thanks for your insight here. I heartily agree.

  2. Seth says:

    I’m interested in your use of the word “intensified” – as in, the Eucharist is an AA meeting intensified by the real presence.

    What is it that real presence intensifies? What does it mean that a thing is “intensified exponentially?” How does real presence intensify something?

    • davidfitch says:

      I’m not using “intensified” in that way. I suggest that the basic shape of the AA meeting is found in the bowels of Christian life and practice and naturally leads to Christ. But obviously the “higher power” language has American pluralistic lineage. It can lead to Christ or not. It can shape one’s spiritual formation towards the American god, the inner self. Or it can open the space to an encounter with Christ. I think the real Presence intensifies, particularizes the general, completes nature with grace (in Catholic language. Although I’d have to nuace/qualify much of all that.

  3. Israel hogue says:

    I deeply agree with what you have said here. I’m not an alcoholic, but I’ve needed recovery in my life and been. To many AA meetings. As a PK (pastors kid) I was weary of going to AA, but quickly realized I felt God more deeply in those meeting with gut-level honesty than I had an any church service!
    As a church leader, I am trying to incorporate more discussion and confession into our weekly gahterings along with doing communion every week.
    It’s still difficult to find that place of honesty (too much church residue from the past) but every now and then tears stream downa and honest healing takes place.
    Now, if we can just stay consistent. :)
    Thanks for the post! Awesome!

  4. Mike says:

    The only requirment for AA according to the Big Book is the desire to stop drinking. Most churches do not hold the standard of the only requirement fo rmembership of the church is the desire to stop sinning. There are many more requirements to be members of a particular church. I’ve often wondered why is church not like AA in that it should be accepting and non-judging of alcoholics and addicts. Accept them for who they are and where they are at with fighting their disease of addiction or any other effect of sin.
    It is not a surprise to me that people might choose AA, NA, SAA, GA, or any other *A meeting over church. There are not too many churches where an AA member, particularly those that show up drunk/high to a AA/NA meeting (which happens) would be accepted by the church, particularly it’s members. The church is where many both alcoholics and non receive judgment solely by appearances, misperceptions and presuppositions. If when I were in the depths of my abuse, the church was quite possibly the last place I’d look to. Yet, I am told the church cares about me and would welcome me. And yet my experience both as an alcholic and former staff member of a church (separate times of life) says that the church didn’t care and in fact had no idea what to do with me. Didn’t Christ focus on spending time with prositutes, lepers, thieves, drunks, and the like. He also spent his time critiquing those in leadership of the “churches” of his day, aka, pharisees, preachers and teachers of the Law (Torah) for not “getting” it. Those are just a few thoughts.

  5. len says:

    When we introduced an open mike in the early months of the planting of Metro in 2007, we quickly discovered that confession would be the main mode of sharing. We didn’t structure it that way — but with so many people in addictions and recovery it simply became a very vulnerable and open space. The addicts gave us all permission to speak personally and confessionally. Their gift to us was honesty and simplicity. Now we know we are all in recovery. The open mike, it turns out, now defines us.

  6. len says:

    “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..”

    I don’t think this quite gets at it. I think we have chosen masks over honesty and vulnerability because of fear of judgement. At a profound level this simply means we have not really understood — and appropriated — grace or the meaning of the cross.

  7. Lee Wyatt says:

    I love the analogy and have argued for some time that Christians are those sinners who are “in recovery” through Christ in his community. I think the 12 steps trace a path for this recovery from sin as the master addiction that drives all the specific things we find ourselves addicted to.

    I believe however that the lack in our communities runs a bit deeper – a lack of passion and urgency for God’s mission that would enable the practices you rightly suggest to get traction among us.

  8. Ken Cavanagh says:

    The one AA meeting I attended with a recovering alcoholic friend left me with a similar sense, David, that in some ways that meeting reflected the kind of strength that can be experienced in Christ’s Church but usually is not.

  9. This brings some interesting thoughts. I would only agree to making these comparisons is we talk more about the whole of what AA (or Celebrate Recovery) does. A simple comparison of main meetings between AA and the Church is incomplete. The success of AA is not in the main meeting, but in the sponsors and working the steps. The main meeting is a reflection of the whole process. If an individual simple went to the main AA meeting there could be some progress in dealing with the issues in their life, but the day in, day out strength is found in relationship and the sponsor. I think the church’s issues have more to do with the whole of what they do, and the acceptance of being less than perfect, not simply the worship gathering. I do not think we can so easily separate the worship from the rest of discipleship any more than an AA meeting from the rest of the process of dealing with an addiction, habit or hurt.

  10. Greg Woodard says:

    David, I like your idea of being present to each other. It’s been a while since I have felt like I was really present with the people I was worshipping with.
    Thanks for the post.

  11. TJ says:

    In regards to Higher Power. I think step 1,2 & 3 can looked like the theology behind the physical act of crossing ones self in service.

    1- I am not the center of the universe and have a serious case of spiritual anemia.

    2- I am going to need a outside opinion in order recover what was lost.

    3. I must turn over all my thoughts and actions to the care of God.

    For the hopeless alcoholic their life has been one hyper control totally void of faith or trust in even the most obvious forms of authority or institution.

    So much relief and joy is found for the alcoholic in this opening up to the influence of the world around them. Most don’t find the need or want to move beyond this understanding of higher power into the deeper ahead in the steps to come.

    Step 3 clearly move beyond the idea of a higher power and ever uses the word God. I contend that whether one is listening to a sermon, partaking in the Eucharist, being exposed to someones faith in Christ, or even when reading a book in order to be open to another view one must be open to the possibility of another and potentially higher view.

  12. TJ says:

    The relational aspect to a AA meeting bound by the text and principles make the AA meeting powerful.

    With so many different backgrounds/ personalities and beliefs In the church body it seems there needs to be a more clearly defined mission or expression in which we can engage with relationally. Are you saying this is what the Eucharist is?

  13. Anonymous 3 says:

    AA and Celebrate Recovery aren’t the only groups that really act as the loving and caring hands of Jesus. I’m involved with a single mothers group, and we have the same experience–openness, sorrow, joy, sadness, and laughter. But always hope…lots of hope. In fact, married women have been known to want to be part of our group!

  14. Herm says:

    I wonder if this might be the time to interject a different perspective.

    AA works, to me, because a new family steps in and offers loving support to lift up the hopeless because each member of the family realizes where they came from and where they are. From my perspective what works is the empathy only possible from having been there, as is the mercy offered from a cup that once was empty but now is running over, and most of all it is the clearest example of loving one’s neighbor as one’s self.

    I am a child of God and of Man. I have grown to become a cognizant child of God/adult of Man responsible to my freedom of choice. On the scale with a maximum 120 years of life I am exceeding a half life of possible maturity. On a scale with no beginning to no end of eternal life I am still pretty much and infant and subject to the same errors as an infant. Am I fallen or am I just now getting my legs?

    In my Father’s heart and mind I am still but the smallest of His children. I have not fallen except in the hearts and minds of my fellow man. I am only just beginning and quite well thanks to Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.

    All of our church rituals, including those that work for AA, are family habits of exercise we children have to repeat to develop the strength necessary to perform with understanding and responsibility on our own. Without my parental, and sometimes sibling, enforcement of certain daily rituals I wouldn’t be able to feed, bathe, rest, recreate or relieve myself as well as I can today. When a church family understands that they are all siblings in God’s family, equally loved and nurtured, just getting their legs they then can lovingly support one another, sometimes but not always through ritual or formula, to lift of the hopeless to empathize with Christ’s body every time bread is broken and to reenergize with His life’s blood every time they drink from the cup … especially when they know they’re securely home with the family.

    AA is a sanctuary for respite from the judgmental. Wouldn’t our churches be so much more effective in their touted mission if they understood that too is meant to be their function in God’s family?

  15. Our church has adapted & adopted the 12 Traditions of AA for our formational values, as well as currently working through the 12 steps. This is so very helpful.

    • bob says:

      The incorporation of the 12 traditions into church structure has been a wish and a dream of mine for decades. As a recovering sex addict I speak openly of the benefit I receive in the fellowship of recovery to my fellow believers, but usually receive only a facile curiosity in return. Please tell me more about your church.

  16. Trey Hall says:

    Deeply, deeply resonate with these on many levels — pastoral and personal.

    As you’ve suggested, one of the reasons AA works (for some people) is that there is an acknowledgment of a problem: drinking, drugs, compulsive behaviors (interestingly, 12 Step literature says that these behaviors are but symptoms of a deeper and underlying issue). Only when one is able to confess the reality of the problem is one able to begin working on recovery.

    Though, depending on our liturgical tradition, Christians make corporate confession in worship, I’ve always wondered if one of our significant ecclesial problems is that we don’t actually believe we have a problem, that is, we ignore our sin (and its effects).

    What would it look like if Christians, like recovering alcoholics, could actually tell the truth about what has gone down, the barriers between us and God’s will, etc.?

    Can the Church recover?

    • Herm says:

      What if … just a what if … we actually loved our neighbor as our self? I know it seems silly but what if we didn’t fear each other’s judgment because we gave and received mercy alike?

  17. James Paul says:

    I have been a participant in two 12-step groups, and I deeply resonate with your observation that confession is woefully absent. The 12-steps-groups are where I encountered the reality of God’s Grace; where I was invited to actually act on my stated belief that God’s grace is enough for all sin. Until I confessed everything in my past, good and bad–until I laid everything out on the table–I had been unable to experience grace because I had been hiding some of it from God.

    The second 12-step group I continue to be a part of is Celebrate Recovery. Unfortunately, CR has taken the 12-steps and appropriated them in a corporate, branded “sensationalized mega-church spectacle.” The AA model is a good one but like any good thing, can be taken and misused.

    The call here must be to learn from the culture created by AA and work of the Spirit in AA, to reclaim the faithful practices you outline here, David.

  18. john schoon says:

    20 yrs in a a .78 yrs old. i want to turn everything over to god.just cant make the jump.i know life would be better if i would.many nights i ask god to lead the way.if he did lead the way i dont know if i would know how to follow.i envey most people who go to church. they seem so happy.i dont understand why we have so many different churches.but thats not importent now.i need to find a way to turn things over and beleive 100%.getting to old to be wasting time.i have sufferd to long. i;m supprised im typing this. its three in the morning.thank;s

    • Herm says:


      it’s between you and Him. He works in my heart and mind every moment because I ask Him to and you just did ask Him, also. Now you can ask Him whatever you would have asked your father only this time don’t shut Him out, even if you fall off the wagon. You have done the 12 steps but now take each step recognizing that He is walking beside you. He knows we’re children and make mistakes and when we accept His lead He simply walks us back home like the most loving Father ever for us to recover. Speak to Him as you just have here in love, respect and want. Even at 70 He answers my mindful and heartfelt requests as He knows in divine ways I would never have thought to ask for. Lay it on Him as though you would lay it on a family member who you know can always find a way to forgive and support you back to health.

      Love you john! Herm

  19. wayne says:

    I believe that we need to update our interpretation of Bible stories with contemporary concepts that use neuroscience and physical actions that disciple the body to response to God. I have been in AA for over 10 years and Celebrate Recovery for 2, most people in my evangelical church experience consider both programs do not to fit for them much less have any interest except for a boozing relative. In AA, there are few people with newly trained minds and hearts, which, in my opinion, indicates why there is a high failure rate in the AA program for most not reaching adult level maturity. Both programs have been good for me and I will treasure God’s work in my heart. For me, understanding the Bible in terms of how my mind functions helps me. When Bible stories are discussed it seems that references to emotions and their effects on the body are not mentioned. The King James seems to have many more body words than are found in the later versions. Could theologians being doing us a dis-service? It seems being a Christian today, is like living an outer body experience. Nor from the pulpit, do we speak about the practice of lovingly reflecting, understanding and then conveying to others in their immediate mental place where they are, much less convey how God might see them. Probably a lack of many in church, have not to reached adult level maturity; I bet they are there but very busy. I can’t remember the last time in church I heard anything like how my family of origin traumas can become a place of new beginnings. Sadly, if any of these subjects in an open church meeting were discussed it would probably send most people running. In closing I have been taught a few bodily disciplines like how to turn on my stuck emotions. This is the same therapy that was given to shell shocked WW1 veterans. This therapy has helped many including some therapists. It is my hope, as traumatized people in church recover, that they will receive the incredible gift of desperation, and know that the only way to keep their recovery is to give it away.

  20. Dana Workman says:

    Great discussion. I spent 4 years in AA before coming to Christ, not through a church, but by God’s revealing of Himself to me. My sponsor then told me ‘isn’t it great, we tell you this is all about getting sober, and the whole time we’re leading you to a relationship with Jesus Christ that will change (and save) your life..’ After conversion, I couldn’t wait to go to church and meet other Christians.
    When I did, I couldn’t beleive what I found. It make me sick. Angry. I joined a men’s group, and it took 8 weeks before people began to be truly open and honest. We spent 3 hours a week in there. I met some great guys there, some great Christians, but mostly I met people who had gone to church most of there lives, and were empty and had very little direction. Their idea of ‘success’ was very much a worldly one. What was perhaps saddest to me- I heard church ‘veterans’ share about situations where it was crystal clear (from being in AA) that they were immersed in delusion and self- and then we’d just move on. There was no vehicle (like sponsorship) to help these people examine there lives. As a result, they clearly hadn’t grown much over the years, they were uninspired by God, and the worst- it was hard to see God working in their lives.
    When I wrote the group and offered to take anyone who was willing through the steps (as a ‘sinaholic’), I got called to a meeting with one of the leaders, who sited the third and ninth step as reasons I needed to ‘make sure what I was doing aligned with the Bible’, and pull verses supporting the 12 steps. This guy, of course, had never been through the steps. And he admittedly was not in a position of neutrality with his own soberiety. But there was an idea that I was going to steer people toward a door knob for a higher power.
    I moved shortly thereafter to the ‘bible belt’, and thought I was being called to a megachurch, where I met 5 different people who told me that I’d have to wait 3 months to find a small group. This was the famous Andy Stanley’s church. Best sermons I’d ever heard, but Jesus and discleship was seasonal. I ended up at another megachurch, joined a small group, again met some great brothers, but overall came away feeling horribly disappointed. Worse yet, my own walk has suffered quite a bit since I’ve been focused on church more than AA. I’ve finally ended up in a 1-1 christian counseling ministry that is pretty solid, but it only meets once a week, making any progress slow. Not to mention they hand you a piece of paper and ‘if you want to donate’ you can write down the amount at the end. No pressure though. I don’t mind donating, but its hard to swallow when I’ve come from AA, and people have willing sat down with me for 5, 6, 7 hours- BOUGHT ME a meal, and said they did it because they just want to stay sober.
    So don’t talk to me about the shortcomings of AA, the 12 steps, or meetings in relationship to the church. I’ve seen both, done both, and the things going on in AA discipleship-wise are so far and away above what you can find at your local church, that it makes me wish everyone would go ‘Laedoceia’ and become a drunk. James call to ‘be wretched’ is highly encouraged in AA, and thus humulity can be found in abundance. The church, overall, seems more concerned with being Holy, and far less concerned with loving God and others. Good luck with that.
    Its sad that I walk into church now and mostly see people who need what I’ve found in AA. And they don’t even drink..

    • Herm says:

      Hi, my name’s Herm and I’m a ‘sinaholic’. Love you Dana! I now only go to “church” when clearly called to do so and only then have the healing results always been reciprocal. I no longer will go with a sense of duty or especially out of a fear of holy wrath.

      I am 70 and God revealed His hand to me 53 years ago only because I was sincerely watching; not because I was any more special than anyone else. Since then through our time together He has revealed more and more of His heart and mind to me. My heart and mind is slowly, at my pace, merging in sync with His. It may take an eternity for our relationship to reach fruition and that’s what I truly want.

      I know you know what I am saying because you clearly are living a recognizable relationship with Him, also. You too are being raised as a child of our God the Father. We no longer strive to earn holy positions in the Family because we’re most happy to simply be loved as His child. In the carnal example we did not have to earn our position in the family and community in the body of mankind. All we could do as children was accept whatever love and support our family and community could offer. I now know, after having children and grandchildren of my own, what pitifully little we can provide for our own relative to what God has made available for His. He does have two conditions, we value Him and accept it.

      I liked church. I did it well. But then I liked and did the Boy Scouts, Demolay, 4H, and board games well also. They each, including church, had their own unique teachings and rules in order to do them well but none offered me results sufficient to keep me struggling to do better in life for an eternity. As versus and different from my church/secular relationships my trust and love in God as my Parent allows me to look forward to each day throughout eternity excited to endure the next growing pain of childhood that allows me to be stronger and closer in the Family. Church relationships in themselves, without God’s calling and guidance, scare me because I fear that the next moment I might say or do something that is destructively confrontational. Without God in my heart and mind I simply don’t know how to be a part of the healing for my self or my neighbor.

      Too few of us know having to hate and die to the unGodly and destructive lessons of our selves, our family, our church and our community of carnal birth so that we can be born again to grow as children of our spiritual Father in Heaven. We just cannot serve two separate in heart and mind fathers.

      Too many hearts and minds are filled with the spirit of self and Satan rather than the Holy Spirit. I love and hurt for those ignorant of God’s relationship. I want to share my relationship with God with all who can value it and accept it. As you know from AA if we are ignorant that we are diseased we can’t be healed for in the image of God we have authority and choice over all that is us (heart, soul, strength and mind) that God will not usurp.

      Deuteronomy 5:11-21 and Luke 10:25-37 is all the rule book we need to play and share the game of divine life constructively for an eternity beginning now. The problem I sense is that most of mankind doesn’t understand the destructive exclusiveness of coveting and the true healing joy of inclusive love for and with all. I don’t know how to solve that problem but I am open to any with ideas. I believe that is why both you and I are here.

      Thank you Dana for increasing my hope that maybe we can together be more instrumental in helping others to their own one on one heart and mind family relationship with our creator God! In my Brother Jesus’ name, amen

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David Fitch
Betty R. Lindner Professor of Theology
Northern Seminary
DMin in Missional Leadership
Prodigal Christianity
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