Those thorny parallels between faith and addiction

Whatever its flaws, the church isn’t something from which you ever “graduate.”

By Trey Lyon

Recently there was quite a dust-up among the evangelical-ish internet crowd when author Donald Miller revealed that he no longer regularly attends church. There were folks who assailed his position for any number of reasons, as well as a not quite audible sigh of relief from thousands of Gen X-ers and millenials who thought, “Me too, Don!”

This isn’t novel, and probably shouldn’t be that surprising. We hear of the decline of the church — mainline and evangelical. I’ve even heard people in recent days say that this collapse is actually the work of the Holy Spirit, and I can see that point. Honestly, when I first heard Miller’s opinion on the subject, I was hardly surprised, but then he went and wrote a follow-up in an attempt to justify his position and try and address some of the critiques forged online. And it was that reply that irked me a bit.

You see, Don reckons that church can, in many ways, function like a university, and that one can “graduate” from church as one graduates from a school. He explains this position as a commentary on educational theory and pedagogy, not the role church plays in the life of the individual.

I’m tempted to critique him there, and say this is a very narrow view of things, but the truth is Don isn’t an expert on educational pedagogy — but neither am I. I would like to question his assertion that most Christian speakers he knows that are not pastors don’t go to church either — particularly considering over half the people “contributing” to his personal productivity retreats profess to be avid members of their local churches. But I finally realized I can’t tell Don what his experience is — or for that matter what it should be. I can only speak about what I know to be true, so here goes.

You don’t graduate from church. That’s not a thing. It just isn’t. We graduate from lots of things. We achieve, we accomplish. We climb ladders — academic, career, social, economic — all eventually ending in either a “terminal degree,” “maximum earning capacity” or tapping out our career potential. At some point, we quit, we retire, we decide to be content with whatever education, position or acclaim we have garnered. But what about our faith? Anyone who has ever thought for more than a half a second about Jesus’ words to “Carry your cross daily” knows this is the long haul. Yes, I know that sounds like I just equated church attendance with being a Christian, which isn’t exactly what I mean, so stay with me.

Twice a week outside my church people arrive on bicycles and mopeds, classic cars and minivans. They linger on the stairs catching up with one another, laughing and joking, exchanging hugs and fist bumps. They talk about what’s happened in their lives since they saw each other last, and a few pass a light for a cigarette. Eventually they cram about 50 people into a tiny double room that can barely hold them in, and what happens in there is largely a mystery to me, but I’ve been doing my research.

They tell each other they’re broken and they need each other — and they need something bigger than themselves. They welcome new people to the group. They study addiction — not just in some theoretical, educational pedagogy, but as people who have lived it, who know this dangerous history firsthand, like eyewitnesses to the most vicious disaster.

They talk about how to quit. They celebrate the victories — the times when they could have given in, thrown in the towel and blown it but didn’t. They share honestly when the road less traveled stayed that way, and every eye that should look on in condemnation is moved instead out of empathy, because relapse is always a part of the process. They talk honestly about how far they’ve come and how far they have to go. They celebrate and they grieve — but they never graduate.

There are many parallels between the story of faith and addiction, and there are many places where the analogy falls flat. Addiction is real and it is crippling and it devastates the lives of all those it touches. I don’t want to minimize in any way those effects, but I would say that the hope of staying clean relies on many of the same methods and practices that we find in God’s church.

See, I could say all I need is God and all I need to meet God is me and God and the great outdoors, but that’s not completely true. The truth is we need other people. Yes, I know Donald Miller said he needs community and “small groups.” The funny thing is I think he forgot that’s what the church does. Oh, sure, there’s a stage and some songs, and there’s normally someone up there talking, and when we’re honest it doesn’t always click into something we can apply that day or even that week. But judging church on the worship experience alone is like an Olympic judge only grading an athlete on one move during a complex, intricate routine.

So I don’t know what kind of church it is Donald isn’t attending. And I’m not entirely sure what kind of “church university” he has since graduated from. And ultimately, I don’t know him, so I’ll have to go with what I know:

• I know that I am a child of God, but sometimes I need to be reminded of that.
• I know that sometimes I am a jerk, and sometimes I need to be reminded of that too.
• I know that God is at work in the world, and sometimes I need to tell someone else about that.
• I know that sometimes I think that even the idea of God is an insult to the pain others are feeling, and sometimes I need people to say “I know how you feel” and others to say “but look at how beautiful this is.”
• I know that sometimes I am wrong, and no matter how many degrees I have, articles I write, or sermons I preach, I need someone to tell me that I’m wrong and a tree can’t do that.
• I know that, as Anne Lamott says, "The most powerful sermon in the world are the words ‘me too’” and I know I have never found more people to tell me that than I have found in church.
• I know that God is in the sunset, but I know sunsets are a lot better when they’re shared.
• I know that sometimes I screw things up so much so that if I told you you probably wouldn’t like me or listen to anything I have to say, but there are other people who love me anyway.

You are welcome to join us. Just don’t ask us when you’ll graduate.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.