AA: A “Christian Program”

If you have known anyone in Alcoholics Anonymous, you may have been struck by the rapidity with which men and women catch on to what they often call “The Program.” A new person will come into a meeting and listen to two or three talks by alcoholics who tell about what life was like before they met AA, what happened to them through AA, and what life is like now. As one hears several such talks, it emerges that there is a kind of program which seems to consist of knowledge and experience.

The truth they take in is a kind of experimental truth, a truth that is only really seen and understood by participation. The upshot is that sometimes men or women are speaking cogently and persuasively about their experience of AA only a few days after it has begun. One way of learning more is to articulate and express for others what you are beginning to know yourself. I have heard people speak with a remarkably mature knowledge of what they were saying, only a few days after they have made a beginning.

If we contrast this with what often happens in the Church, we must be impressed with the difference. Take two men in a typical congregation. I asked one of them about trying to carry his faith to others, and he said it would take him a long time to learn enough to do such a thing. I said to him, “Would you please tell me what on earth you’ve been doing in this church for twenty years?” Another man said to me one day, “I have been coming to this church all my life and I still don’t know what it’s all about.”

Now both these men said the Creed, and I think they believed it. They believed in the institution of the Church, supported it, came to it with considerable regularity. But no one could say that either of them had “got the program.” For all their exposure to church services and church work, nothing had pulled the whole thing together, made it seem practical, and given them a working method of growing in the Christian life.

A working program is a technique, a set of spiritual habits one can adopt and pursue regularly to keep his spiritual life growing. When Jesus told Nicodemus, a churchgoing, religious man, that he needed a life so different from the one he had that it was like being born all over again, and that unless this happened he would not see the Kingdom of God, Nicodemus’ first question was, “How …?” He didn’t ask “Why” and he didn’t ask “What,” he asked “How.” The Church has, on the whole, given people more answers to “why” and to “what” than it has to “how.” Yet the “how” is the practical method that gets us going and keeps us going.

Alcoholics Anonymous has Twelve Steps. These grew out of a knowledge of spiritual disciplines past and present, of psychology, and of the growing experience of AA itself. I am going to repeat them because they have a bearing on our question, “Is there a ‘Christian program’?”:

The Twelve Steps

    1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol–that our lives had become unmanageable.
    2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
    3. Made a decision to turn our wills and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
    4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
    5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
    6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
    7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
    8. Made a list of persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
    9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
    10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
    11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
    12. Having had a spiritual experience as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Anyone can see that these are not in the nature of hazy and impractical ideals, like generally being “honest” or “unselfish,” but definite, realizable ways of living, available to all. Most of them are applicable to non-alcoholics–though we admit that the definiteness of the problem of alcoholism inclines people more to definiteness of ways that point to solution.

I believe there are four fundamental and universal factors in what we can call a Christian Program. These four subdivide into some others.

1. Conversion

The first step is conversion, turning our lives over to God through faith in Christ and surrender to Him. To all people in all ages who have in any thorough way become Christians, there has been a turning point, a place of departure from the old life and a beginning of the new.

We need to be converted because we are in sin. Sin means specific wrongdoing, like cruelty, bitterness, uncleanness, tale-bearing, crookedness. It also means the state of being estranged from God. The reason people begin to grow so soon in AA is that they honestly face their own wrongdoing and what it does to other people. The reason many of the rest of us grow so slowly, or never really grow at all, is that we camouflage our own sins, point to the sins of others, excuse ourselves by pointing to our virtues, and refuse to be specific about the “nature of our wrongs.” How many of us admit that our lives have become unmanageable? And if we are “decent, respectable folk,” how about the sin of spiritual ineffectiveness in making faith real to others? A man told me once his friends couldn’t make him drunk; but neither could be make them sober.

We are converted from sin, and to Christ. Christ is only an ideal to some of us. Begin where you are. Be honest about your needs. The great need is for Someone to help us, to save us. You can’t do it by willpower. No human ideal can do it, for it needs supernatural grace. You may say you don’t know whether Christ is supernatural. Begin reading about Him in the New Testament. Come hear Him talked about in church. Read books about the faith as it comes to people in experience. Give as much of yourself as you can to as much of God as you understand. This way you will begin to understand more.

2. Prayer

The second step is prayer. When we begin to be converted, we want God’s will more than we want our sin. Prayer is seeking God’s will and plan–it is not trying to persuade Him to adopt ours. More and more we learn to pray at all times about everything. Prayer becomes not requests so much as communion, cooperation. This is how we find strength.

But there are other ways besides prayer to draw this strength. The Bible speaks to us. What used to be dry becomes interesting, even exciting, because at last we are committed to the life which it talks about.

The Church forms another source of strength. When we seriously get into the Christian life, we come for worship and for fellowship with each other as a kind of refill. Especially through Holy Communion do we find God coming to us with grace. In prayer we reach up to Him; in the sacraments He reaches down to us. Here is constant help for those who have honestly begun to take seriously the Christian life. Too many of us got into the Church too cheaply. No change was expected of us, and consequently not much of it took place.

3. Fellowship

The third step is fellowship. A child is normally born into a family. A Christian is born into the Christian family, the Church. Conversion is not only a line between Christ and us, it is also many lines between us and Christ’s people. If you have not found out that the Christian life is a profoundly corporate experience, you have little understood it.

We need the friends we make in Christ to help us when we are down, and to rejoice with us when the sun is shining. We need the corrective and perspective of the ages of the Church’s life. We may find Christ alone; we can only truly “abide” in Him in His company.

The Church is both the formal service, such as those on Sunday mornings, and also the informal gathering of small groups. Services may be so formal that they are not the best places for some of us to experience our first exposure to Christ; the smaller, more informal company may be better. In any case, we need places where we can become familiar with the various kinds of Christian experience, talk out some of our difficulties, ask questions, compare experiences.

All of us together, with different gifts and functions, make up the whole Church. It may take other people to draw us out and give us courage to open our mouths or take responsibility. The formal Church terribly needs to be supplemented by these small, informal companies.

4. Witness

The fourth step is witness. Christ told us we were to be His witnesses. The early Church burned like a fire, and spread rapidly, because of the contagion of its people. They had found a risen Christ, and they were excited about Him. They couldn’t keep quiet. They witnessed by what they were, what they did, and what they said. People saw a change in them because of Christ–a change for the better–and they wanted this faith and new life. The early Christians had somehow learned how to get their faith over to others. They met a pagan world, they met daily life, they met martyrdom, with a radiant faith. They were different from any other people on earth.

If what you love is horse racing, or clothes, or the stock market, or your grandchildren, that is what you’ll talk about. If what you love is Christ, you will find ways to talk about Him to other people. You can’t make half-dead church members enthusiastic witnesses, and you can’t keep people who have begun to know Christ from beginning to live for Him and talk about Him. So does the great contagion grow and spread.

One summer “boy meets girl.” They like each other very much. Girl is even more interested in Christ. They talk about Him together. Boy is a fine lad but religion has been rather a side issue. He begins taking an interest and tries it for himself. This fall he goes to college. He begins talking with his friends about Christ as the girl talked with him. He writes, “Success! I have gotten a prayer group together and everything is coming along fine. Have five boys who are really interested in the idea; first meeting is Thursday night. Have a perfect place to meet over in the chapel at the dormitory next to ours. John has started a group in his house. We are working together, have different meeting places, and will eventually join up. I am so wound up in this new approach to life–the Christian approach–it is all I can think about!” A little later they have forty men in the combined groups. In such ways do young people begin finding and living and sharing their faith.

One final word: there is a progression in these four steps. One unfolds out of the other. There is no real prayer except as we are getting converted, no real fellowship except as we seek conversion and steady prayer, no witness till people in the process of being converted, and praying, and trying to live in fellowship, manifest this new life in Christ by what they are, by what they do, and by what they say. The four belong together.

From the beginning, and I think until the end of time, these four steps are stages through which all Christians, of whatever persuasion, must pass–four experiences which all Christians should have. I think they constitute our Christian Program.

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The Reverend Samuel M. Shoemaker, Rector of Calvary Church and spiritual leader of the Oxford Group, provided the early inspiration for the spiritual aspects of twelve-step programs.