Kent Dunnington on What Church Small Groups Can Learn From Alcoholics Anonymous

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I used to tell my wife and friends that I needed a “non-small-group small group.” Then I began to wonder if I just needed an AA group. I am not an alcoholic. Alcohol just doesn’t do it for me. But Alcoholics Anonymous does. I attended an AA group while writing a book called Addiction and Virtue, and I’ve missed it ever since.

I am a Christian, or at least I am trying to be. I want to be a disciple of Jesus. But small groups just don’t interest me. I’ve attended many and they have all been more or less disappointing.

I know I’m not the only person who has encountered something spiritually vital in AA that is missing from small groups. My students at Biola University, where I teach a class on addiction that requires their attendance at AA meetings, often express this sentiment. Despite being immersed in the evangelical subculture of our university, most of them describe AA as the most spiritually “real” community they’ve ever witnessed.

This is not an especially new insight. Devotionals and leadership books and church bloggers have long tipped their hats to lessons that can be learned from AA. This magazine, too, has featured an ongoing conversation about the spiritual power of AA.

But in my teaching and research I have yet to see anyone take the comparison between AA and Christian community all the way, indulging it and carrying it to its full conclusion: If we took AA as our guide—all of it—how would we do small groups differently? What, if anything, would change? The question is not too farfetched, since AA began as an offshoot of a once-potent Christian discipleship movement.

AA and transformation

AA founders Bill Wilson and Bob Smith were acolytes of the Oxford Group, an early 20th-century Protestant movement committed to “moral re-armament.” The group preached that spiritual and moral revitalization would spring from four practices, which AA came to adopt. As Bill Wilson recounted in Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, “The early AA got its ideas of self-examination, acknowledgment of character defects, restitution for harm done, and working with others straight from the Oxford Group.”

Since those early days, AA has helped countless people into lives of greater flourishing. It’s a mistake to think AA is just about getting people to quit drinking. The desire to quit is the single requirement for membership, but AA sets its sights on a more ambitious target: flourishing in sobriety. One can avoid alcohol (for a time) and yet fail to acquire the dispositions necessary to thrive sober. This is called “coasting in recovery,” and as AA members say, “if you’re coasting, you’re going downhill.” Working the steps is about something bigger: being transformed as a person.

How and why this transformation comes about is the subject of ongoing study and debate. But generally speaking—and amazingly—AA works. It has a theory of how people change and a set of practices designed to change real human beings. In this respect, AA has what the contemporary church, or at least a large portion of the contemporary evangelical church, seems to lack: a clear theory of personal transformation codified in practices and traditions that are easily accessible to those who would like to be transformed. Small groups have been the contemporary evangelical church’s most concerted effort in this direction, yet I’ve come to believe that despite great intentions, they are currently not an effective model of transformation. Would they be more effective if they looked more like AA?

Not to disappoint, but it’s not quite that simple. Before we can answer, we need to recognize where the comparison is apt and where it breaks down.

Small groups aren’t foxholes

One unavoidable difference between AA and small groups has to do with motivation. Most people go to AA because they are desperate. Their drinking is out of control. Much of the disarming candor and vulnerability characteristic of AA meetings is the fruit of desperation. Members have little patience for bullsh*t (a word frequently used in AA when someone is hiding or softening the truth). They are fighting to survive. Like soldiers on a mission, they prefer group silence over small talk.

Small groups certainly would be more successful if people came similarly motivated, but reserving small groups for desperate disciples only would be futile. The desire to escape from the death spiral of alcoholism is by its nature specific and urgent, whereas the desire to live a more spiritually vital life is, for most of us, vague and inconstant. We will be disappointed in small groups if we expect them to have the foxhole desperation of AA gatherings.

Another unavoidable difference has to do with anonymity. Since AA groups are independent, members rarely encounter one another in other social circles. Even when they do, you’d never know it. I discovered that my landlord attended the same AA group as I did and we never exchanged a word about it. That’s the whole point of the first-name-only introductions. “I’m Bill and I’m an alcoholic” makes space for Bill to speak candidly for once, since he does not need to “protect his name.”

Small group members, by contrast, usually know one another from church, and the natural (and good) human impulse toward displaying consistent character across different contexts makes radical candor far less likely. If Bill appears as the cheerful family man on Sunday mornings, it will be a challenge for him to admit during small group that he’s a devastated mess. The same thing that causes denial—namely, the wish to live a life of integrity—will push Bill to dissemble in the context of a small group: to amplify aspects of his life that are congruent with the Sunday morning family man script and to downplay aspects of his life that are incongruent with it.

Dissembling is lethal to recovery and, indeed, to any genuine moral transformation. We need places in which our lack of integrity can be confessed without destroying us, and this requires anonymity. Roman Catholics, with their practice of private confession, have known this for a long time, as has AA. Anonymity provides a haven in which we may speak about the incoherence of our lives. For the same reason we are more likely to tell our darkest secrets to a stranger on a plane than to our friends, AA is a place of greater honesty than the small group can probably ever be.

The absence of both desperation and anonymity prevent small groups from fully capturing the ethos of AA. Small groups can close the gap a bit—for instance, by prizing confidentiality—but acknowledging these differences should moderate our expectations for how much small groups can learn from AA. Still, I am convinced that many small groups could learn much from AA.

‘Sorry about your divorce. Here, try a meatball.’

Given the reverence with which the contemporary church—or at least the kind of contemporary church that has small groups—treats eating, it may seem sacrilegious to suggest that the meal should be sidelined in small group practice. Eating together, baptized as “breaking bread,” has become a sacrosanct marker of Christians getting together to do Christian stuff. There is, of course, biblical support for the importance of feasting together, and for some small groups—whose purpose is, for example, to welcome doubters and unbelievers to Christian fellowship—a meal is a time-tested way of helping people warm up to one another.

But when it comes to transformation, let me state what may not be obvious: AA would not work as a potluck.

For one thing, many alcoholics simply lack the energy necessary to make a good culinary showing. Similarly, there are some for whom the potluck is just one more obstacle to attending a small group. How many times can one sign up to bring chips before people catch on?

Far more important is the way a shared meal influences the interactions that are natural and fitting within a group. Imagine savoring Ray’s homemade BBQ meatballs while Ann explains how her latest relapse sent her back to the hospital, where her husband demanded a divorce. AA talk can make you lose your appetite.

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Source: Christianity Today