What happens in church on a Thursday night when you are not looking.

The church basement’s cinder block walls radiate the cold. Coffee permeates the air. Two dozen people or so sit at 8′ X 3′ wooden folding tables, set up in a circle, eating cake and drinking the aforementioned coffee. Another dozen or more sit at chairs placed around the room. My friend, we’ll call him Brian, sits at the front, the Serenity Prayer scrawled on a plaque on his right.

God, Grant me the serenity,
to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

This is an A.A. meeting.

Brian is celebrating one year. He is chairing the meeting, which means he gets to tell his story, speak however long he likes, and call on any member he sees fit to call on. Before any of that can begin, though, the various “officers” read off various lists of A.A. “rules”, “codes of conduct”, and other bureaucratic regulations. You would think these to be many considering A.A. has a reported 1,867,212 members worldwide with 106,202 meetings.

To put this in perspective A.A. is about the same size as Jehovah’s Witnesses, and larger than the Assemblies of God in the USA.

Although the room is entirely white and primarily male over 30 it manages to remain ecclectic. There are old men, men in suits, men in biker jackets, women in business suits, a punk rocker or two, a guy in a football jersey…I suspect that financially most are of differing means.

Someone reads the twelve traditions. Unlike the twelve steps, which tells the recovering alcoholic how to begin to repair his life, the twelve traditions guides each meeting, and A.A. as a whole, to its common purpose.

1) Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon A.A. unity.
2) For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority–a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.
3) The only requirement for A.A. membership is a desire to stop drinking.
4) Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or A.A. as a whole.
5) Each group has but one primary purpose–to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.
6) An A.A. group ought never endorse, finance, or lend the A.A. name to any related facility or outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property, and prestige divert us from our primary purpose.
7) Every A.A. group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.
8) Alcoholics Anonymous should remain forever non-professional, but our service centers may employ special workers.
9) A.A., as such, ought never be organized; but we may create service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve.
10) Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the A.A. name ought never be drawn into public controversy.
11) Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, and films.
12) Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.

I get shivers down my spine.

These twelve traditions are so loose, so…vague, so unguided, so unprincipaled…it’s a wonder A.A. exists at all. Yet, it does. All over the world A.A. meetings look a lot alike.

I talked to Dan and several others about this. How on cruise ships they will set aside a time for A.A. meetings to take place. I ask him how A.A. organizes such meetings. The truth? They don’t. The cruise ships offer a time and place, participants converge, decide who will chair, and the meeting happens. Somehow, they manage to find a way to do all the important things a meeting is supposed to do. Amazing.

While A.A. is not a Christian organization, they require a belief in God, or, what they often call a “Higher Power”. They state that A.A. is an agnostic organization, in the sense that they do not proclaim God exists in any one religion but truely believe one exists. The book, Alcoholics Anonymous, more often called “The Big Book”, talks about this in depth. If you click the links you’ll see Alcoholics Anonymous posts the “Big Book” for free, to all, online. A quick search of the Catholic Church’s website, the Southern Baptist Church’s website, and, my own denomination, Mennonite Church USA, didn’t provide any free Bible Download anywhere.

Brian eventually began to call on various members of A.A. who all, when called on announced their name followed by the phrase “and I am an Alcoholic.” Everyone responds “Hi, Dave” or whatever their name happens to be. The stories are often funny, always poignant, and seemingly tell the truth. Everyone usually laughs at stories of near knife fights, DWIs and the cops who can always if you’re drunk, ex-boyfriends/girlfriends and their parents. And while we laugh, we laugh at tragedy, because behind the funny stories are lives being ruined. People begin to tell stories about meeting God, trusting him, praying to him. Guys in biker jackets hold back tears.

At the end of an hour a lady anounces that this is a “Chip Group”, meaning that if you’ve been sober you get a chip. She calls forward those who have been sober for 24 hours. Then 1 month. 2 months. 6 months. 9 months. 1 year. And more. And they come forward, take their chips with a sense of pride. They have been born again, celebrating their new birthday in sobriety.

We all stand up, form a circle, hold hands, and recite the Lord’s prayer. I’ve heard it a lot but still struggle with knowing it by heart. But here are these “agnostics” reciting it clearly as a group.

Our Father, who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy Name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
and the power, and the glory,
for ever and ever.

I am left reeling, thinking “Why can’t church be more like this?”

Why can’t church say, like tradition number 5, “Each church has but one primary purpose–to carry its message to the heathen who still suffers.”

or, word for word, from tradition 12,

“Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.”

Why don’t we in church, especially smaller churches, all join hands and pray at the end of service? Why don’t we allow each person a chance to speak? Why don’t we allow those with honest, careful, humble spirits, the opportunity to lead worship? Why do A.A. members have sponsors to help them grow but Christians need to disciple themselves? How come I felt the power of God move in this Agnostic organization but so often feel God struggle in my own?

Comments (3)

  1. Danny

    This is a very good question and one that I wonder about a lot myself.

    It’s almost like we keep doing “what works” because that is what we did in the past, but that is such a dangerous and stale way of thinking.

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  3. j. igram-edwards

    good words.

    i spent the last 3 years working in a teen recovery home, taking kids to meeting every night and i have had these thoughts many times. now i go to a different 12-step group of my own and still think about how beautiful the “principles before personalities” is.

    i only struggle with the lord’s prayer at the end. i cannot say it with them. i am anabaptist in belief and cannot say “our father” with people who dont believe in the non-violent “son” of said “father.” it is something i struggle with as a christian, but the groups themselves are amazing.

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