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An AA Christmas

Rebekah Simon-Peter —  December 23, 2018 — 10 Comments

This Christmas, my husband I will celebrate the holiday surrounded by a variety of family and friends. Most of these folks have an unusualNew Year And Christmas Background. Christmas Candy Cane Gingerbr characteristic in common: they are recovering addicts and alcoholics. Their length of sobriety ranges from 10 days to 30 years. We have found real community with this circle of folks who are members of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Transparency and honesty, joy and laughter, friendship and service are their hallmarks.

As I consider our upcoming holiday celebrations, I want to bring to light three ways that AA recovery reflects and enhances the Christmas story.

BEFORE AND AFTER During Advent, we Christians are encouraged to open our hearts anew to Jesus. At Christmas, we rejoice that the birth of Jesus somehow births new life in us. While there may not be dramatic differences year to year, many of us can name what life was like before Jesus was part of our story and how things shifted when—in the words of Eugene Peterson—Jesus “moved into the neighborhood” of our lives. We can even name how this ongoing relationship has positively impacted us and the people around us.

In AA, recovering alcoholics and addicts have a story too: what it used to be like in active addiction, what happened that they chose to get clean and sober, and what life is like now in recovery. Click To Tweet This story continuously evolves as people recover from the devastating physical, emotional and spiritual effects of active addiction. Once people open themselves to a new life, dramatic before and after stories are the name of the game. They are inspiring and faith-building.

GOD AS YOU UNDERSTAND GOD From the time Jesus was conceived and born, no one knew exactly what to make of him. The Magnificat records how Mary supposes a political and societal revolution. Joseph dreams that this surprise baby will save people from sin. The shepherds get an angelic message that a savior has been born. Simeon perceives that Jesus is a messianic figure; he foresees division, pain and suffering. Anna beholds the child and prophesies that the city of Jerusalem will be redeemed.

No one gets the same message. While we have strung these stories together into an overarching narrative, the elements of the story remind us that Jesus is more about possibility than dogma. All we really know is that Jesus is going to make a difference in the world.

In AA, recovery from addiction requires God. But AA’s understand that God is different for each person. In fact, there’s an insistence in the rooms of recovery that no one can define God for anyone else. No limits, definitions or dogma allowed. While this seems unnatural for the Christian, it’s strangely freeing for people in recovery. Here faith is not about orthodoxy or right belief. It’s about orthopraxy or right practice. The proof is in the pudding. Has your life transformed? Are you happy, joyous and free? Are you serving others? If so, nobody cares exactly how or what your Higher Power may be. Only that the fruits of this Power are evident in your life.

UNLIKELY CAST OF CHARACTERS The Christmas narratives place a diverse group of people together: families from the priestly line, shepherds and people of the field, Simeon a devout old man, Anna a prophetess who never leaves the Temple, a rather poor young woman, her older husband, and a surprise baby of divine origin. Let’s not forget angels and heavenly hosts. Later on, foreign dignitaries make an appearance. Oh yeah, and one crazed ruler. It’s a wild story. Who but God could have brought together this unlikely cast of characters?

Similarly, our addict and alcoholic friends form an unlikely assemblage. They include convicted felons, once-respected academics and clergy, school and healthcare administrators, construction workers, carpenters, painters, bikers, oilfield workers, psychologists, former menaces to society, and garden variety down-on-their-luck-just-lost-everything people who are scraping by. These are folks who would not ordinarily know each other, let alone mix. Who but God would but able to put together this unlikely cast of characters?

Wherever you may be this Christmas, and whoever you are with, I invite you to relive your own before and after story, to lay claim to God as you understand God, and above all to appreciate whatever crazy cast of characters you are with. It’ll be a sign that Jesus has been born among us.

I spend a lot of time, intentionally, with the spiritual but not religious folks in my community.  I’m always amazed at the refreshing honesty stairs in woodsand humor in our conversations.  There’s a real willingness to laugh at former misfortunes, to give credit to a higher power, to talk of miracles and to be of service to others.  I’ve often wondered how to bring those qualities to the congregations I once served or now coach.  Turns out there’s a 12 step program for that!  It’s outlined in an intriguing new book, Recovering from Church and Discovering Jesus:  A 12 Step Program.  It made me wonder:  Do you need a 12 Step program to follow Jesus?

Retired pastors and authors Gerri Harvill and Stan Norman wondered the same thing.  They shared their thoughts and ideas with me.  Check it out; you’ll be inspired by the conversation.

Gerri and Stan, you have written a book about spirituality apart from the institutional church and organized religion.  Isn’t that an oxymoron for a Christian?

Well Rebekah, as pastors of a church we became aware that our own spirituality was gradually being taken away from us by the demands of the institution. We were told to pay attention to our spiritual health and then allowed no time or energy to do so. There was always one more report to fill out, one more person to visit, one more meeting to attend. We were stuck in upholding the institution at the expense of our spirituality.

I can relate.  I’ve been there too!  How did you respond?

We were very frustrated with the unwillingness of the institution, and of many in the congregation of the church where we served, to try anything new or change from getting together with friends for worship on Sunday, to following Jesus as a way of life. Since we had reached retirement age, we decided to step away from the institution and pursue spirituality with a few like-minded individuals. We gathered as a small community for 8 months before we realized that we were addicted to the rules and rituals of the church ourselves. Our friends in the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) communities seemed to have a better, more authentic, handle on spirituality than we did as professional clergy.

What do you mean by that? Give me an example.

A few months into our gatherings we realized that we were becoming another church. We had only moved from the sanctuary to our living rooms and from Sunday morning to Saturday night. Our gathering time was scripted, we had liturgy and music and we were doing most of the talking. We had envisioned a community of equals gathering to help each other follow Jesus on a daily basis. But as leaders, we realized that we were still caught up in the rules and rituals of organized religion. We realized we were addicted.

What’s wrong with being addicted to the institutional church and organized religion?

The rules, rituals, and traditions of the church itself become our “golden calf.” Church and religion become the idol that replaces God in our lives.  It was a humbling experience to realize that we had become the very thing we had preached against for years.

So, is your book anti-church?

No!  But Rebekah, our book does call for the institution of the church to change and become more like the movement that Jesus intended his church to be. The institution needs to die to some things so that God can resurrect it to new life.

How did you make the connection between substance addiction and spirituality?

Well Rebekah, we were exposed to the 12 step programs of AA and NA through groups that met at the church where we served. Our reading and research lead us to writers and teachers like Richard Rohr, Frederick Buechner, Gerald May, and you yourself who had already recognized the intrinsic value of the 12 step programs for spiritual formation and growth.

What can 12 step groups teach the church about spiritual formation and growth?

Spiritual formation has to take place in community.  It’s hard work; we shy away from it because we are scared and lazy. The authentic sharing and caring that takes place in AA and NA meetings is largely missing from the institutional church, replaced by judgment and hypocrisy.


I came away from my conversation with Gerry Harvill and Stan Norman energized and inspired by the bold steps they’d taken in reinventing the idea of church using the 12 step process. In my 2015 article “15 Things AA Can Teach the Church”, I share their concerns about outdated rules and rituals impeding the process of spiritual awakening.  I think Stan and Gerri are on to something; read their book and join them in discovering new ways to follow Jesus.

If you are looking for a way to connect up with the larger dreams of Jesus, contact me at to join my free one-hour webinar, Dream Like Jesus® on July 27 at 1:30pm Mountain Time.


Alcoholics Anonymous has forever changed the church.  And it has done it right under our noses.  Or better put, in our church basements, classrooms, and meeting rooms.   AA introduced the concept of spirituality apart from religion.  It took away the middleman.  It has put into place the most successful self-duplicating, small group model in recent history.  And it has done it by emulating the model of the early church.  On June 10, AA turned 80 years old.  From extremely humble beginnings, an estimated 23 million people in the US now live with long term recovery from alcohol and other drugs.  Here are the top 15 things AA can teach the Church.

  1.  Stick to your primary purpose.  AA doesn’t try to be all things to all people.  It’s primary purpose is to help other alcoholics achieve sobriety.  That’s what it does, and it does it very well.  If someone wants to apply the 12 steps to overeating, smoking or hoarding, a new fellowship is formed.  This laser like focus allows for great success.  What if the church kept the main thing the main thing?  Such as making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world?
  2. You can’t keep it unless you give it away.  AA’s know that in order to maintain their sobriety, they have to work with others and share the message of recovery.  That’s how Bill W. and Dr. Bob got sober.  And it hasn’t changed since then.  Evangelism is built right into the 12 steps.
  3. Get a sponsor.  Sponsorship is the key to success. Every AA who hopes to remain sober gets a sponsor to help them work the 12 steps.  Then they turn around and sponsor someone else.    What if churches focused on creating sponsors or disciples who disciple the next person?
  4. Insist on experiencing God.  God is very loosely defined, if at all in AA. Each person works on their own concept of God, and it changes and grows as they change and grow.  The church has made much of trying to define God instead of helping people to experience God.
  5. Promise a spiritual awakening.  It’s the results of working the 12 steps.  The church is short on this promise and long on trying to get people to join.
  6. Focus on spirituality.  Deepened spirituality is the marker of growth among AA members and groups.  Is that what drives your church growth?
  7. You don’t need a building.  AA has an estimated 2 million members worldwide I 115,000 groups.  Most of them meet in someone else’s space, paying rent instead of mortgage and repairs. That frees up a lot of time and energy to stick to their primary purpose.
  8. Don’t sponge.  AA has a tradition of being self-supporting through its own contributions.  Is your church looking for someone else to foot the bill?
  9. There are no stars.  Anonymity, not celebrity, is the key to the success of this program.  Humility is also a characteristic of Christ.  How about your church?
  10. Don’t shoot your wounded.  Relapsers are welcomed back with open arms.  Judgment, or the perception of judgment, is often felt in churches.
  11. Have fun.  Lots of laughter emanates from AA rooms as people laugh at their former follies.  “We absolutely insist on enjoying life” is an oft-quoted line from the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. Laughter keeps people coming back.
  12. Let the hierarchy serve the local group, and not the other way around.  The General Service Office of AA exists only to serve the local groups.  Denominational offices sometimes give the opposite impression.
  13. Share your story.   Early Christians had stories of salvation and they shared them.  This also helped them stay strong in the faith and hold one another accountable.  AA is all about sharing their stories.
  14. Focus on the newcomer.    The newcomer is the most important person in the rooms of AA.  They are actively welcomed, told to keep coming back, and encouraged to get a sponsor.  Their transformation begins immediately. Churches too often stay focused on the longtimers, and are reluctant to make space for newcomers.
  15. Expect resurrection!  People come back from the dead all the time in AA rooms. It’s what AA specializes in.  New life is expected and demanded.  How about in your church?

This article first appeared in June, 2015.