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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.

“Can I still call myself an atheist, and believe in God?” I looked up from the salad bar at the 20-something young woman posing the question, my fork hovering over the red and green peppers. “Tell me more,” I said, momentarily confused.

“Well, I now believe in a kind of power, but not what you believe in.” She knew I was an ordained minister. “Say meditationmore,” I urged her. I wanted to hear what kind of a God she thought I believed in.   “Well, I think God is in everything.” Me too, I thought. “That sounds like maybe you’re talking about panentheism,” I offered. “Pantheism?,” she said. “No, panentheism,” I gently corrected. “There’s a name for it?” she asked, surprised. “Yup,” I said, relieved I had something to offer this young woman. Never mind that I also believe God is in everything; what I was most intrigued by was her desire to identify as God-believing atheist.

My daily life takes me deep into the heart of SBNR (spiritual but not religious) terrain—from the gym, to encounters with 12-step folks, to seatmates on airplanes, to United Methodist churches. Atheists who believe in God are not the only unusual faith configurations I encounter. In my ongoing adventures with the spiritual but not religious, I’ve gleaned a few things I’d like to share with you, including three insights and action steps for the church.

The spiritual but not religious defy easy understanding. While the evidence I offer here is anecdotal, and names have been changed, these stories represent people I have met along the way.

SBNR are not shut off to God nor is God shut off to them.

“I was meditating when I was transported back in time and saw Jesus, palms cupped, with a flame rising out of them,” Josh explained. “I feel like I witnessed one of the miracles of Jesus.   I know he exists. It’s not a question with me. But, church? No, I don’t really go.” “Tell me more,” I said. “We didn’t grow up with much of a faith,” this intelligent 40-ish man observed. “My Dad was Catholic and my Mom Jewish, but we really didn’t practice anything.”

INSIGHT: Jesus steps outside church walls. Just because they are not in Sunday services, doesn’t mean that God is not in touch with the SBNR, and vice versa. In fact, Josh’s story reminded me of my own, told in The Jew Named Jesus. The only difference is I was in the Orthodox Jewish community at the time Jesus appeared to me in a vision. I could have easily opted to stay in the Orthodox world, or to surrender all religious affiliation, but a churched friend gave me a third option. She invited me into her world. Not to Sunday School class, mind you, but to the seminary she was attending. The meaty challenge of seminary was perfect for me. I know it sounds counterintuitive, but It gave me a chance to learn more about Jesus without having to commit yet to a faith community.

ACTION: Connect and Invite. As people share their stories with you, invite them to learn more about Jesus, with you. They may not want to come to worship. Instead, they may want to attend a Bible Study, or a spiritual retreat, or, who knows, even seminary.  Maybe they simply want to sit and talk with you about their experiences. Treat this as a sacred encounter. Don’t judge them or their experiences; instead look for commonalities. Be prepared to say, “Tell me more,” and then to listen. Feel free to share your own experiences with them. Above all, be prepared to learn from them more about what God is doing.

The SBNR are church members and leaders…if they haven’t left yet.

“I decided not to be a General Conference delegate this year,” Suri confided, matter of factly. “I’ve gone every other year. But I’m not sure I still believe in this stuff. I’m not mad. It’s not anything like that. It’s just that I’m more of a universalist. God is love; that’s it. I don’t believe in the duality of heaven and hell. If I don’t come back to Annual Conference next year, you’ll know why. I’ve just moved on.”

INSIGHT: Church on the move. As Phyllis Tickle famously observed, every 500 years the church feels compelled to have a huge rummage sale. We “move on” in our practice, our beliefs, and/or our organization. I think the church is actually moving on from the duality of heaven and hell into a kind of “God is love” unity.  Rob Bell’s book, “Love Wins” is a sign of that.

I wonder how many of our church members and leaders lean toward universalism? Personally, I don’t believe in hell as a literal place. Remember, I’m a panentheist (not a pantheist): I believe that God is in everything, including in each person. Hell, as near as I can figure, is a life lived apart from love, but I don’t see it as a place that God sends us to, condemns us to, or abandons us to.

ACTION: Get clear and get honest. Conduct an audit of your actual beliefs—whether at the level of congregation, small group, friends, or even just yourself. Take an honest look at what you do and don’t believe, and whether your church’s worship, ministries, and classes, are reflective of these beliefs. Invite your SBNR friends. It could make for very stimulating dialogue and build bridges of understanding.

The SBNR are looking for alternatives, and finding them.

“I’m the acquisitions editor for an evangelical Christian publishing company,” Shanda, an accomplished woman in her 50s, told me, “but I almost never go to church anymore.” She hesitated. “My theology has opened up quite a bit.” Another pause. She lowered her voice, “It’s boring. Especially compared to the personal development groups I am part of.”

INSIGHT: Don’t bore folks. SBNR folks are not anti-group, anti-growth or anti-God. They are anti-boredom. There are too many other options out there to waste time on experiences that don’t deliver. If church isn’t conducted in a way that connects, engages, inspires, provokes, challenges, or causes spiritual growth—then folks will look elsewhere. Don’t give them any excuses! Notice, I didn’t say church needs to entertain, babysit or amuse. It doesn’t. Yes, people want high quality experiences that engage them. Challenge and engage people with a love that risks everything and promises a real difference in the world! That’s never boring.

ACTION: Stand for something. Many churches are in survival mode. They have given up on standing for something. Instead, they’re trying to not lose people. Paradoxically, that loses people. Find a kingdom-oriented passion and stand for it. Preach it, pray it, and live it. Risk the church for it. After all, that’s what Jesus did.

Here’s the bottom line, church: SBNR folks have something vital to teach the church. If we listen, we might just gain clues to our own re-birth.

This article first appeared on June 21, 2016.


We have a lot to learn from the “spiritual-but-not-religious” crowd.

Chances are, though, it’s not what you think.

candles3I’ve taught a number of classes in church in which the topic of people who identify as “spiritual-but-not-religious” comes up.  A growing demographic in the US, (20% of the US population in 2012), they are often the object of misunderstanding and pity among church folks.  Something along the lines of “I feel sorry for them!  How can they get along without God?  How can they get along without people to pray for them?  What’s wrong with them?”

True, some spiritual-but-not-religious folks are lone wolves.  They have no spiritual community per se, just a sense within that there is More to Life than Meets the Eye.  Others, however, are deeply embedded in community of every kind—unaware they should be missing us.  They sense the transcendent in the ordinary, the Divine in the everyday.

I have also heard pastors remark that what these spiritual but not religious people are identifying as needs—community, people who care about each other, significance over success, a deep relationship with Something that is Bigger than Us—can all be provided by the church.  If only they knew about the church, and would adapt a bit to it, they would find everything they are looking for!

Bottom line:  We have this sense that if we can figure out what’s wrong with them, or what they’re missing, then we can get them “back.”

I’d like to propose a whole new way of relating to the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd.  Instead of seeing them as missing what we are offering I suggest we see them as offering what we are (or may be) missing.  In fact, I’d like to share with you 3 gifts we can glean from them.  And how to incorporate them into your congregation.


Three Gifts From the Spiritual-But-Not-Religious Crowd  

  1. dove2They are a living reminder of our roots.  Every great moment in the Bible is defined by someone walking away from known reality.  Abraham leaves his father and his kindred to follow God to a new land, sight unseen.  Jacob wrestles with a Divine figure which is part human, part angel.  Moses serves an invisible god who identifies as Being itself.  Ruth gives up her cultural identity to identify with her mother-in-law’s people.  John the Baptist leads people away from their day to day lives out into the wilderness.  Jesus himself ushers in the long-awaited, but previously unexperienced, Kingdom.  Just as these people walked away from known reality for something new, so too the spiritual-but-not-religious.  Rather than see them as lacking something, consider that their spiritual journeying reflects the essence of Biblical stories.

 2. They remind us of the value of experience over form.  For the spiritual-but-not-religious, the direct experience of God is the goal, not doctrines or dogma which point the way to the experience.  Jesus, while faithful to Judaism, experienced oneness with God.  He even taught others that “The kingdom of heaven is within.”  Why should we be surprised, then, when people discover direct access to the Holy, and prefer that over the form of religion? 

3.  They point to the convergence of science and spirituality.  Quantum physics points to a conscious universe, and the deep interconnectedness of all forms of life.  While some Christian believers are fighting over science and religion, the spiritual-but-not-religious folks are moving beyond duality by seeking how science and spirituality inform each other. This is cutting edge.


Applying the Gifts

How can we apply these 3 gifts from the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd in the life of the church? 

  • Encourage spiritual adventuring.  For instance, you can offer classes on centering prayer or meditation.  Build a labyrinth and encourage people on their spiritual journey.  Invite a Spiritual Director to affiliate with your congregation.  Ask for testimonies from congregants who have had a near death experience or other spiritual awakening.  Give people the tools to experience heaven here on earth.
  • Follow Jesus by teaching that the Kingdom of God is within.  Then create special times for people to experience God’s presence within themselves.  Encourage the use of creative arts to give expression to this reality.  Re-think worship to make space for this opportunity.
  • Don’t be afraid to explore the overlap of science and spirituality.  Read and discuss books that hint at this such as neurosurgeon Eben Alexander’s dramatic Proof of Heaven.

valentines-hearts_1420722019The Spiritual But Not Religious in Action

A few weeks ago, I visited a spiritual-but-not-religious megachurch.  Megachurch, you ask?  Yes, megachurch.  They actually exist!

What made this experience work?  Excellent music that emphasized unity over duality.  A welcome that not only affirmed God’s unconditional love indwelling all people, but their congregational acceptance of all people.  Preaching that connected body and soul.  Prayer that affirmed rather than begged.

But most of all, what made this a spiritual-but-not-religious service was that it assumed people wanted to experience God, and not just hear about God, or just work on behalf of God.  So after initial announcements, the lights were turned down low so that the collective congregation could spend about 4 minutes in silent meditation.  Likewise, after a rousing blessing sung at the end, one-on-one prayer was made available to seekers.  In between, the music ranged between the sacred and secular—all of it carrying an empowering message of love.

Churches like this are spectacular, fun, and rare.  Likely, they can’t be reproduced in small town Iowa or desert New Mexico or city center churches in New England.  No matter.   Take some of the principles offered and use them to re-create what the spiritual-but-not-religious can teach us:  the experience of God transcends all.  And is ever so attractive.

Church conflict is something that strikes fear in theleavechurch heart of church leaders. Why?

The vital statistics of many mainline churches already reflect declining health. The size of worship attendance is shrinking as are the number of active ministries, and the people involved in them. Baptisms trend downward while deaths trend upward. Why bring on more conflict when we’re already on shaky ground?

Fear of Conflict

I think we are afraid of church conflict because it might reveal irreconcilable differences. And then what would happen to the congregation? The already shaky boat might just capsize. And so we avoid things that might be conflictual or create tension.

But my work has show me most of the stuff church leaders are afraid of isn’t what pushes people out the door.  It’s not so much a strong stance on social justice issues like poverty, racism, or gay marriage.  It’s not even questions of the authority of the Bible that does it.  In fact, two lay leaders recently confided to me they tune out when there isn’t anything challenging going on. They want to think a new thought, chew on a new idea, and engage a new way of looking at things. So, for most people, that’s not the issue.

People have all kinds of reasons for leaving church. I say at least give them a good reason to go. I’d like to share with you the difference between a good reason and a bad reason for leaving church and 4 Do’s and Don’ts when making the shift.

Why Leave Church?

Some people will never leave church. They were there before you got there, and they’ll be there after you leave. They’re loyal to the church and its traditions. Others aren’t so immovable. Some of them will leave if they’re not getting their way or they have been hurt by a comment, a leadership gaffe, or a pastoral slight. There’s not always a lot you can do about that.

But most people leave for reasons we have far more control over. Here are three: First, there is no new vision or direction for the church. It’s same old, same old. People are asked to risk nothing. They are bored, unengaged. Second, the church is simply going through the motions.  Worship lacks spiritual depth or vulnerability. Prayer is lackluster.  Preaching is uninspiring.  Music is uneven.  They don’t sense the sacred presence of Jesus or the movement of the Holy Spirit. Third, relationships are cliquish. Worshipers may be disconnected from each other, from visitors, or from the community around them.

Now these may all be valid reasons to leave church. That we church leaders tolerate this state of affairs is our bad.   Let’s at least give people a good reason to go.

Give Them a Good Reason 

What’s a good reason? A vibrant new direction that won’t please everyone. A bold, risky vision that requires big faith to enact. Worship that plunges spiritual depths, creates space for the Holy, and evokes emotional honesty. Relationships that go beyond the surface, inviting truth-telling and a community with people from a variety of backgrounds, circumstances, and ethnicities.

Make no mistake, these things will be uncomfortable and to some unpopular. Some people will leave BECAUSE they disagree. Maybe they don’t want to get their hands dirty and reach out beyond their comfort zone.  Maybe they are sick of hearing about those people.  Maybe they can’t understand how environmental stewardship relates to the life of faith. Perhaps racial reconciliation and economic justice don’t float their boat. Maybe they like the ways things have been just fine. No worries. The seats they vacate will be filled by others. Eventually the offering plate will be too.

People want an experience of Jesus. Of his values. Of his presence. Of his message. Of his radical love.  The churches that don’t provide that will die. The churches that do provide that may well live.

Case in Point

One small mainline church I know was on the verge of closing. In fact, the 9 remaining people had decided it was time to call it quits.  At their very last meeting, an older woman said, “But where I will go next Sunday morning?” Her lament re-opened the conversation. The little group decided to give it one last try. They hired a part time bi-vocational pastor who was passionate about connecting the church and the community. She wanted to create an inclusive space for all people, including youth at risk. Seven years later, the church is thriving! They have a church band with a professional musician from the community college, an active outreach to GLBT youth, a Friday night coffee house with live bands from the community, several 12-step meetings, and a free clothing ministry. The pastor is now full time, even as they share space with another worshiping congregation to make ends meet. This church has become the inclusive, progressive go-to community in a very politically and socially conservative town.

I was there on a recent Sunday morning and the sanctuary was comfortably full, with perhaps 60 people in attendance including a journalist from the local newspaper, entrepreneurs, several doctors, teachers, quite a few teenagers, older couples with canes and hearing aids, students from the college, and a smattering of recovering addicts. Even the mayor worships at this congregation! It was a refreshing experience.

Jesus had a powerful vision of the Kingdom of God. His preaching and teaching and ministry gave people direction; it pointed to something brand new. Sure, some people left Jesus. Others even killed him. But not because they were bored!  We know how the story goes…a handful of followers led to the billions who now follow him.

If you’re going to lead church—whether you are clergy or laity—understand people will leave church. Can’t stop that.  I say, at least give people a good reason to leave the church.

4 Do’s and Don’ts

Here are four do’s and don’ts to consider as you move forward:

1.  Do prepare people for a change in direction. If you are presenting a new vision, give people plenty of time to get used to the idea, to ask questions, and to present their ideas too. Don’t expect everyone to be on board. But don’t back out if they’re not either. Ground your efforts in prayer, and trust God.

2.  Do give people something new to chew on in your sermons, devotions, and Bible studies. Don’t be afraid to tackle tough issues. Just make sure to fairly represent all sides. Don’t be afraid to say where you stand, and why. People will appreciate your honesty and vulnerability, even if they disagree with you. Do make sure you have thought it through as much as you can, and don’t try to force others to believe or behave the way you do.

3.  Do turn to Jesus and the Gospels for guidance. In good Jewish fashion, Jesus was involved in all kinds of healthy debate with those he agreed with, and those he disagreed with. No matter what, he remained true to himself and was prepared to answer for his beliefs. We are beneficiaries of that self-differentiation.

4.  Do be of good courage!   Our inspired visions, risky ministries, spiritually grounded worship, and courageously loving relationships can and do make a difference.

Without all this, your church is likely to continue declining and die anyway. Might as well give it a go!