What if churches today were more like 12-step programs?
What if they were truly places of authenticity, raw honesty and inclusion, committed to transformation, making amends and leaning on God?
Shavon Starling-Louis says, “I’m a pretty big lover of the church” — of its ability to be a blessing in the broken places of the world, part of the necessary work of repentance and repair.
At its best, “you are magnificent, you are glorious,” she said to the church — preaching during closing worship of the NEXT Church national gathering, held online March 5-7.
But Starling-Louis, pastor of Meadowlake Presbyterian Church in Huntersville, North Carolina, also has seen the church in action: she’s experienced it in rural places and cities, in a number of states. “So it is with deep love I come to you,” she told the NEXT community. “I’ve been watching, I’ve been listening. … It seems that we’ve got a problem. We’ve got behaviors that we impulsively and automatically and mindlessly do,” a proclivity for buying into white supremacy culture and aligning the church with the very things Christian teachings say shouldn’t happen.
In many places in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), white worship is seen as normal — reinforced by “the songs that we sing, the examples that we give in our (sermon) illustrations,” the theologians who are cited. These can be “reflections of this addiction” to white supremacy, Starling-Louis said.
“In our perpetual celebration of our frozen chosen-ness, we have a cold heart at times” – more committed to maintaining buildings and power than supporting those who are hurting, afraid that “someone with deep pockets or deep influence might leave” if the message is too challenging and succumbing to “the lie that some people are not good enough, are not made in the image of God.”
Too often, the church condones the societal structures that allow the death and suffering of people of color, queer people, those with disabilities, those living in poverty, the abused and addicted. After this past year, with the COVID-19 pandemic, the attempt in this election season to overthrow the U.S. Constitution, the killing (Starling-Louis called it a lynching) of “Mr. George Perry Floyd Jr.,” she said it is time to look for change.
“I’m prayerful that we won’t stay the same. That we have hit our rock bottom,” and “we can go toward wholeness. We don’t need to just think about ourselves, we can think of the future generations to come. … We have a problem. We need help. We have to overcome this obsession, this oppression obsession.”
The answer, she suggests, might be right under the nose of church folks: with those 12-step groups that (at least pre-pandemic) met in church basements and Sunday school classrooms all over the country. Starling-Louis said she has personally found shalom, healing and wellness in the 12-step practices that have helped so many overcome addictions to alcohol, drugs, pornography, sex, over-eating. “I have seen the miraculous break forth in those sacred spaces that are right around the corner,” down the hall from the sanctuary. “I believe there is a gift for the church in that space.”
So Starling-Louis took off her preaching robe and her stole — they have no meaning in the 12-step space, she said, in rooms where “I come as I am.”
She invited those listening to become part of a “mini-meeting” and began to connect the 12 steps used in recovery programs with the church’s own “Big Book,” the Bible —namely the second chapter of Acts, where the Holy Spirit blew in on Pentecost; when Peter spoke of Jesus’ death and resurrection; and when the day was filled with wonder and signs and possibility.
People from all over the world came to that Pentecost gathering, all speaking their own languages, with folks feeling confused and amazed and not sure why they were there. “To be a less oppressive church means that we should expect to not really always understand everything,” Starling-Louis said. That can be an invitation for self-reflection in community; to confess where and how people of faith have contributed to brokenness; and to make space for lamentation and tears and prayer.
“There is liberation work at hand,” Starling-Louis said. “We can be removed and made free from those dysfunctional and stultifying habits that say, ‘We don’t talk about that here’ ” — that keep church people from revealing their brokenness and from helping one another heal.
Peter calls on the example of the faithful through the ages – going back to the prophet Joel – and tells the church to write its own story, to become a church that dreams and prophesies. “Church, when was the last time as a community you gathered and shared the stories” — truthfully and authentically? Starling-Louis asked.
In the context of anti-racism and justice work, the 12-step process can involve making a “fearless moral inventory,” admitting wrongs and making amends in a way that can be a gift to the church, she said — an opportunity to learn from the past, to confess, to look into the faces of those who have been injured, to become repairers of the breach. “It’s not about perfection, but it is about humility,” she said.
In all that work, prayer and meditation are central.
The closing worship service began with a reference to the theme of this year’s national gathering — that “together, we commit to the work of breaking, blessing and building for the common good.”
Musician Chanda Rule sang that “we are building up a new world, and builders must be strong.” She asked people to write in the Zoom chat areas of sacred strength they see in their own congregations — and the responses included these: care for one another; grace and truth-telling; perseverance; resilience; accessibility to the broader community as churches are using digital spaces; the increasing vaccination rates.
“Church friends, siblings, how will we find a way to break what needs to be broken, to build what needs to be built” for the common good, Starling-Louis asked – ending her sermon with a piece of Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer, recited at many 12-step meetings:
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.
And at the end of the service, she closed this mini-meeting with a 12-step encouragement and challenge: to do the work day by day, because “it works if you work it.”
What about the NEXT Church national gathering in 2022? Given the fluidity of the pandemic, no announcement was made about dates or whether it will be virtual or in person. That’s to be determined, NEXT Church director Jessica Tate wrote in the chat.