What if I told you that with half a dozen people, you could start a ministry in your church that teaches people how to disciple each other out of brokenness and into community?
What if I told you that for little or no money, you could break cycles and dismantle family systems, just by teaching people how to talk about their own junk?
What if I told you that the chances are nearly 100% that you already have someone in your church who is not only ready to help you get started, but who is already equipped to lead?
What if I told you that an 88-year-old curriculum can do more to set your extra-grace-required folks free than anything that has been produced in the Christian marketplace in the last twenty years?
And what if I told you that this curriculum is about as Methodist as it gets, and will teach people (if they will stick with it) to be sanctified to the uttermost?
Friends, such a thing exists, it lives in the public domain (which means its free) and it is as relevant today as when it began to show up in rooms around America in the early 20th century. The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous were first designed to give addicts the support they needed to get sober and stay sober. Today, the Steps are just as successful for guiding folks struggling with all kinds of issues related to chemically dependent and codependent behavior.
And the steps are very Methodist! Two centuries before AA showed up on the American scene, John Wesley was establishing penitent bands — small groups that met on Saturday nights when folks were most likely to visit the beer halls. Twelve step recovery groups are basically Wesley’s penitent bands with a particular structure to them that encourages folks to get beneath the presenting symptoms of their broken lives to the underlying resentments and unhealed wounds that keep us from fully surrendering heart and life to God.
The twelve steps? … are freedom. And as Kevin Watson says, “Only people desperate for freedom from all of the ways that sin has wrapped itself around their lives are willing to own and confess their brokenness to other people. And only people who are that desperate are likely to receive the gift of entire sanctification.”
So how do the steps breed sanctification? Let’s look at them. The first three steps are about reframing our reality and making a choice based on that reframing:
Step One: We admitted we were powerless over our circumstances – that our lives had become unmanageable.
Step Two: We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
Step Three: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to God as we understood him.
These first three steps are about making a decision to make changes. They remind us that choice is an action, not an inaction. All these first three steps are asking of us is to make an active choice around this question: Are we ready to make a change? And are we desperate enough for it not just to say we’re gonna get up and go after it but to actually get up and go after it?
Are you ready to admit that you’re powerless over your circumstances, that your life is not heading in the direction you planned, and now you can’t seem to stop the train? Are you ready to list all the things you have no control over and then admit that to yourself and begin to work out of that reality? And are you ready to believe that you all by yourself are not enough to create meaningful change? That you all by yourself cannot get you all by yourself out of a cycle that you now realize has been repeating in your life — a cycle that is destructive to relationships and not getting you anywhere? That’s the work of the first three steps. In Christian-ese, we might call this justification.
The next four steps set us on the path of sanctification. They are about searching ourselves to discover and admit exactly what needs to change:
Step four: We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
Step Five: We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
Step six: We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
Step seven: We humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
These steps are confessional. They are about getting honest with ourselves about what we resent in our lives, and what resentments we are working out of. There is more to these steps than resentment, but resentment is where we begin because it is amazing just how much of our lives are shaped by resentments.
Then, steps eight and nine. These steps are about relational issues that stand in the way of making changes.
Step eight: We made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
There is quite a to-do list in this step. Making a list of all persons we’ve harmed, all the way back as far as we can remember? That’s a lot. And to make this step happen requires a whole lot of humility we probably didn’t have before we started this healing journey. Step Eight asks us to remember the people who deserve our humble admission of harm.
And Step Nine challenges us to make direct amends to such people whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others. Step Nine reminds us that discernment is part of this journey of recovery. We don’t get to just plow over people and say things we’ve always wanted to say so we can get it off our chest and feel better. There is a wisdom card to be played in these steps, and that’s why we can’t rush the process too quickly. Wisdom is something we slowly and intentionally develop on this road to recovery. It doesn’t come automatically. It comes over time, as we heal and learn to listen for the voice of God.
Steps ten and eleven are about learning how to focus on barriers to and opportunities for success.
In Step Ten, we continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
In Step Eleven, we sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
These two steps are about building the means of grace into our lives. They are Paul’s advice to the Philippian church, when he counseled them to “continue to work out your salvation daily with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). These steps are critical to the process of sanctification because they help ensure we keep moving forward and don’t end up back in the same unmanageable place where we started.
And then Step 12! That’s the missionary step. Final freedom for the follower of Jesus is marked by a proclamation of God’s power. That’s the spirit of the Twelfth Step: Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to addicts and to practice these principles in all our affairs. Step Twelve is testimony and evangelism and mission all rolled into one on-going intention. Don’t keep what you learned to yourself, this step counsels. Carry it out into the world. Not because you have arrived, but as a witness to your intention to make your progress permanent.
Friends, the Twelve Steps put the work of recovering from our fallen world on the people who belong in (and to) our communities. And the best part is that the Steps are free, proven, and about as Methodist as it gets. The Twelve Steps will teach people — if they will stick with them — to be sanctified and live sanctified.
This message was first presented at Beyond These Walls, a missions conference hosted at The Woodlands Methodist Church in Houston, TX.