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Sinners Anonymous

I’ve been reading Frederick Buechner again lately and, as always, am finding his way of putting things to be quite memorable.  Here’s a quote from Whistling in the Dark that serves as a good reminder about what the church is about as we head into another weekend.  This comes after a brief discussion of the structure and purpose of the Alcoholics Anonymous program:

Nobody lectures them, and they do not lecture each other.  They simply tell their own stories with the candor that anonymity makes possible.  They tell where they went wrong and how day by day they are trying to go right.  They tell where they find strength and understanding and hope to keep trying.  Sometimes one of them will take special responsibility for another—to be available at any hour of the day or night if the need arises.  There’s not much more to it than that, and it seems to be enough.  Healing happens.  Miracles are made.

You can’t help thinking that something like this is what the Church is meant to be and maybe once was before it got to be Big Business.  Sinners Anonymous….

No matter what far place alcoholics end up in, either in this country or virtually anywhere else, they know that there will be an AA meeting nearby to go to and that at that meeting they will find strangers who are not strangers to help and to heal, to listen to the truth and to tell it.  That is what the Body of Christ is all about.

Would it ever occur to Christians in a far place to turn to a Church nearby in hope of finding the same?  Would they find it?  If not, you wonder what is so Big about the Church’s Business.

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. jc #

    When I was on a board for a local Vancouver halfway house I did happen to come across the information that suggested that the AA program has an extremely high failure rate. The people who were operating the program were somewhat honest about it and told me that most of the people will not succeed on the first time through the program and probably not the second or third. If the people in the program would stick with it for a period of about five years then something like 50 percent of those people might not lapse back into their addiction for the next 5 years or something. The statistics weren’t that good for measuring a true success because it was hard to get accurate statistics on people who may go back to living on the street or disappear to another city. One website I was reading cites a Harvard Medical school study which suggests that the vast majority end up drinking by themselves.

    March 28, 2009
  2. JC
    I suspect you are citing the failure rate of AA as evidence of its unworthiness as model for church (as advocated by Buechner). Using the notion of success as measuring stick is tricky to qualify. We know that there a number of strategies that yield low success (e.g. prolific fundraising for cancer research has not yielded a cure). We also have to accept that success is not an absolute concept that is available to empirical scrutiny in the same way that the quantity of water in a glass is measurable. What objective and empirical data could be provided for the elimination of an addiction since it must be acknowledged that an addiction is an internal condition with external manifestations? The best we can talk about is the ability of programs like AA to address the external symptoms.
    Buechner’s use of AA as a typology of what the church should be is not, in my view, built on a correlation to its efficacy but to the systemitized approach that the organization provides to those seeking help. This he frames in contrast to the a less helpful modle which seems to be currently expressed which follows a “Big Business” model in order to justify its existance.
    Your argument about efficacy, if indeed that is what you are attempting to do, is not invalid per se. I would also hold that the principles of Jesus Christ ought to make an actual difference in how people live. So the internal condition should give evidence in the external expression. Again the quantity or quality of that external difference may not actually suggest that the strategy should be changed. Few, save those bent on conspiratorial constructions, would advocate abandoning our donations to the Cancer society just becuase the cure has not yet arrived. Perhaps the same forebearance is warranted in regards to the church as well…

    March 28, 2009
  3. jc #

    Dale,
    Success in the context AA would be helping people with their addiction to alcohol. I don’t think it is meant to be a mere social club that you can find in any city in the world. The evidence that I have seen points to individuals having much a better success rate in achieving the goals that AA has set out to accomplish. I don’t think the Cancer analogy works here. It’s not as if people who have cancer are better off if they don’t receive treatment from their doctors and decided to treat themselves. True, a cure for all cancer has not been found but I think the advances made in the field are at least going in that direction and some cancers people used to die from are either eliminated or they have found ways to treat them. It would be hard to make an argument that money donated to the cause of cancer has not achieved anything. A more apt analogy might be the “war on poverty”;-)

    March 28, 2009
  4. jc, are you just arguing that the AA analogy isn’t the best one to use for the church? Or is there some deeper commentary on the “sinners” who go to the meetings (i.e., whatever levels of transformation they might profess at the meetings, it doesn’t make much difference to them when they are alone, out of the watchful eye of the group)?

    March 29, 2009
  5. jc
    It would seem to be that AA is ‘helping people with their addictions’ and it certainly is doing so in a far different manner than the local liquor store is doing – for instance :). If you are suggesting that the individuals are able to be more successful in getting rid of an addiction to alcohol on their own than than their are through the AA progam, then you have to accept a few general assumptions. 1. That addictions are internal conditions with external manifestations (as yet we have no reliable tool to measure internal conditions) 2. That even when measuring the external manifestations of addiction there is significant variance between notions of successful eliminations of these symptoms. My argument is that notions of success related to AA are highly subjective and ambiguous and as a result not very useful.
    My use of Cancer donations IS analogous since it donation to the Cancer foundation is a participation in the organizations directions. And you higlighted nicely the fact the success rate of the Cancer organization is relatively minimal compared to the overall goal – in many way not that dissimilar to the claims you are making about AA.
    To me is seems that Buechner is using this organization not for its productive claims but for its intention to engage alcoholics in the context of their addictions. He seems to be saying: The church should be as available as AA is to engage people with their difficulties. I don’t think he is saying: The church should be as successful in curing people’s problems as AA is with curbing addictions.

    March 29, 2009
  6. jc #

    Ryan,
    I am just arguing that maybe the AA model isn’t that great of thing to be following. If it is true that individuals have a higher success rate of ending addiction on their own rather then being part of the organization then people with addictions might not think that belonging to that organization if their quest is to be free of addiction. I think that the Church is probably more available to sinners than AA. It probably has more groups all over the world then AA does that people can join if they choose. So, in my mind, its not a question of whether you can find a community to belong to but whether that community can actually help you with your goals better than if you didn’t belong to that community. Does the twelve step program work better than just quitting on your own will power? It doesn’t seem so if you look at the website I linked to and since the AA is reluctant to release any information on success rates I don’t really know what else to go by. Does this answer your question?

    March 29, 2009
  7. Yeah, that answers the question. Thanks. I think Buechner might be a bit idealistic about AA, but I don’t get the sense that his was a very formal analogy—it seemed like he was looking at the best of what AA has done or can do and applying those principles to the church.

    March 30, 2009
  8. David #

    check out http://www.orange-papers.org its well worth

    April 20, 2009

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