When I found Christ or Christ found me, I was smack-dab in the middle of a fight with alcohol addiction. Alcohol was winning. I started drinking when I was 13, mostly to escape the shame and pain of my parents’ addiction to cocaine and heroin. At age 16 I dropped out of high school and had no ambition in life other than to obtain my next drink. Two years later I, in a drunken stupor, initiated a fight with a guy who stabbed me, nearly to death. This near-death experience was a sobering wake-up call. That’s when Christ and I found each other. Alcohol may have kicked the tar out of me, but it was no match for Christ, the addiction annihilator.
God began to rebuild the ruined walls of my broken life. He did it primarily through the motley crew called the local church. Before long God invited me to join him in doing for others what he had done for me. God called me to be a pastor and, with joy and fear, I swallowed hard and said “yes.” Early on in my call I had this overwhelming passion to pastor a church that was a safe haven for addicts to access the grace of Christ for recovery.
This dream got buried someplace deep within my heart, so deep I almost forgot it was there during college and the first five years of my pastoral ministry. Then I went to Asbury Theological Seminary to pursue the M.Div. degree. Asbury reminded me of my roots as a Wesleyan pastor. John Wesley’s heart was not only “strangely warmed” for God but strangely broken for English peasants who were steeped in alcoholism and not welcome in the Anglican Church of that day. So Wesley went out to preach hope in the fields. Addicts were saved, set free, and sanctified. The Methodist movement was born.
One Spring Break during our Asbury days, my wife and I joined some seminary friends for a trip to California. On Easter Sunday we decided to attend a church in San Francisco. We waited in a long line to get into the church building. It was obvious to us through sight, sound, and smell that we were surrounded by people who were, like the peasants of Wesley’s day, steeped in addiction. I finally got a seat next to an intoxicated woman who fell asleep on my left shoulder. I remember the excitement I felt at the beginning of the service. “Here are tons of broken people barging into the church to experience resurrection with Christ on Easter Sunday,” I told my wife. You can imagine my disappointment when the name of Jesus, let alone his resurrection, was not even mentioned during this “church” service. But the dream deep in my heart was resurrected and I vowed to someday cultivate a congregation that not only attracted addicts, like this one clearly did, but connected them to Christ for resurrection.
When I graduated from Asbury, I went to serve as lead pastor for a church in Northeastern PA. The church was what some might call a bit of a “holy huddle.” The well-meaning people of the church were so concerned about personal holiness they drew lines in the sand that prevented them from making their community whole. Like the Church of Wesley’s day, this one was not the most welcome place for the addicted. This church had five pastors in ten years, which is revealing. When they called me to be their pastor, I somehow found the grace and guts to say “yes.” The community around the church was growing, due to an influx of people moving in from New York and Philadelphia, and the need for addiction recovery was increasing. This church was perfect for me!
Before our boxes were unpacked, I began preaching on texts like Luke 4 where Jesus, with some help from Isaiah, describes his mission as one that will bring liberating good news to the poor, marginalized, and captive. So, I assumed that if this mission was good enough for Jesus, it would be good enough for the church. In time, we invited groups like Narcotics Anonymous and Gambler’s Anonymous to use our building free of charge. We chose to pay electric bills in the winter for families in addiction, with no strings attached. We even started a Celebrate Recovery program for people with “hurts, habits, and hang-ups.” The perfect leader surfaced to run this ministry. He and his wife met in rehab during their fight against cocaine. He needed a job upon parole from prison and the church took him in.
In time, addicts began to trickle into the life of the church. Some of the longtime attendees of the church were not as excited as I was for us to become a recovery church. Some left the church; others decreased or ceased their financial support. Finances were tight, conflict ensued, and I was ready to quit. Although we were helping a few people, the resistance of the church coupled with my own fear of holy risk-taking prevented the church from really putting a dent in the problem of addiction that was devouring our community.
I took a sabbatical. Asbury invited me to participate in the residential Beeson Pastors D.Min. program. During that year at Asbury, we enjoyed a trip to Houston to explore churches that were diverse in style and size. One of those churches happened to be Mercy Street, a church built on and driven by a vision of recovery from addiction. Unlike the church I visited in San Francisco, this church in Houston was partnering with Christ to raise people from the dead. I cried throughout the service as God persistently whispered into the ears of my heart “Stay faithful to what I have called you to do and I will use your church to set captive addicts free.”
In time the church I pastored did became the kind of church I always dreamed of serving. We became a church where people would rather show up high or drunk than stay home and sober up until they could fit into their “I’ve got it all together” mask. This made for some interesting corporate worship experiences, but it was well worth it. If you visit this church on any given Sunday, you will smell alcohol, see track marks, and feel the nervous leg-shaking and nail biting of a person deciding if she wants to stay clean or get high after church. Yep, this is my dream church!
I no longer pastor that dream church. Instead, I serve as a professor to pastors. In my current vocation, whether I am teaching homiletics, leadership, or formation, my students hear bits and pieces about that recovery church where dead people were raised to life again. As I look out at my students I notice a glimmer in the eyes of a few. In that very moment God is placing in them the dream he once placed in me to cultivate a church that partners with Christ to lovingly liberate addicts.