I am afraid that in many American churches, we are not telling the truth—at least not the whole truth.
In many churches we assume that once you accept Jesus as your Savior, you get involved in church and your life gets better. This is the standard story repeated in "testimony time" on Sundays, and the unspoken assumption regarding discipleship.
This "narrative of ascendency" has become the dominant American narrative of the gospel, rooted in American optimism and confidence. It is beautiful, compelling, and powerful. But is it the whole truth?
The church in America has struggled to embrace an equally true "narrative of descendency," the part of the gospel that is grounded in the One who descended into the depths of human darkness, and who calls us to face our particular and ongoing struggle with our own darkness.
We avoid this part of the story. We want a new life without a death. We want to ascend to Heaven before we descend into hell.
But the gospel includes both descendency and ascendency. The very process of recovery is understanding that there is a death, and there is a resurrection. They are inseparable, and it's a process that continues throughout our lives. The story of Mercy Street is a story of a community of faith in Christ that sees the gospel in both of those narratives.
My snowball interviews
Thirteen years ago, I had finished seminary and was trying to figure out what to do with my life. I called Jim Jackson, a friend who was the senior pastor at Chapelwood United Methodist Church in Houston, to ask him to help me think through some of the decisions I had to make. He asked me to work with him for a few years and get some ministry experience under my belt.
When I got to Chapelwood, Jim asked me, "What do you want to do?" I told him that I wanted to find a way to connect people who were outside the church, who saw no relevance in the way the church interacts with culture, with the gospel. Jim said, "Go for it. What do you need?"
I said I needed a laptop and a cell phone and told him I wouldn't be at the church a lot.
I asked Jim if he would give me the names of a couple of people who had left the church because they had bad experiences. Then I found a coffee shop in the Montrose area of Houston and cold-called the people on his list.
"My intention is not to invite you back to church," I said. "I want to hear what happened, how you felt, and what you wish was different. Will you just come and tell me your story?"
I didn't realize it at the time, but I ended up doing what is known as "snowball interviewing." After those first few interviews, I asked, "Is there anyone else you know who feels the same way about church? If I made the same promise to them, would you give me their name and number?" And they did. So for nine months, every day, Monday through Friday, I sat at Dietrich's Coffee Shop and interviewed people. I'd ask questions about their perceptions, their experiences, and their thoughts about church. What I heard broke my heart and changed my life.
Through these interviews, I came to see a distinct pattern. Most people left church not because they had a deep theological problem with something like the virgin birth or the resurrection of Christ. They left because people in church have the tendency to be small and mean and couldn't deal honestly with their own sin or the sin of others. As one man put it, "People in the church were more invested in the process of being right than in the process of being honest."
One of the main populations I interviewed was people who were in all types of recovery: from drugs, alcohol, sex addiction, eating disorders, gambling. Their interviews were full of stories of chronic behaviors that persisted despite confession, church attendance, small group participation, and Bible study. Many felt that their ministry leaders expected their behaviors to change as a result of prayer and participating in church activities. But that just wasn't the case.
As one person told me, "Just because you shellac a bunch of Jesus over your life doesn't make it right."
After nine months, I had conducted more than 70 interviews. I invited 30 of those people to a dinner to share with them what I had heard and learned.
A place that can handle the truth
During dinner I asked, "What if we became the answer to these problems? What if we formed a community that's honest, that welcomes those who feel disconnected and spiritually homeless?" These people responded that they wanted to be part of creating a church that would welcome those in recovery, where they could be vulnerable with each other as a way of growing spiritually.
In the past, these individuals had to step away from honest vulnerability in order to fit acceptability standards in the church. Some did it for a while, until they could no longer keep the masks in place and their addictive processes at bay. These people had been in the church for a long time but felt like they could never get honest when they talked with their pastor or small group leader. With Mercy Street, we wanted to change that paradigm.
Spirituality is social in nature. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that Christ exists in community. The first problem that has to be overcome in Genesis is isolation, not sin. That has deep implications for how we preach the gospel. Our believing is conditioned at its source by our belonging. Spiritual growth is stunted without honesty in community. But our Christian language of victory can become so dominant that we no longer are being honest about our sinful impulses and behaviors.
We can hide behind spiritual language and discuss someone else's sin, so we don't have to confess our own.
In other words, we learned that addicts desperately needed a community of faith that could meet them at the same level of depth, authenticity, and vulnerability that they find in the Alcoholics Anonymous Twelve-Step program. They needed a church that was as committed to the narrative of descent as it was to the narrative of ascent.
At Mercy Street, we embrace the whole story. In one part of our service, we do "Celebrations," where people will stand up and celebrate being sober from drugs and alcohol for two days or twenty years; mothers will thank God that they are sober, have a job, and are getting their children back from Child Protective Services; men and women will celebrate getting off of parole, out of jail, or into a new job. It's both narratives all mixed in together.
Joining the Spirit's work in everyone
As I befriended recovering men and women, it became evident that many had experienced a spiritual awakening as a result of the stark honesty and transparency of the Twelve Steps. The same Spirit who had awakened them was now leading them to Jesus within the life of the church. When I would ask, "Where are you finding your spiritual nourishment today?" they would tell me, "I'm in this recovery group; I connect with God in those meetings."
Part of the way we see AA, Narcotics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous (or any of the "A" programs) is that we don't have to baptize them in the name of Jesus in order for them to be the work of Jesus. Christ exists incognito in the rooms of recovery. The Kingdom of God is coming in all places where people are being liberated from bondage, sometimes even in church buildings. Or AA. We want to participate where Jesus is in the world, redeeming people and calling them to himself.
At Mercy Street, Christ is central. There is no other name by which we can be saved.
But we also live by this adage: "Jesus may have saved your soul, but AA is going to save your ass; and your soul is no earthly good if your ass is not intact." If you step into Mercy Street and into recovery, you go to meetings, get a sponsor, and work the Twelve Steps. That's what you do. That is discipleship.
Churches are filled with people who have made a rational assent to Jesus as Savior but who resist the presence of the Spirit in their lives. They say, "I'm not forgiving her." Or "I'm not going to fight my pornography addiction, but I believe in Jesus, my personal Lord and Savior."
They want a spiritual experience without having to do the hard work of recovery and discipleship. But the hard work of facing the wreckage of the past and surrendering yourself to Christ in the mess is the very pathway of faith.
Cell groups and secure locations
At Mercy Street, we like to say that you're just as likely to sit next to someone from Penn State as from the State Pen. This is a reflection of some of our early experiences as a community.
Keith had been a crack addict for several years. He lived on the streets and in and out of halfway houses. By the time he showed up at Mercy Street, he was sober and in recovery, but he said, "When I was in treatment, I needed a place like this."
Keith noticed some vans in the parking lot that weren't being used and asked if he could pick up people from halfway houses. So he started picking up people every Saturday night from nine or ten houses in the area. A group of women petitioned the state of Texas to get out of lockout to be able to come to church for an hour on Saturday.
Another man relapsed and went to prison for three years. While he was there, a woman in our community wrote to him every week, sending him transcripts of our services: songs, announcements, sermons—everything. He wrote back: "Would you send four of these to me? The warden says we can only gather in groups of ten, but a lot of guys want to hear what's going on at church each week."
We now send transcripts to men and women incarcerated throughout the state of Texas. Each week they gather in orange and white jumpsuits to pray, encourage each other, read the transcripts, and "have church." Many of these men and women come to Mercy Street after serving their time.
"I've been coming to this church for months," one man told me, "but this is the first time I've ever been here!" We consider Mercy Street a multi-site church. It just so happens that many of our sites are maximum-security prisons.
A pastor in recovery
The church can be a great place for pastors to hide. We have a role, a title, a whole language, and a reputation that can insulate us, protect us, and conceal us. That's why one of the biggest blessings of this journey for me is that I have been able to face my own addictions.
Thirteen years ago, while interviewing Jake at Dietrich's, I began to cry. While the details of our stories were different, I saw similar patterns of struggling and hiding. I started to pour out my story to this man across the table. He let out an expletive and said, "I think I'm going to have to take you to a meeting."
Two days later I went to my first recovery meeting, having a degree in theology, having given my life to Christ at the age of 13, having led mission trips. But I don't think I'd ever really encountered Christ until that day in the coffee shop. I was 29 years old at the time, and I realized I had never been completely vulnerable about my ongoing struggles.
Jake became my sponsor.
In those meetings I learned how to say the darkest truth about myself in the light of day. Saying the words "My name is Matt, and I'm a recovering addict" continually reminds me that I have access to grace only through vulnerability and honesty. That was 13 years ago, and by the grace of God I continue to go to meetings, work the steps, and I am sober today.
I'm called to be a person, not just a pastor. That means I submit myself to the hard work of recovery. I'm like the guy in the hair-replacement ads: "I'm not only the founder, I'm also a member."
Some people that come to Mercy Street also attend some of the meetings I go to. In those meetings I stand firm in my identity as a recovering addict. I speak honestly, listen carefully, and work with my sponsor. These individuals know the details; they are the keepers of my secrets and the protectors of my anonymity.
When I preach, then, I am able to speak in much more general terms about the nature and character of the struggle that is germane to us all without shifting the responsibility of that struggle over to the wider community. I understand this to be what Paul meant when he said, "bear one another's burdens" (Gal. 6:2) but "carry your own load" first (Gal. 6:5).
Between 65 and 70 percent of the folks at Mercy Street say they are recovering from an identifiable process addiction or substance addiction and are going to weekly meetings. But we define addiction very broadly. A man came up to me one night and said, "I finally understand my addiction: I have an addiction to entitlement." That is to say that each of us struggles with an addiction. Addictions are things I put in front of God so that I don't have to deal with God, my pain, or other people. Jesus invites us to do the hard work of acknowledging it and maturing in him.
Without descending into the darkness of our own lives, there can be no ascendency. Thankfully, Mercy Street is living proof that God still raises people from the dead.
Matt Russellis founding pastor of Mercy Street in Houston, Texas, and is now pursuing a Ph.D. in adult identity development and recovery at Texas Tech.
Copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today International/Leadership Journal.
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