WHAT THE CHURCH HAS TO LEARN
FROM ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS
Sam Shoemaker -- c. 1955. Exact date and source
"God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise,
God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong."
I Corinthians 1:26
During the weekend of the Fourth of July last, I attended one of
the most remarkable conventions I ever expect to attend. It
was a gathering in St. Louis of about five thousand members of the
movement called Alcoholics Anonymous. The occasion was the
celebration of their twentieth anniversary, and the turning over
freely and voluntarily of the management and destiny of that great
movement by the founders and 'old-timers' to a board which
represents the fellowship as a whole.
As I lived and moved among these men and women for three days, I
was moved as I have seldom been moved in my life. It happens
that I have watched the unfolding of this movement with more than
usual interest, for its real founder and guiding spirit, Bill W.,
found his initial spiritual answer at Calvary Church in New York,
when I was rector there, in 1935. Having met two men,
unmistakable alcoholics, who had found release from their
difficulty, he was moved to seek out the same answer for himself.
But he went further. Being of a foraging and inquiring
mind, he began to think there was some general law operating here,
which could be made to work, not in two men's lives only, but in
two thousand or two million. He set to work to find out what
it was. He consulted psychiatrists, doctors, clergy and
recovered alcoholics to discover what it was.
The first actual group was not in New York, but in Akron, Ohio.
Bill was spending a weekend there in a hotel. The
crowd was moving towards the bar. He was lonely and felt
danger assailing him. He consulted the church-directory in
the hotel lobby, and found the name of a local clergyman and his
church. He called him on the telephone and said, "I am
an alcoholic down here at the hotel. The going is a little
hard just now. Have you anybody you think I might meet and
talk to?" He gave him the name of a woman who belonged
to one of the great tire-manufacturing families. He called
her, she invited him out at once and said she had a man she wanted
to have meet him. While he was on his way, she called Dr.
Bob S. and his wife, Anne. Dr. Bob said he'd give her five
minutes. He stayed five hours and told Bill, "You're
the only man I've ever seen with the answer to alcoholism."
They invited Bill over from the hotel to stay at their
house. And there was begun, twenty years ago, the first actual
Alcoholics Anonymous group.
The number of them now is beyond count. Some say there are
160,000 to 200,000 recovered alcoholics, but nobody knows how many
extend beyond this into the fringes of the unknown. They say
that each alcoholic holds within the orbit of his problem an
average of fourteen persons who are affected by it. This
means that conservatively two and a half million people's lives
are different because of the existence of Alcoholics Anonymous.
There is hardly a city or town or even hamlet now where you
cannot find a group, strong and well-knit, or struggling in its
infancy. Prof. Austin McCormick, of Berkeley, California,
former Commissioner of Correction in the city of New York, who was
also with us at the St. Louis Convention, said once in my hearing
that AA may "prove to be one of the greatest movements of all
time." That was years ago. Subsequently facts
support his prophecy.
On the Sunday morning of the convention, I was asked to talk to
them, together with Fr. Edward Dowling S. J., a wonderful Roman
Catholic priest who has done notable service for AA in
interpreting it to his people, and Dr. Jim S., a most remarkable
colored physician of Washington, on the spiritual aspects of the
AA program. They are very generous to non-alcoholics, but I should
have preferred that it be a bona fide alcoholic that did the
In the course of what I said to them, I remarked that I thought it
had been wise for AA to confine its activity to alcoholics. But,
I added, "I think we may see an effect of AA on medicine, on
psychiatry, on correction, on the ever-present problem of human
nature; and not least on the Church. AA indirectly derived much of
its inspiration from the Church.
Now perhaps the time has come for the Church to be reawakened and
revitalized by those insights and practices found in AA."
I think some of you may be a little horrified at this suggestion.
I fear you will be saying to yourself, "What have we, who
have always been decent people, to learn from a lot of
reconstructed drunks?" And perhaps you may thereby reveal to
yourself how very far you are from the spirit of Christ and the
Gospel, and how very much in need of precisely the kind of checkup
that may come to us from AA. If I need a text for what I say
to you, there is one ready to hand in: 1 Corinthians 1:26,
"... God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the
wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the
strong." I need not remind you that there is a good deal of
sarcasm in that verse; because it must be evident that anything
God can use is neither foolish nor weak, and that if we consider
ourselves wise and strong, we may need to go to school to those we
have called foolish and weak.
The first thing I think the Church needs to learn from AA is that
nobody gets anywhere till he recognizes a clearly defined need.
These people do not come to AA to get made a little better. They
do not come because the best people are doing it. They come
because they are desperate. They are not ladies and
gentlemen looking for a religion, they are utterly desperate men
and women in search of redemption. Without what AA gives, death
stares them in the face. With what AA gives them, there is
life and hope. There are not a dozen ways, there are not two
ways, there is one way; and they find it, or perish. AA's
each and all have a definite, desperate need. They have the
need, and they are ready to tell somebody what it is if they see
the least chance that it can be met.
Is there anything as definite for you or me, who may happen not to
be alcoholics? If there is, I am sure that it lies in the realm of
our conscious withholding of the truth about ourselves from God
and from one another, by pretending that we are already good
Christians. Let me here quote a member of AA who has written
a most amazing book: his name is Jerome Ellison, and the book is
"Report to the Creator." In this (p. 210) he says,
"The relief of being accepted can never be known by one who
never thought himself unaccepted. I hear of 'good Christian
men and women' belonging to 'fine old church families.' There
were no good Christians in the first church, only sinners. Peter
never let himself or his hearers forget his betrayal in the hour
the cock crow. James, stung by the memory of his years of
stubborn resistance, warned the church members: 'Confess your
faults to one another.' That was before there were fine old
church families. Today the last place where one can be candid
about one's faults is in church. In a bar, yes, in a church,
no. I know; I've tried both places."
Let that sting you and me just as it should, and make us miserable
with our church Pharisaism till we see it is just as definite and
just as hideous as anybody's drunkenness can ever be, and a great
deal more really dangerous.
The second thing the Church needs to learn from AA is that men are
redeemed in a life-changing fellowship. AA does not expect
to let anybody who comes in stay as he is.
They know he is in need and must have help. They live for
nothing else but to extend and keep extending that help. Like
the Church, they did not begin in glorious Gothic structures, but
in houses or caves in the earth -- wherever they could get a
foot-hold, meet people, and gather. It never occurs to an AA
that it is enough for him to sit down and polish his spiritual
nails all by himself, or dust off his soul all by himself, or
spend a couple of minutes praying each day all by himself. His
soul gets kept in order by trying to help other people get their
souls in order, with the help of God. At once a new person
takes his place in this redeeming, life-changing fellowship.
He may be changed today, and out working tomorrow -- no
long, senseless delays about giving away what he has got.
He's ready to give the little he has the moment it comes to him.
The fellowship that redeemed him will wither and die unless
he and others like him get in and keep that fellowship moving and
growing by reaching others.
Recently I heard an AA say that he could stay away from his
Veteran's meeting, his Legion, or his Church, and nobody would
notice it. But if he stayed away from his AA meeting, his
telephone would begin to ring the next day!
A "life-changing fellowship" sounds like a description
of the Church. It is of the ideal Church. But the
actual? Not one in a hundred is like this. The layman
say this is the minister's job, and the ministers say it is the
evangelist's job, and everybody finds a rationalized excuse for
not doing what every Christian ought to be doing, i.e., bringing
other people into the redeeming, life-changing fellowship.
The third thing the Church needs to learn from AA is the necessity
for definite personal dealing with people. A.A.'s know all
the stock excuses -- they've used them themselves and heard them a
hundred times. All the blame put on someone else: "my
temperament; is different; I've tried it and it doesn't work for
me; I'm not really so bad, I just slip a little sometimes."
They've heard them all, and know them for the rationalized
pack of lies they are. They constitute, taken together, the
Gospel of Hell and Failure. I've heard them laboring with
one another, now patient as a mother, now savage as a
prize-fighter, now careful in explanation, now pounding a heavy
personal challenge, but always knowing the desperate need and the
Are we in the Church like that? Have you ever been
drastically dealt with by anybody? Have you ever dared to be
drastic with anybody? We are so official, so polite, so
ready to accept ourselves and each other at face value. I
went for years before ever I met a man that dared get at my real
needs, create a situation in which I could be honest with him, and
hold me to a specific Christian commitment and decision. One
can find kindness and even good advice in the Church. That
is not all men need. They need to be helped to face
themselves as they really are. The AA people see themselves
just as they are.
I think many of us in the Church see ourselves as we should like
to appear to others, not as we are before God. We need
drastic personal dealing and challenge. Who is ready and trained
to give it to us? How many of us have ever taken a
"fearless moral inventory" of ourselves, and dared make
the depth of our need known to any other human being?
This gets at the pride which is the hindrance and sticking-point
for so many of us, and which, for most of us in the Church, has
never even been recognized, let alone faced or dealt with.
The fourth thing the Church needs to learn from A. A. is the
necessity for a real change of heart, a true conversion. As
we come Sunday after Sunday, year after year, we are supposed to
be in a process of transformation. Are we? The AA's
are. At each meeting there are people seeking and in
conscious need. Everybody is pulling for the people who speak, and
looking for more insight and help. They are pushed by their
need. They are pulled by the inspiration of others who are
growing. They are a society of the "before and
after" with a clear line between the old life and the new.
This is not the difference between sinfulness and
perfection, it is the difference between accepted wrong-doing
and the genuine beginning of a new way of life.
How about us? Again I quote Jerome Ellison, in his report to
God (page 205) :"I began to see that many of the parishioners
did not really want to find You, because finding You would change
them from their habitual ways, and they did not endure the pain of
For our churchman-like crimes of bland, impenetrable pose, I offer
shame..." I suppose that the sheer visibility of the
alcoholic problem creates a kind of enforced, honesty; but surely
if we are exposed again and again to God, to Christ, to the Cross,
there should be a breaking down of our pride and unwillingness to
change. We should know by now that this unwillingness
multiplied by thousands and tens of thousands, is what is the
matter with the Church, and what keeps it from being what God
means it to be on earth. The
change must begin somewhere. We know it ought to begin in us.
One of the greatest things the Church should learn from AA is the
need people have for an exposure to living Christian experience.
In thousands of places, alcoholics (and others) can go and
hear recovered alcoholics speak about their experiences and watch
the process of new life and take place before their eyes. There
you have it, the need and the answer to the need, right before
your eyes. They say that their public relations are based, not on
promotion, but on attraction. This attraction begins when you see
people with problems like your own, hear them speaking freely of
the answers they are finding, and realize that such honesty and
such change is exactly what you need yourself.
No ordinary service of worship in the Church can possibly do this.
We need to
supplement what we do now by the establishment of informal
companies where people who are spiritually seeking can see how
faith takes hold in other lives, how the characteristically
Christian experience comes to them. Some churches are doing
this, but not nearly enough of them. One I know where on
Sunday evenings laymen and women speak simply about what has
happened to them spiritually: it is drawing many more by
attraction. This needs to be multiplied by the tens of
thousands, and the Church itself awakened.
As I looked out over that crowd of five thousand in Kiel
Auditorium in St. Louis, I said to myself, "Would that the
Church were like this -- ordinary men and women with great need
who have found a great Answer, and do not hesitate to make it
known wherever they can -- a trained army of enthusiastic, humble,
human workers whose efforts make life a different thing for other
Let us ask God to forgive our blindness and laziness and
complacency, and through these re-made people to learn our need
for honesty, for conversion, for fellowship and for honest
to AA History