How Celebrate Recovery Helped Evangelicals Open Up About Addiction

Over 25 years, the program has made churches a safer space for recovery.
How Celebrate Recovery Helped Evangelicals Open Up About Addiction

If you’ve heard a sermon, small-group discussion, Sunday school lesson, or testimony that addressed one of those once-taboo topics—alcoholism, drug abuse, anger issues, porn habits—you probably have Celebrate Recovery to thank.

“It used to be if someone was an alcoholic or a drug addict or, heaven forbid, they had any kind of issue with anger, then it was hush-hush,” said Huston McComb, a licensed professional counselor who leads Celebrate Recovery at Houston’s First Baptist Church. “We’ve kind of taken that stigma away.”

While some of the shame around addiction has faded over the decades, Celebrate Recovery has shifted how evangelicals in particular view “hurts, habits, and hang-ups.” The ministry hosts regular meetings at 29,000 churches and has trained more than 100,000 pastors in the recovery process.

Its annual summit this weekend marks 25 years since John Baker founded the program at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, immediately following his own journey to sobriety through Alcoholics Anonymous. Like many evangelicals at the time, he had reservations about the generic spirituality of AA, whose 12-step program refers to “a Power greater than ourselves” and “God as we understood him.”

Baker saw a need to create a support system rooted in gospel teachings. “In my men’s small group I couldn’t talk about my struggle, and at AA, I couldn’t talk about my Savior,” Baker told CT.

He proposed the program—with its own version of the 12 steps, each one paired with a teaching from Scripture—in a 13-page letter to Warren back in 1991. From there, Celebrate Recovery has been replicated across denominations, countries, and demographics, beyond what Baker ever imagined.

About a third of the people who attend Celebrate Recovery come for issues with drugs or alcohol. Most struggle with something else. (Houston’s First Baptist lists “anxiety, worthlessness, chemical dependency, food and weight issues, cutting, anger, childhood abuse, codependency, worry, financial issues, gambling, stress, pornography, perfectionism, divorce, gossip, a need to control others” as others.)

Recently, Celebrate Recovery has been focusing more on “dual diagnosis,” the interplay between these issues and mental illness. Baker announced this year new initiatives formed specifically to address mental health, issues specific to military service members, and healing for those coming out of sexual exploitation.

“Its name is part of its impact,” said Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism at Wheaton College. “It helped evangelicals see the need for recovery ministry, which required them to acknowledge that life change was more than just repentance. …It reminded them to celebrate the freedom that such recovery brings.”

More programs and resources have emerged for churches since then, but most rely on aspects pioneered by Celebrate Recovery, Stetzer pointed out.

Village Church lead pastor Matt Chandler said that his Recovering Redemption Bible study and sermon series, designed to help Christians weighed down by “secret sin,” began as an adapted version of a Celebrity Recovery curriculum.

It also influenced author Seth Haines, who didn’t go through a 12-step program or seek accountability in weekly meetings for his alcohol abuse. But Celebrate Recovery still had an impact on his story, enabling him to write to a Christian audience about addiction and how “we’re all drunk on something” in his book Coming Clean.

Celebrate Recovery “really demystified addiction and made it okay to talk about,” he said.

Many of the hundreds of thousands of participants in the program continue to give back. The final principle of Celebrate Recovery prompts them to “yield myself to God to be used to bring this Good News to others.”

“This program is not something that you complete and then all of sudden, ‘Hey, I’m better. See ya,’” Baker said. “They’re always there to help somebody if they’re struggling. They know that it worked for them, and that’s the greatest story they have.”

After attending a regional Celebrate Recovery summit two years ago, Matt Coker launched his humor and healing site The Back Row to offer people in recovery encouragement beyond weekly meetings.

Coker, who calls himself “a grateful believer in Jesus Christ who struggles with pornography, overeating, depression, and co-dependency,” curates devotionals, humor pieces, and podcast discussions around recovery for Christians.

“The truth is, you'd be hard-pressed to find someone in any church whose life, marriage, or faith isn't hindered by some kind of habit, hang-up, or past hurt,” he told CT by email. “We need to start talking about these very common struggles much more. It's not enough to just condemn pornography (or whatever else) from the pulpit. You need to help those ensnared by it, give people a better way. Celebrate Recovery does that.”

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How Celebrate Recovery Helped Evangelicals Open Up ...