Lord, send us the people nobody else wants."
That was the bold prayer that set Grace Church, now a multi-site United Methodist congregation in Southwest Florida, on course for a future defined by outreach to "the least of these."
When Jorge Acevedo became pastor of Grace in 1996, the church was in a five-year decline. At its height, the church had reached 1,000 in attendance. By the time Jorge arrived, attendance had dropped by nearly 75 percent. The church was deep in debt, had unpaid bills, and was under scrutiny from the IRS for back payroll taxes.
Worse, from Jorge's perspective, the church's neighborhood had changed, but the church had not. Growth and health would come only with a commitment to outreach.
Grace Church's neighbors were indeed "the people nobody else wants"—addicts, prostitutes, and alcoholics. Outreach to the church's neighbors required a commitment to recovery ministry.
Discovery of Recovery
Today Grace Church operates one of the largest recovery ministries in America, with more than 800 people involved each week.
"For many pastors," Jorge explains, "their ministry passions come out of their own pain; and that's true for me." Jorge had experienced the pain that addiction brings, and he had witnessed it in the lives of his parents, sister, and brothers. "As a pastor, I see the wreckage in peoples' lives, and I know churches typically aren't safe places to talk about this stuff."
So Grace Church decided to do ministry in a way that incorporates the openness of recovery ministry.
But recovery was not always a part of the church's—or Acevedo's—vision for discipleship.
Jorge grew up with two parents who were functional alcoholics. They were good parents, he explains, but drinking and partying were part of his family's heritage. Jorge took his first drink in childhood and was an alcoholic by the time he was a senior in high school. Fortunately, Jorge became a Christian through the ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ just before his 18th birthday. He actively followed Jesus, but the charismatic church he joined upon his conversion discouraged him from seeking professional help for his addiction. Instead, he was encouraged to pray it away.
"I was a Christian basically white-knuckling recovery," he says. He stayed away from alcohol, but the approach took a toll.
"I was a very angry husband, father, seminary student, and youth pastor," he says. "I should have been in working the steps, but I was not." Recovery and faith seemed totally unrelated.
That began to change when Jorge's older brother contacted him to say that he was sick and tired of his own addiction to drugs. Jorge was pastoring in Kissimmee, Florida, at the time, and he found out about a Lutheran recovery center nearby. Recovery and faith began coming together in Jorge's mind.
"The light came on," he says, "but gradually. It was like turning on a dimmer switch."
Several years later, Jorge joined a church staff in Fort Lauderdale. Another pastor on the staff was, like Jorge, an adult child of an alcoholic, who started attending Celebrate Recovery. And the worship pastor there was an alcoholic in recovery. In talking with them about recovery, Jorge realized the boon a better understanding of recovery could be for discipleship.
As Jorge sees it, the church isn't always effective in helping people recover from sin in their lives. Most churches handle the first three steps of recovery pretty well: (1) "We admitted we were powerless over [sin]—that our lives had become unmanageable, (2) came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity, (3) and made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him." But if this is where the process stops, people never experience lasting change. It is not until steps four and five that people begin to address their defects of character and find resources for maintaining their recovery.