“I have been everywhere for help and have found none. Now I have come to the church. If you can’t help me, I don’t know what I’ll do.” This was the plea uttered by the intoxicated man as he stood in the church office, his clothes wrinkled, his hair disheveled, his face revealing deep distress. The church did help him, and arranged to reunite him with his family. But too often the churches have shown a judgmental or condemning attitude and have closed their doors in the alcoholic’s face, pretending his problem was none of their business.
The American Medical Association has defined alcoholism as a disease, and no one who encounters a person with an advanced case of alcoholism can have any doubt that the person is sick—physically, psychologically, spiritually, socially, domestically. The Church has believed, since the time of the apostles, that Jesus came to make men whole. Certainly the alcoholic is in desperate need of that wholeness.
A simple working definition of an alcoholic is: a person who is dependent upon alcohol. Or to put it another way, he is a person who has lost control of his will in the matter of drinking. A non-alcoholic can choose not to drink; but for the alcoholic, it is not at all that easy.
Today we have an estimated 6½ million alcoholics in the United States, and alcoholism is one of the nation’s major health problems. I do not see how any church can any longer ignore it. It is high time that we look upon the alcoholic not as a hopeless problem but as a human being who is ill and treatable. He is not necessarily a moral delinquent.
When a man or woman who has failed in some other way turns to the church, usually that person is received with Christian love and forgiveness. Should not this same consideration be offered to the alcoholic? He desperately needs help, not condemnation. Love and understanding can help him; scolding only drives him further into his frustration.
According to information released at the Utah School of Alcohol Studies, 70 per cent of all victims of alcoholism seek help from clergymen. In dealing personally with an alcoholic, if the pastor does not feel qualified to give counsel, he can at least assure the person of God’s love and forgiveness and then refer him to other sources of help in the community.
A church can become involved in the work of local agencies that deal with education and information on the problems of alcohol and referral of people in need. Many churches support financially the program of the American Council on Alcohol Problems, which has state affiliates.
The church can help in other ways, too. It can furnish a meeting place for Alcoholics Anonymous and similar groups. It can accept alcoholics in worship services and fellowship groups, and place known alcoholics on the congregation’s responsibility and prayer lists. The use of Scripture can prove invaluable to both the alcoholics and those who attempt to help them. The church has a particular opportunity not always available to other helping agencies in that it can take the initiative in offering help to those in need.
After the church makes known its interest and offers help through counseling and referral, many people who need help and who otherwise would be very difficult to reach with the Christian message will come to the pastor’s study. Attention must first be given to the hurts and problems that led a person to seek help. Later the counselor can probably turn easily to spiritual matters and present the message and claims of Christ. I have seen two alcoholics enter the Christian ministry after they were helped and had committed their lives to Christ.
Help can come to the alcoholic through various religious approaches. One is the sudden confrontation with Christ resulting in conversion, which, of course, brings a definite change in life and attitude. When the power of Christ is brought to bear on a willing and ready heart, there is deliverance. Many churches, and all gospel missions, are able to cite examples of this deliverance. Another approach is a combination of applied Christianity and modern healing techniques. A third approach is through the self-help groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous. Another such group now being effectively used is Alcoholics Victorious, which deals not only with sobriety but also with spiritual growth. The home address of this Christian organization is 28 South Sangamon Street, Chicago, Illinois.
Every church library should have good books on alcoholism and methods of prevention and help. Examples are: Understanding and Counseling the Alcoholic, by Howard J. Clinebell, Jr. (Abingdon), Ministering to Alcoholics, by John E. Keller (Augsburg), Marty Mann’s New Primer on Alcoholism (Holt, Rinehart and Winston), Helping the Alcoholic and His Family, by Thomas J. Shipp (Prentice-Hall), and God Is for the Alcoholic, by Jerry G. Dunn (Moody). In a long-play record entitled “God Is Not Dead” (Word Records), Gertrude Behanna tells an exciting story of her deliverance from enslavement by alcohol. The credit she gives her Lord is refreshing and inspiring.
Each year there are summer schools on alcoholism to which a church may send its pastor or interested lay persons. Outstanding are: the Utah School of Alcohol Studies, held at the University of Utah; the Rutgers Summer School of Alcohol Studies (formerly the Yale School), held at the Rutgers campus in New Brunswick, New Jersey; and an International School held at the University of North Dakota. There are others; last summer there were three in North Carolina alone. Local councils on alcoholism will be glad to furnish information on educational opportunities like these. Information is available also from the National Council on Alcoholism (2 East 103rd Street, New York, N. Y. 10029) and the American Council on Alcohol Problems (119 Constitution Avenue Northeast, Washington, D. C. 20002).
Obviously, programs of prevention are also very important. Young people must be instructed about the dangers of alcohol.
A church that is spiritually alert and ready to meet its evangelistic responsibility will offer its love, understanding, facilities, and services to persons whose unmanageable desire for alcohol has enslaved them, and who cannot attain permanent sobriety by mere resolution. We would do well to follow the example and spirit of Jesus, who said: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me; he has sent me … to proclaim release for prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind; to let the broken victims go free.”—CARLTON C. BUCK, pastor, First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon.
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