Every few years, psychologists come up with a new way to solve everyone’s problems, and Christians find a way to turn the latest psychotherapeutic trend into a ministry. Client-centered therapy, Transactional Analysis, and Freud had their day.

Those systems brought some insights, but none lived up to the promises their advocates made. Now the church is faced with the “recovery movement” and its various “12-Step” or “Anonymous” programs. In one key aspect, the recovery movement is unlike the earlier therapeutic invasions of the church. It is lay-oriented, a free-market triumph that has ridden into the church, not on a sedan chair of professional promises, but on the shoulders of many satisfied “customers,” who share stories of deliverance from alcohol, drugs, eating disorders, and sexual compulsions.

The recovery movement has its critics. Given its history, that is to be expected. In our cover story (see p. 14), Tim Stafford recounts how the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous developed from Christian sources, and how they were secularized to appeal to a broad spectrum of problem drinkers. The Christian group that provided A.A. with its insights was also questionable. For example, that group gave new converts William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience—a book that, Tim says, “guts the content of religion, emphasizing that helpful, life-changing religious experiences come in all sorts of packages.” The group thought James’s book scientifically validated religion. But its pragmatism and subjective approach laid the foundation for the utter secularization of their gospel principles.

As the 12 Steps come back into the church, they are recovering their gospel context. The prodigal has returned. Let the fatted calf beware.


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