Small Groups Anonymous

Why the best church small groups might take their cues from the Twelve Steps.
Small Groups Anonymous
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I used to tell my wife and friends that I needed a “non-small-group small group.” Then I began to wonder if I just needed an AA group. I am not an alcoholic. Alcohol just doesn’t do it for me. But Alcoholics Anonymous does. I attended an AA group while writing a book called Addiction and Virtue, and I’ve missed it ever since.

I am a Christian, or at least I am trying to be. I want to be a disciple of Jesus. But small groups just don’t interest me. I’ve attended many and they have all been more or less disappointing.

I know I’m not the only person who has encountered something spiritually vital in AA that is missing from small groups. My students at Biola University, where I teach a class on addiction that requires their attendance at AA meetings, often express this sentiment. Despite being immersed in the evangelical subculture of our university, most of them describe AA as the most spiritually “real” community they’ve ever witnessed.

This is not an especially new insight. Devotionals and leadership books and church bloggers have long tipped their hats to lessons that can be learned from AA. This magazine, too, has featured an ongoing conversation about the spiritual power of AA.

But in my teaching and research I have yet to see anyone take the comparison between AA and Christian community all the way, indulging it and carrying it to its full conclusion: If we took AA as our guide—all of it—how would we do small groups differently? What, if anything, would change? The question is not too farfetched, since AA began as an offshoot of a once-potent Christian discipleship movement.

AA and transformation

AA founders Bill Wilson and Bob Smith were acolytes of the Oxford Group, an early 20th-century Protestant movement committed to “moral re-armament.” The group preached that spiritual and moral revitalization would spring from four practices, which AA came to adopt. As Bill Wilson recounted in Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, “The early AA got its ideas of self-examination, acknowledgment of character defects, restitution for harm done, and working with others straight from the Oxford Group.”

Since those early days, AA has helped countless people into lives of greater flourishing. It’s a mistake to think AA is just about getting people to quit drinking. The desire to quit is the single requirement for membership, but AA sets its sights on a more ambitious target: flourishing in sobriety. One can avoid alcohol (for a time) and yet fail to acquire the dispositions necessary to thrive sober. This is called “coasting in recovery,” and as AA members say, “if you’re coasting, you’re going downhill.” Working the steps is about something bigger: being transformed as a person.

How and why this transformation comes about is the subject of ongoing study and debate. But generally speaking—and amazingly—AA works. It has a theory of how people change and a set of practices designed to change real human beings. In this respect, AA has what the contemporary church, or at least a large portion of the contemporary evangelical church, seems to lack: a clear theory of personal transformation codified in practices and traditions that are easily accessible to those who would like to be transformed. Small groups have been the contemporary evangelical church’s most concerted effort in this direction, yet I’ve come to believe that despite great intentions, they are currently not an effective model of transformation. Would they be more effective if they looked more like AA?

Not to disappoint, but it’s not quite that simple. Before we can answer, we need to recognize where the comparison is apt and where it breaks down.

Small groups aren’t foxholes

One unavoidable difference between AA and small groups has to do with motivation. Most people go to AA because they are desperate. Their drinking is out of control. Much of the disarming candor and vulnerability characteristic of AA meetings is the fruit of desperation. Members have little patience for bullsh*t (a word frequently used in AA when someone is hiding or softening the truth). They are fighting to survive. Like soldiers on a mission, they prefer group silence over small talk.

Small groups certainly would be more successful if people came similarly motivated, but reserving small groups for desperate disciples only would be futile. The desire to escape from the death spiral of alcoholism is by its nature specific and urgent, whereas the desire to live a more spiritually vital life is, for most of us, vague and inconstant. We will be disappointed in small groups if we expect them to have the foxhole desperation of AA gatherings.

Another unavoidable difference has to do with anonymity. Since AA groups are independent, members rarely encounter one another in other social circles. Even when they do, you’d never know it. I discovered that my landlord attended the same AA group as I did and we never exchanged a word about it. That’s the whole point of the first-name-only introductions. “I’m Bill and I’m an alcoholic” makes space for Bill to speak candidly for once, since he does not need to “protect his name.”

AA works in part because it has found a form of meeting congruent with its stated purposes.

Small group members, by contrast, usually know one another from church, and the natural (and good) human impulse toward displaying consistent character across different contexts makes radical candor far less likely. If Bill appears as the cheerful family man on Sunday mornings, it will be a challenge for him to admit during small group that he’s a devastated mess. The same thing that causes denial—namely, the wish to live a life of integrity—will push Bill to dissemble in the context of a small group: to amplify aspects of his life that are congruent with the Sunday morning family man script and to downplay aspects of his life that are incongruent with it.

Dissembling is lethal to recovery and, indeed, to any genuine moral transformation. We need places in which our lack of integrity can be confessed without destroying us, and this requires anonymity. Roman Catholics, with their practice of private confession, have known this for a long time, as has AA. Anonymity provides a haven in which we may speak about the incoherence of our lives. For the same reason we are more likely to tell our darkest secrets to a stranger on a plane than to our friends, AA is a place of greater honesty than the small group can probably ever be.

The absence of both desperation and anonymity prevent small groups from fully capturing the ethos of AA. Small groups can close the gap a bit—for instance, by prizing confidentiality—but acknowledging these differences should moderate our expectations for how much small groups can learn from AA. Still, I am convinced that many small groups could learn much from AA.

‘Sorry about your divorce. Here, try a meatball.’

Given the reverence with which the contemporary church—or at least the kind of contemporary church that has small groups—treats eating, it may seem sacrilegious to suggest that the meal should be sidelined in small group practice. Eating together, baptized as “breaking bread,” has become a sacrosanct marker of Christians getting together to do Christian stuff. There is, of course, biblical support for the importance of feasting together, and for some small groups—whose purpose is, for example, to welcome doubters and unbelievers to Christian fellowship—a meal is a time-tested way of helping people warm up to one another.

But when it comes to transformation, let me state what may not be obvious: AA would not work as a potluck.

For one thing, many alcoholics simply lack the energy necessary to make a good culinary showing. Similarly, there are some for whom the potluck is just one more obstacle to attending a small group. How many times can one sign up to bring chips before people catch on?

Far more important is the way a shared meal influences the interactions that are natural and fitting within a group. Imagine savoring Ray’s homemade BBQ meatballs while Ann explains how her latest relapse sent her back to the hospital, where her husband demanded a divorce. AA talk can make you lose your appetite.

AA has a theory of how people change and a set of practices designed to change real human beings.

In linoleum-floored basement rooms, AA members sit on metal folding chairs around laminate tables with a pot of a coffee, a stack of Styrofoam cups, and a box of store-bought cookies for refreshment. This drab simplicity is not an accident but rather an aesthetic complement to the meeting’s purpose: welcoming the downtrodden; confessing failure, pain, and humiliation; and learning to find nourishment in hard places. AA meeting rooms are intentionally austere, like the desert where Israel wandered and Jesus battled the devil. With our preference for comfort and feasting, we too often forget that the desert is, as former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams puts it, “where God happens.” AA meetings are an invitation to journey together in the desert.

Ask people what they want from small groups, and you’ll hear two things: community and discipleship. Theologically, of course, community is essential to discipleship. The problem is that what happens in the name of community at most small groups seems more like cheery dinner party banter compared to the raw and vulnerable communion of a support group. Of course, there is nothing wrong with dinner parties. However, when comfort and decorum are at a premium, sincerity and honesty tend to be in short supply.

Support groups and dinner parties are quite different ways of sharing fellowship, both needed in their own right. Support groups remind us that the hard transformations happen in the desert, prompting us to reconsider whether there is enough “desert” in the small group discipleship model. People say they want authenticity from their small group, but the form of the small group often shapes what actually occurs in the group more powerfully than the stated intentions of the participants. AA works in part because it has found a form of meeting congruent with its stated purposes.

Less thinking, more doing

The religious part of most small groups consists of group study. Some groups select a book of the Bible for inductive study. Others select a religious book and become in essence a Christian book club. Some select a theme of discipleship and attempt to explore it in Scripture and other trusted sources. Others still use abbreviated sermon notes or watch a well-known Christian teacher on video. The differences don’t matter as much as their shared assumption that small groups should foster spiritual growth by primarily targeting how Christians think.

To be fair, most groups try to get to “application”—that is, Christian practice—by the end of the meeting, and this often happens as members share prayer requests and intercede for one another. But the bulk of many small group meetings is given to helping members think about the Christian life in fresh and helpful ways.

Certainly, we need venues to help us think more deeply about our faith. Yet such an approach, when it is used in small groups, perpetuates a serious limitation of Protestantism, namely the sermon-driven and therefore idea-driven approach to church. Protestantism puts the sermon at the center of the religious service, symbolized by the place of the pulpit in Protestant church architecture. This is good for catechesis (the teaching of doctrine) but not for spiritual formation. More ancient Christian wisdom aligned spiritual formation with the undertaking of certain everyday practices, ritualized in the church’s liturgy but then practiced routinely in the mundane life of the believer: prayer, fasting, meditation, Sabbath, and almsgiving, to name a few. In the terminology of AA, the church has long taught that spiritual transformation comes through “working the steps.”

AA groups prioritize doing over thinking. AA does not believe you can “outthink” your addiction. I once attended an opiate recovery group in which one of the addicted persons was a PhD neurobiologist with a mesmerizing grasp of the biomechanics of the addicted brain. It took him a while to realize that no one was impressed by his academic interludes. Understanding just isn’t the point. After all, this fellow understood addiction as well as anybody could, and he was a habitual pill-popper.

At the heart of AA is the practice of the steps. The steps are simple to understand, though bracingly difficult to do. AA members come to meetings to be reminded why they need to do the steps (their lives are a mess), what the steps are (there are 12 of them, listed in the Big Book, AA’s bible of sorts), and the kinds of setbacks and breakthroughs they should expect. Because working the steps is what works, AA meetings are oriented not around a sermon or a study but rather around what I call a confessional liturgy: a ritualized way of centering one’s life on the practice of the steps. The liturgy is simple: a reading about one of the steps from the Big Book is followed by personal sharing about the setbacks and breakthroughs encountered in attempting to practice that step.

AA is not a study group on addiction. It is a support group for spiritual practice. More small groups might be revitalized if they were conceived as support groups for Christian practice. In fact, some small groups already do this; in one model, the gathering’s central focus is on participants’ daily struggles to carry out key Christian practices. What AA shows is how a simple confessional liturgy can center a group on spiritual transformation over the long haul.

Meet sustainably, meet often

Even if AA is not a perfect model for revitalizing church small groups, there’s much that can be done to shift the group discipleship approach from a dinner party study club to a support group for Christian practice. For one thing, small group members might meet more regularly. “A meeting a day” is a standard mantra for those in early recovery. Frequency is required because working the steps is difficult and requires regular support. As they get some months of sobriety under their belt, many veterans back their attendance off to twice-weekly or even weekly, but I have never met an AA member who attends a meeting only once a month or fortnight. The meetings simply do not make sense in that kind of rhythm.

To succeed, AA meetings must be sustainably frequent. This is another reason they don’t involve meals. It’s also a reason that AA groups are local. The necessary regularity would be too difficult to attain if members had to travel more than 10 or 15 minutes to get to a group.

And it is a reason that AA meetings require no particular leader. Leadership rotates among the regulars and carries little onus because the meeting schedule is always the same. Gather, open with a time of silence, read out the Serenity Prayer, invite everyone to introduce themselves, read “How it Works” from the Big Book, read one of the Twelve Steps, open the floor for personal sharing, pass the donation basket, pray the Lord’s Prayer, gather around the refreshment table, go home. Night after night. This is the AA recipe for sustainably frequent meetings centered on working the steps as a daily discipline.

There is one more crucial component to the sustainable frequency of AA meetings. Sharing is always completely voluntary. Aside from introducing yourself, there is never a requirement that an AA member will share or participate in any way other than listening. This is essential to the sustainability of AA meeting groups, and it would be a beautiful thing if small groups adopted this rule. Often we are tired, we have nothing inside of us to share, yet we need the support of being close to others on the same path and hearing from those who feel inspired to share. The last thing we need is an icebreaker activity or a forced partner prayer activity that goads us into an artificial performance. Little is more damaging to the spiritual life than contrived piety. Instead of engendering trust and connection, such practices induce cynicism and wear down the goodwill of any but the most jubilant and extroverted members.

Setting sustainable frequency as a goal of the small group meeting would be a step in the right direction, and it is probably essential to any small group that prizes growth in discipleship. So here is a proposal for a small group conceived as a support group for Christian practice:

  • Gather a group of local Christian friends.
  • Meet weekly for an hour over coffee and tea, rather than monthly for an evening over a meal.
  • Settle on a sustainable set of daily practices that group members believe would vitalize their spiritual life, instead of a book or a Bible study. Four or five practices will do, certainly no more than 12.
  • Assign group members the task of building a one- to two-page reading on one of the practices—drawing on passages of Scripture, lives of the saints, the church’s great theologians, and written prayers—that can remind the group why the practice matters, how it should be performed, and the setbacks and breakthroughs to be expected as one practices it.
  • Rotate leadership of each meeting, with the leader announcing an opening time of silence to be followed by a group prayer that can be memorized, followed by the arranged reading and a time of voluntary sharing prompted by that reading, concluding with a time of simple petitionary prayers (also completely voluntary) and a closing group recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.

The small groups we deserve

This, it seems to me, is something like what small groups would be if they were inspired by AA. Is it the kind of small group I want? When I began thinking through how AA wisdom might transform small groups, I didn’t know I would come to these conclusions. So I need to end with a confession. I am not sure I want something this involved. I want to want it, but I am not sure I want it. And this raises a disturbing possibility. Maybe we get exactly the churches and the small groups that we deserve.

In my book Addiction and Virtue, I referred to addicted persons as “unwitting modern prophets” because they force us to look at the inadequacies of our cultures, our communities, even our churches. But there is another sense in which addicted persons are prophetic gifts to us. Many of them are engaged in spiritual transformation groups that have a depth and rigor that put the typical small group to shame. Churches often wonder what they can do to help addicted persons, but I think a different question is more important. How can the church learn from its addicted members what real spiritual community looks like?

Kent Dunnington is associate professor of philosophy at Biola University. His most recent book is Humility, Pride, and Christian Virtue Theory (Oxford University Press).

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