Last October, President Trump declared the opioid crises a public health emergency. With the loss of 72,000 lives in 2017 due to an overdose of prescription drugs, our country is still firmly in the midst of an opioid epidemic, leaving many Americans wondering what to do and, most importantly, who to turn to for answers.
The difficult truth is that drug overdoses are currently our nation’s leading cause of accidental death. In an otherwise healthy country with widespread access to medical care, thousands are literally dying in their excess—losing their lives to drugs purchased out of dependency rather than dire need.
Deaths by drug overdose particularly pain us because they feel senseless. All around us, friends, family members, and loved ones are slipping through the cracks of addiction, hiding from help, and trying to cope with the effects of these deadly drugs all on their own.
After all, isn’t that the greatest lie? That we’re all alone? That no one understands?
Chris Eisele, president of Warren County Fire Chiefs’ Association in Ohio, alluded to one of the greatest challenges of the opioid epidemic: “This epidemic,” he said, “It’s got no face.” People from all walks of life, economic backgrounds, professions, and cultural contexts are finding themselves battling the bitterness of substance abuse and addiction. There’s no ‘type’ or typical victim—and, most importantly, everyone is in hiding.
It is into this environment—one ripe with shame and fear—that the church has the opportunity to walk and speak boldly.
First, with biblical truth
The nation of Israel was in a state of disrepair, immersed in sin and desperately in need of repentance. During this period, it was the prophet Isaiah who was chosen to speak God’s words of forbearance to this disobedient people.
Despite their shortcomings—no, really, they always fell short—the God of Israel had a plan of redemption in the works that was both bigger than they could ever imagine and better than they could ever deserve.
In Isaiah 35, the prophet described in detail what would happen upon the arrival of this coming Messiah:
“Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy. For waters break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert.”
This Messiah, as it turns out, would be a master healer—one who freed individuals from the bondage of all sorts of infirmities. And that’s just what Jesus did. He attended to the sick, gave sight to the blind, and even raised the dead—there was no person too infected, too debilitated, or too far gone for his healing touch. It is in Christ’s attitude towards the suffering in his day that we see the heart of God.
He was the Great Physician.
Looking at Scripture, it becomes clear that God cares deeply for the spiritual, emotional, and physical well-being of people. As his faithful followers, we should do the same.
Second, with treatment programs
Amidst our nation’s opioid crisis, one of the ways we can care for those affected is through access to treatment and recovery support programs.
The church should be a place where substance abuse and addiction aren’t swept under the rug, but boldly and lovingly confronted. Followers of Jesus—whether they be pastors or laypeople—should take seriously their duty to connect individuals with the resources they need to find healing.
Study after study have demonstrated the effectiveness of faith-based addiction recovery support efforts in rehabilitation centers everywhere. Drug and alcohol abuse don’t just affect people physically—if they did, doctors, nurses, and simple medications alone could rid this whole earth of addiction without delay. But as most know, addictions to opioids and other substances have an inherently spiritual component—one that can’t be adequately addressed from the confines of a hospital bed.
Faith-based treatment programs aren’t just a solution, they are a key solution to helping individuals confront and beat the root cause of addiction once and for all.
Steven Mosma, professor of political science at Pepperdine University has studied the effectiveness of faith-based social programs coming to the conclusion that “faith-based programs working with people who experience social ills will bring with them an added resource and degree of effectiveness that secular programs do not have.” Professor Mosma cites studies performed on the effectiveness of one particular faith-based rehabilitation program: Adult & Teen Challenge USA.
Adult and Teen Challenge USA is a nationwide, faith-based group dedicated to providing individuals with a “holistic model of drug and alcohol recovery.” Convinced that a restored relationship with Jesus Christ is central to the healing process, folks at this organization work diligently to teach program participants about the God of healing who created and loves them.
On Teen Challenge’s website, resources are available to help connect students and adults struggling with addiction to programs nearest to them.
Third, in cooperation with government partners
Where there is room for churches and faith-based institutions to work together in this struggle against opioid addictions, so too are there opportunities for these groups to work cooperatively with governing authorities.
This morning, I testified at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). SAMHSA, in cooperation with the HHS Center for Faith and Opportunity Initiatives, convened a one-day expert panel on “The Role of the Faith-Based Community as Bridge Builders to the Treatment Community for People with Serious Mental Illness.”
This is one of the two areas where some of this work is intersecting with the work of Director Shannon Royce, Esq., and the Partnership Center team.
The other is opioids.
Recently, I shared the Partnership Center’s tool kit that offers practical resources for communities and faith-based entities. The Practical Toolkit for Faith and Community Leaders, along with additional information and resources, can be found on the Rural Matters Institute website with permission from the office of The Partnership Center. A downloadable version is also available.
Through our Rural Matters Initiative we will be helping churches connect with resources that will help serve their communities, like the toolkit.
However, there is another opportunity here. This September, State Opioid Response Grant (SOR’s) funds will be going into communities around the country. A helpful letter from Shannon Royce and SAMHSA’s recently released Frequently Asked Questions affirms that states are allowed to use a portion of these funds to support services offered by faith-based providers —yes, faith-based providers—through indirect funding or voucher programs.
Efforts like this demonstrate that cross-sector partnerships between public and private entities are making a path forward amidst this opioid crisis. And now is the time for more faith-based providers to step forward and leverage all the resources available to them.
Where from here?
In a Washington Post op-ed last year, I explained, “Addiction is a health crisis because it affects people of all backgrounds. We can treat it as such.”
My exhortation to you, if you are a pastor or a church leader, is that you and members of your congregation might join Jesus on his mission of being the Great Physician. He is looking for churches, pastors, and people to see the need and to become part of the solution.
Ed Stetzerholds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, serves as Dean of the School of Mission, Ministry, and Leadership at Wheaton College, is executive director of the Billy Graham Center, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group.