I recently learned that the purpose of 12-step meetings is different from what I thought. For many in recovery, meetings are an essential part of staying sober—but going to meetings is not equivalent to working a program. Plenty of people go to meetings and even stay sober without making any real change in their minds, hearts, and lives.
This sounded suspiciously like church to me. Not all church, of course, and not every person in church. But how many people go to church because it’s just what you do, or because it’s a social opportunity, or in order to keep up appearances—and then resist or ignore the claim the Gospel lays on our lives?
Going to church is important, but it isn’t the point. And talking about the point of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings helped me articulate a piece of the purpose of church that I hadn’t really thought about before.
AA meetings were originally convened so that those working the program could be found by those still suffering. The meetings served the needs of existing members to find encouragement, support, and connection, but their main reason for existing was to have somewhere for those in need to come to get help.
The purpose of the program isn’t just for members to get and stay sober—it is to facilitate genuine change in people’s lives so that they can impact the lives of others.
My fiancé is in recovery, and over the years he has engaged in a lot of service to others. Service is a huge part of what keeps him sober, sane, and centered. Funny how something so not about him can be so integral to his own wellbeing, right? Although it shouldn’t be so surprising—isn’t that how it works across the board, and isn’t that how it should be in church?
In her book Interrupted, Jen Hatmaker said that the church is one of very few organizations that does not exist for the good of its members. This may be hard to swallow for modern churchgoers. We come to church to be fed, to be filled, to be comforted. And that does and should happen—but again, it is not the endpoint. We receive in order to give. Our purpose as the church is only fulfilled when we take what we are given and then give it away.
I refer to this article all the time in talking about church and worship. It uses the metaphor of a restaurant vs. culinary school. If church is a restaurant, then it’s all about our preferences—we come to be served, we have expectations on what the experience will be like, and if we don’t get what we came for, we complain or leave a crappy tip.
But if church is culinary school, the tables are turned. We are trained and equipped not just to be fed, but to feed others. It’s not about our preferences or even about forcing other people to eat their vegetables. It’s about providing for those who are hungry.
This doesn’t mean that we starve ourselves spiritually as sacrificial lambs for lost souls—that falls into patronizing pretty quickly. At a monastery in New Mexico that I’ve visited several times, a group of monks is assigned the task of preparing and serving meals to their brothers and guests.
Before they do so, they eat a little first—so that their stomachs won’t be rumbling and making them envious of the plates they are setting out. A focus on service isn’t about punishing ourselves or having a martyr complex—it’s about doing what we need to do in order to serve others as best we can.
So the question remains: are our churches places where we can be found by those who are suffering? Are they culinary schools training us not to be served but to serve? Or are they restaurants that cater to the preferences of churchgoers and the biases of clergy?