The Recovery-Minded Church: A Book Review

recovery-minded-churchThis book released earlier this year, and it’s taken me a while to get around to doing a review. But that delay does not reflect my sense of this book’s importance. In fact, because today is World Mental Health Day, I think this is a great time to recommend and review it for you.

Addiction is a serious mental health issue–partly because addiction itself is a mental disorder (although it can be physiological as well) and partly because substance abuse is so dramatically and tragically intertwined with other mental health problems. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “About a third of all people experiencing mental illnesses and about half of people living with severe mental illnesses also experience substance abuse. These statistics are mirrored in the substance abuse community, where about a third of all alcohol abusers and more than half of all drug abusers report experiencing a mental illness.” Mental illness raises the risk of substance abuse, and substance abuse can severely worsen symptoms of mental illness.

As with mental health problems in general, faith communities have so much to offer people in recovery–and those in need of recovery–from addiction. Sadly, many churches misunderstand the nature of addiction and the church’s best response. This important book is designed to call churches forward and to help them know what to do.

The book

The Recovery-Minded Church: Loving and Ministering to People with Addiction by Jonathan Benz, with Kristina Robb-Dover
(Published by InterVarsity Press, 2016)

What this book offers

This book begins and ends with references to Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-31). This story of extravagant grace sets the underlying tone for the book. It clearly advocates welcome, love, and humility in relating to brothers and sisters living with addiction.

This book is both theological and practical. It contains a helpful section that blends the two perspectives in challenging our assumptions and myths about addiction. As the author makes clear, it is not a how-to guide for setting up a formal addictions ministry in your church; however, it does provide some helpful and empowering knowledge and tools for doing ministry among people with addictions. It includes information about what it means to be recovery-friendly, and it offers practical tips for making your church a place that supports recovery and sobriety. A few particularly useful sections are nicely specific, such as “Recognizing and Identifying Addiction (p. 28),” “What to Say to Recovering Addicts” (p. 78), and information about participating in interventions (p. 51).

Readers should be prepared for challenges to their assumptions not only about addiction and people who live with it, but about themselves. Benz points out that we all deal with our own addictive tendencies, even if some tendencies may be more socially acceptable and less crippling than others. In fact, he issues a brief challenge to examine our own lives for unhealthy patterns and compulsions. This is important not only for our own health and for our humility, but also because, as he says, “Transformation happens when we see our own crippling brokenness and need for God’s grace in the face and story of the addict in front of us (p. 23).” We cannot really help others get well if we cannot be honest about our own illnesses and see our own suffering in theirs.

What I liked about this book

I like the practical nature of the book, its many ideas, and the fact that it doesn’t shy away from discussion of theological topics like the nature of sin and addiction.

I also appreciate the book’s realism–it does not try to dismiss the ugliness of addiction, its consequences, or the ways it is difficult to engage. He does not condemn us for not knowing what to do, and he does caution us against trying to “help” without any knowledge of what will actually be helpful and without a sober recognition of how addiction leads to lies and manipulation.

Most of all, I really appreciate the tone of this book. Benz, a certified addictions professional, could have written a judgmental scolding of the church for all its ignorance and failings in this area. Instead he has written a book that is compassionate not only toward those who live with addiction, but also toward those in a position to help. The book places strong emphasis on empathy and humility in relating to people with addictions, and it should inspire many readers to open their arms to struggling people. It contains many stories, and even though some of them are heartbreaking, the book is hopeful.

What I would change about this book

Although this book is not supposed to function as a how-to manual, I think it would benefit from in-depth examples of what is working in ministry to people with addictions. Its ideas are very practical and helpful, and they would carry more dimension if supported by case studies and thorough success stories. However, I wouldn’t replace anything that’s in the book–so maybe there just aren’t enough pages!

Who should read it

At the risk of wearing out this phrase, I think every church leader should read this book. That includes not only pastors, but people who are engaged in all kinds of ministry leadership. No one is immune from seeing the effects of addiction on individuals and families, and it would be wise to develop a strong understanding of how to recognize it and how to respond with true welcome and support.

© 2016 Amy Simpson.