Does Your Congregation Need Therapy? Finding Hope in Addiction Theory

There are a lot of different theories, ideas, books, and products out in the world ostensibly designed to help congregations thrive and grow. But here’s the question: Which one should you choose?

When I was in the local congregation, I saw a lot of seminar-type advertisements come across my desk. This one talked about being a simple church. That one talked about using discernment skills to do this or that. Many come with consultants, experts, and ringing endorsements. In many ways, the same problem plagues addicts looking to find recovery among a bewildering range of treatments, programs, and approaches. So how do you choose?

Enter Addiction Theory

We in Churchland can learn an awful lot from people who work with those struggling with addiction because many local churches struggle with addictions of a different nature, including obsessions with exponential growth or compulsions for placing more attention on the outward manifestations of the church body rather than the internal state of the congregation’s spiritual life.

There are many theories about the origins and manifestations of addiction — biological/genetic, psychological, and social to name a few. This is also true of Churchland in a broader sense — some obsessions are “in the DNA” of a congregation, others manifest themselves based on certain social factors, and still others are embedded within the collective psyche of members.

So when a broad collection of addiction experts from the Institute of Medicine got together and decided to study what actually works in helping people through the perils of addiction, I was intrigued. (You can read the full study here or even download a free copy.)

Multiple Approaches Work

People down in the trenches working with those struggling with addiction are trying many approaches to treat people — various psychosocial approaches — and there is limited understanding of that work in total. There are many studies, but there is not an overarching understanding of the big trends. At least that’s what the study concluded, after trying to come to some clarity.

So there’s no silver bullet, but the study did outline a way to move forward. And it seems these suggestions would be helpful for churches and church leaders too.

I’ve highlighted the top five ideas from the study and offer them to you for serious consideration before immediately signing up for the next church fix-it scheme or growth seminar or before plopping down some money on a book series.

How can you pick one flower among so many?

How can you pick one flower among so many?

So how do you pick the best approach if you think your congregation could use a little more time on the therapy couch? Here’s a top-five list of things to consider from the research study before your church commits to a costly church growth/revitalization program.

  1. Mix. What elements are in the approach you are considering? This seems pretty basic; but as addiction theory tells us, people are made up of bodies, minds, and spirits. How does your idea approach the mix of human needs we all bring? And, more importantly, are you using the proper tool for the change you hope to see?
    • Begin knowing that no single approach will work, but change will require a mix of approaches. Kill the “silver bullet” theory at the outset.
  2. Dialect. Are you as pastor and church speaking the same language? The study determined that there was a broad range of vocabulary used to define outcomes, approaches, and ideas. The same is true, or even more true, in Churchland. I suspect many church growth efforts fail because people are not speaking from a common understanding, even when they use the same language.
    • Use this as a time to define some of the terms you use like: growth, church, community, God, Christ, and whatever else seems appropriate.
  3. Open-source. The study determined that “no national, standardized, and coordinated process exists in the United States for compiling, conducting, and disseminating systematic reviews, guidelines, and implementation materials for use by providers.” A lot is happening, but there is no central authority, clearing house, or idea storage shed working to keep all that material. Witness the same phenomena happening at the local church.
    • Share what’s working with your colleagues, friends, and neighbors.
  4. Broad minded. Churchland doesn’t have a central idea clearinghouse either; so don’t try and invent one. The study intentionally brought together a wide range of experts, ideas, and approaches to work toward a common goal. Do not limit yourself to looking in the Churchland section.
    • Explore other disciplines, ideas, and methods.
  5. Develop measurements. The study suggests: “Develop quality measures — structure, process, and outcome measures — for psychosocial interventions.” For too long, churches have fallen for counting bucks, butts, and babies. We need to track other things that matter in the life of a congregation — things like spiritual growth, healing, justice, and other facets of Christ’s kin-dom.

In the comments, tell us: What is the most surprising place you’ve found inspiration for how to help, grow, or adapt life in your local congregation?

Rev. Jeremiah Rood lives in Massachusetts with his wife, Amanda, and two small black cats. He has experience working in local congregations but most recently has turned his attention to building an active online ministry at and www.localchurchrevival.comRev. Jeremiah’s ministry also includes spending a year in a detox working with struggling addicts and alcoholics. His time is now split between writing a book exploring these issues and working with folks struggling with a variety of different developmental and life challenges.


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