Our church had been quite successful at reaching our little community. There was a steady stream of new people coming. Over 50% of the new people became regular attenders. Along with numerical growth we were also seeing people making a commitment to Jesus. They attended regularly, volunteering in various ministries and they were even giving money to support the church. Our biggest struggle was moving these new converts into discipleship. I knew that if we didn’t become more effective at making disciples we would end up becoming nothing more than a Sunday morning entertainment center.
Then came an epiphany. I was in my office with my chair tipped back on its back two legs and my feet kicked up on the desk contemplating these issues when a key question brought amazing clarity. I asked myself, “Is there an organization out there that has a reputation for transforming really messed up people into emotionally healthy and successful people?” The answer, “Yes!” The prominent organization with that kind of reputation is Alcoholics Anonymous (and all of its variations).
I wondered if I could capture the essence of their genius and apply it to my discipleship issue. This lead to the next question, “What is AA doing that makes it so successful?” So I spent months researching and processing this question. Here is a summary of my conclusions:
– AA has a clear mission. Alcoholic Anonymous’ Mission Statement is: We are a fellowship of men and women who share our experience, strength and hope with each other so that we may solve our common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism. I discovered that in order to capture the genius of AA and apply it, I would have to clearly define what causes that transformation and make it the center of everything we do.
– AA has a clear process. Who doesn’t know about the 12 Steps? And if you are a regular attender at an Alcoholics Anonymous you will hear those 12 Steps read at every meeting. It isn’t long until you have the 12 Steps memorized. The entire organization is built around the 12 Steps and people measure their progress against the 12 Steps. Members of AA have a saying, “It (the 12 Steps) works if you work it.” I concluded that I needed to develop a clear process of discipleship that is memorable and measurable.
– AA has clear values. You may not know that AA has values because they don’t call them values. Alcoholics Anonymous calls them the 12 Traditions. These 12 Traditions define boundaries and anchor the methodology of the organization. Again, these 12 Traditions are read at every meeting so that every regular attender has them memorized word-for-word. At the time, we had some values hidden in a document somewhere but from that time on we designed strong values and frequently reviewed them with our attenders.
– AA has a clear method. No matter where you attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting you will find the same meeting outline. There are some announcements; they recite the 12 steps and the 12 traditions, then a reading from the Big Book and then attenders take turns sharing their stories and struggles. Some might share stories about how things went well, but mostly people share struggles. One of the rules is, “no cross talk.” Basically, this means that no one in the group is allowed to “coach” the person sharing the story. Oddly enough, the process of sharing is the power of transformation. Yes, sponsors are also an important part of the process, but the foundation of AA’s transformation process is simply sharing your stories and struggles. The vast majority of AA members come to these meetings because they find the power to stay sober in this process. Most churches use majority of their group time focused on teaching, but what if the power for transformation comes through sharing our struggles and failures? This was the most difficult change to make in ministry. It is difficult to believe that sharing our stories and struggles is as important to the discipleship process as Bible teaching. This was clearly the biggest adjustment to make in the discipleship process.
Alcoholics Anonymous claims that these four aspects not only define their work but fuel their success. I share them with you because I have come to the conclusion they are the transformational genius of Alcoholics Anonymous. You might be thinking, “These organizational habits are so simple that they can’t be important.” However, the results speak for themselves. I pray that the Christian church captures the transformational genius of AA and uses it to raise up profound disciples.