CAPE CORAL -- Rev. Jorge Acevedo knows firsthand the benefits of recovery ministry.
“I was the child of alcoholics,” he explains. “I first sought out recovery ministry after I finished seminary, when my brother, who is an addict, came to me for help. He said he was sick and tired of being sick and tired. … (That experience) really opened my eyes to my own addiction.”
|Rev. Jorge Acevedo|
In his 2012 book “Vital: Churches Changing Communities and the World,” Acevedo briefly describes his struggle with drugs and alcohol during his teenage years. Although he credits a Campus Crusade for Christ director for turning his life around, he says today he didn’t find a lot of practical help in the churches he attended.
Acevedo went on to become a United Methodist elder and, in 1996, lead pastor at Grace Church. Since then, the church has grown from 400 people to around 2,600 across four campuses and for years has been listed as one of the fastest-growing United Methodist churches in the U.S. Acevedo attributes part of that growth to Celebrate Recovery, a ministry his congregation started 15 years ago.
He had heard about a dramatic transformation experienced by Saddleback Church in California through Celebrate Recovery, a 12-step program that includes large gatherings, small group meetings and fellowship. The third step is embracing Jesus Christ. At Grace, the ministry now reaches hundreds of people at each gathering.
The institutional church as a whole has come a long way since he first started struggling with personal addiction, Acevedo says.
“I became a Christian in high school, at a time when I was deeply entrenched in my own addiction. The church I started attending in Orlando didn’t have a frame of reference for dealing with addiction. There was a different perspective about it back then. I was just told to pray and read my Bible.”
In hindsight, Acevedo describes his initial experience of recovery through the church as “spiritual malpractice,” which he explains as offering Jesus as healer without providing the processes and practices that allow Him to heal.
“One advantage of social media is that it presents the rawness of life,” Acevedo says. “We now live in a culture where we don’t blush anymore. We talk about stuff and have conversations about brokenness. Recovery ministries harness that.”
|Outreach ministries that help people break cycles of addiction, overcome anger or move past grief and pain can strengthen congregations as well as individuals. Photo illustration from Bigstock.com.|
Outreach is part of Celebrate Recovery -- it’s built into the curriculum – and that naturally leads to church growth, the pastor says. People who see results bring their friends. Those who have finished the program keep coming back to support others who are just getting started.
“Celebrate Recovery teaches that you can’t keep what you don’t give away,” Acevedo says.
“In the early days, our church had an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality toward recovery. But somewhere after around five years, there was a tipping point to it being ‘our’ ministry. Now it is part of our church culture, and some members use it as an evangelism tool.”
As far as how addiction has shaped his ministry, Acevedo says it has changed everything.
“It has shaped how I preach and rounded out my theology. Everyone is in recovery for something. We talk about salvation to avoid hell, but what about the hell of addiction that people are living now? Recovery ministries offer deliverance and freedom from those hurts, habits and hang-ups,” Acevedo says.
Mark Biery is the Celebrate Recovery representative for northeast Florida and leader of the ministry at Lakewood UMC, Jacksonville. He explains that the idea of recovery from “hurts, habits and hang-ups” addresses possibly the most commonly held misconception of Celebrate Recovery: that it is just for physical addictions.
“Nationally, only about one-third of Celebrate Recovery participants are dealing with drugs or alcohol. Everyone has been hurt and has hurt others. We all qualify for recovery,” Biery says.
Like Grace, Lakewood also has experienced how recovery ministry has led to church growth and leadership.
“People move in and out of recovery,” Biery says. “Some stay and help lead Celebrate Recovery, and others move on to leadership in other ministries. There have been several participants who have since joined Lakewood. I have seen significant growth in many people, both in their relationship with Jesus and with others.”
In addition to Celebrate Recovery for adults, Lakewood also offers Celebration Place, a 52-week complementary children’s resource for children ages 5 to 12 developed by the national Celebrate Recovery program. It offers time for games, praise and worship, teaching, prayer and journaling.
“Celebration Place was started to help children learn principles of recovery now instead of later in life after a train wreck,” Biery explains.
“If the parents are hurting, then the children are too. Hurting people hurt people.”
Biery says the greatest challenge of recovery ministry is getting people to come out of their denial, which is the program’s first step. But, he says, seeing people realize they are not defined by their issues — that they are children of God — is a life-changing experience. He and his wife, Suzanne, have been through the 12-step study program four times to help themselves and others.
“The greatest blessing has been my own recovery over anger and control,” Biery says. “I initially started in the ministry to help others, but I soon realized I needed help.”
Suzanne, a Celebrate Recovery leader at Lakewood and the Southeast representative for Celebration Place, had a similar experience.
“The changes I saw in my life as a result of Celebrate Recovery were unexpected; I realized who Suzanne was in God's eyes, not in the world’s eyes,” she says.
“I heard so many courageous people get up and reveal how God changed their lives. The hope that comes from that is huge. The feelings of being a new woman in Christ are the highest high I've ever had — better than alcohol or drugs. I've been sober for over 20 years.”
-- Catherine Ryan is a freelance writer based in Greenville, S.C.