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Celebrate Recovery: A Growing Global Ministry Offers Hope

The time has come, and from all over the world the faithful arrive.

They fill the cavernous worship center at California’s Saddleback Church, and, murmuring with anticipation, they wait.

Then, with hands held high, the percussionist, barely visible behind his drum set, clicks his sticks, and the “World’s Most Dangerous Recovery Band,” through condo-sized speakers, fills the air with sound.

Three thousand wildly cheering believers, many of them tattooed and some with pierced ears, noses and tongues, jump to their feet. Not your usual Sunday church crowd, perhaps, but no less devout.

It’s a morning in August, and this is the opening salvo of the annual Celebrate Recovery (CR) Summit meeting at pastor Rick Warren’s 20,000 member church — some, with tongue in cheek, call it the “mother ship” — in the heart of Orange County.

During their three days, visitors will learn a lot and they will have fun.

They will dine at the Celebrate Recovery Barbeque with its “recovery burgers,” “60 day chips,” “12-Step chicken,” “serenity sausage,” “willpower pickles” and the ever popular “keeping coming back onions.”

They will share box lunches and gallons of coffee at umbrella shaded tables or stretched out on the grass. And later they will attend an evening concert featuring New Zealand’s electrifying Parachute Band.

Now in its 15th year, the Celebrate Recovery ministry, developed at Saddleback, focuses on helping people overcome a variety of addictions, hurts and hang-ups. It has enjoyed phenomenal growth worldwide, and, to date, it has spread to 4,500 churches in 48 states and 12 foreign countries, including Russia’s Siberia.

Visitors come on this annual pilgrimage to further their own recovery and to learn how to better encourage others back home to do the same. To the extent they succeed, they believe, individuals, families, communities and eventually the world will benefit.

As it is evolving, Celebrate Recovery ministries are also dealing with huge social issues like prison recidivism and the homeless, and adherents are joining forces with other ministries — like Prison Fellowship’s Inner Change Freedom Initiative — to address these problems.

Purpose Driven

Warren, best known for his book, “The Purpose Driven Life,” a 25 million copy best seller urging people to follow God’s plan for them and to serve others, provided the spiritual underpinnings for the Celebrate Recovery ministry,

“I believe great churches are built on broken people,” Warren has said,  “people willing to abandon pride, pretensions, and self-righteous posturing. When we reach the end of our rope and give up our self-sufficiency that is when God moves into our lives with healing and growth.”

Furthermore, Warren says, “A recovery program is not just for drug addicts and alcoholics. All of us have some form of addiction. Sin is addicting and all have sinned. That means we’ve all created ungodly and unhealthy methods for handling life.”

It was John Baker, a recovering alcoholic, who came up with the Celebrate Recovery Plan 15 years ago, sold it to Warren and watched it flourish.

Baker, host of the three-day event, spoke of his own addiction and reaffirmed the goals and intentions of the Summit.

“For a lot of years I was a functional alcoholic,” Baker said.

He was a fighter pilot, vice president of sales and marketing for two major food manufacturers, and he accomplished much in other areas. By the age of 30 he had achieved an impressive list of life goals. So what did it matter that he drank a little too much? Only that it finally caught up with him.

“Finally,” he said, “alcohol became the problem of my life. It was time to make a choice—to admit that I was wrong and surrender it and start doing it God’s way or continue drinking. I chose the world’s way and turned my back completely on God for five years.

“My wife and I went through a 13- month separation during that time. That got me going to AA, and I also started to get back to the Bible. My wife and kids started attending Saddleback Church, and the kids asked me to go with them. I did, and that Sunday morning I heard Rick Warren’s message and heard the music, and I knew I was home.”

Baker’s wife, Cheryl, who shared the podium with him, confessed candidly and with self deprecating humor to her own contribution to marriage difficulties.

She said, “I spent all my energy in masking my life,” and when confronted invoked the “co-dependent’s motto:”

“I am fine and in control, thank you very much,” she would say with finality.

Valentine’s Day

In the end, Baker took her to dinner on Valentines Day of 1991, made his amends and said he wanted to help and be a part of her life if she would have him.

She agreed. Shortly after, they renewed their wedding vows and are celebrating their 37th wedding anniversary.

Their son, John, is also a recovering alcoholic with six years of sobriety, and he too shared the podium with his mother and father.

It was soon after the reconciliation, that Baker began to work on implementing a vision that God had given him about recovery. He began with a 13-page, single-spaced letter which he submitted to Warren.

“I didn’t know Rick very well when I submitted it, but he called me into his office later and said of my proposal, ‘Great, John. Do it.’”

And so began the Celebrate Recovery ministry.

Like Alcoholics Anonymous, Celebrate Recovery follows a 12-Step program based on the biblical beatitudes for its ministry, and, like AA, it encourages members to get sponsors, go to meetings and learn and work the 12 steps.

The crucial difference is that CR is a Christ-centered ministry, guided by eight principles of its own. It is also meticulously organized and, as noted, proactively addresses social issues.

A “get real” focus

With its “get real” focus, Celebrate Recovery is a much grittier version of a traditional Sunday morning worship service, Baker says, but it is also carefully structured to make it a safe place for the needy and hurting to come, bare their souls and recover.

Most of those attending the Summit meeting were there either to start a new CR ministry or to learn how to run an existing ministry better, and everyone got an operating manual which included mission statements, organization charts, job descriptions and other operating details.

While this focus on organization and policy is necessary, Baker says, the ultimate aim is recovery which is highly personal and based on “relationships.”

Churches which have embraced Celebrate Recovery believe it is long overdue and very much what Jesus had in mind. But getting real, at least in Purpose Driven Life terms, is not to everyone’s taste.

Many Sunday churchgoers and conservative pastors, possibly unwilling to disturb comfortable routines to confront their own dysfunctions, find the recovery message inappropriate.

Under the headline, “A Popular Strategy for Church Growth Splits Congregants,” the Wall Street Journal ran a front-page story on September 5 with the headline, “Across U.S. Members Divide on Making Sermons, Music More “Purpose-Driven” and the story led with the example of the split at Iuka Baptist Church in Mississippi.

As reported in the story, dissidents take exception to Saddleback’s “Madison Avenue” marketing and corporate-style mission statements and other business-style strategies. The Rev. Bob DeWaay, author of a book critical of the approach says, “The Bible’s theme is about redemption and atonement, not finding meaning and solving problems.”

A spokesman for Warren responded, “Mr. Warren believes the Bible addresses sin and redemption, as well as human problems.”

A hospital for sinners

To those who suggest that the addiction/recovery message is somehow inappropriate, Bob Wood, Celebrate Recovery pastor at Fellowship Bible Church (FBC) in Little Rock and responsible for 22 other Celebrate Recovery churches in Arkansas, comments, “we’re not a hotel for saints, we’re a hospital for sinners.”

Wood, a recovering drug and sex addict himself and a Saddleback alumnus, leads FBC’s Friday night meetings which attract 200 to 300 regular attendees, many of them not regular Sunday churchgoers.

Wood’s wife, Karrie, who is recovering primarily from bulemia and physical and emotional abuse, is also active in the ministry.

While Celebrate Recovery may lose the support of some traditional churchgoers, it is attracting another large audience — the non-church goer.

Attracted to the hands-on approach and redemptive message the “unchurched” are flocking to its doors. At Fellowship, about half of those attending come from outside of the regular church-going body. At Saddleback, it’s about 70 percent.

Woods said that chemically dependent groups (those with drug and alcohol problems) represent about one-third of the participants.

“Our fastest growing groups deal with men’s sexual addiction,” Wood said, adding that “ I believe sexual addiction is going to be the addiction of the new millennium.

“We also have groups,” he continued, “that deal with overeating, shame and guilt, co-dependency, financial struggles, and love-addiction.”

Wood said that graduates of the Celebrate Recovery step studies were inclined to join the church and were quick to volunteer to serve.

So what’s the bottom line for Celebrate Recovery?

Warren says, “It is not simply to recover from past sins and hurts. The goal is to become more Christ-like in our character.”