Addiction is a complex, multifaceted thing, as is addiction recovery. Anyone who has walked this path themselves or with a loved one can tell you that true, lasting recovery cannot be reduced to a simple checklist or plan or confession.
Complex issues like addiction require complex, multifaceted solutions, not simplistic ones. They require solutions that address the body, mind, and spirit of an individual, each in meaningful ways.
For most people who have successfully navigated recovery, faith was an important component of their recovery from addiction. Let’s look together at the research behind this statement and the reasons why it is the case.
The Scientific Evidence for the Value of Faith in Addiction Recovery
As people of faith, we need not rely solely on scientific evidence to prove the value of faith. Our faith is innately and uniquely valuable. Still, in addiction recovery, there is plenty of scientific evidence worth mentioning.
One recent peer-reviewed study analyzed an overwhelming volume of existing literature on “faith’s contribution to preventing people from falling victim to substance abuse and helping them recover from it.”
Many of the observations and conclusions from this large and frequently cited study are illuminating:
- 73% of US addiction treatment programs contain some form of spirituality as part of the program.
- Nearly 130,000 congregation-based recovery support programs generate $316 billion in economic savings.
- Over 84% of studies on the question of faith in recovery programs conclude that faith produces measurable results.
- The overall decline in religious affiliation is a concern as a result, constituting in the minds of the study authors a “national health concern.”
That faith makes a difference in addiction recovery is clear, even indisputable, from the empirical evidence. But why exactly this is true is a question science struggles to answer definitively.
Researchers point to certain possibilities: faith is tied to community (when it is healthy), and community is a significant component in addiction recovery. Additionally, most faith traditions would actively discourage experimentation and other behaviors that lead to substance abuse, so those active in their faith communities are less likely to take the steps that lead to substance abuse.
On this latter point, the evidence is even stronger among adolescents: those active in faith communities were less frequently found to be involved in cigarette smoking, alcohol use, and drug abuse (both prescription and illicit). These results held even when controlling for factors like depression, which tend to elevate risk.
Of course, we in the faith community understand that these connections go deeper than what meta-analyses can reveal. Consider these further aspects of why and how faith becomes an integral part of addiction recovery.
Faith Is About Seeking and Healing What Is Broken
First, faith has a role to play in addiction recovery because of what faith is and does: it is and has always been about seeking and healing what is broken.
This goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden when humanity’s communion with God was unbroken. Adam and Eve’s sin was the genesis of our disconnection and the birth of brokenness.
Ever since, the story of the Christian faith has been the story of God seeking and healing the broken.
We are all broken people, including those who struggle with substance abuse or other addictions. We all need God’s healing, the true healing that comes through faith. So do those struggling with addiction or seeking to avoid relapsing into it.
Faith Is One, Not the Only, Tool
We want to be very clear about this: in recognizing the value of faith in addiction recovery, we are not saying that faith alone is the path to recovery. It is one crucial component, but not the only one. Clinical and medical interventions are also often necessary. As the earlier study concludes, a “body-mind-spirit integrated model of intervention” is ideal. Faith deals with the spirit and to a degree the mind, while medical and psychological approaches deal with the others.
Be wary of faith leaders who actively steer those facing addiction away from medical or clinical resources. For many, those professional resources are just as crucial to the recovery journey as faith.
The Gospel Models Acceptance and Forgiveness
Gospel-oriented faith communities are uniquely positioned to minister to those recovering from addiction. The Gospel itself tells us that all are accepted and those who will repent are forgiven, modeling for us what acceptance and forgiveness look like.
This acceptance and forgiveness on a human level takes place in the context of community, and churches and faith communities have a tremendous opportunity to create that community for the addicted. Further, faith leaders have a responsibility to create space and openness surrounding mental health and the church.
Faith Leaders Have Unique Insights into Communities During a Mental Health Crisis
Society is in the middle of a mental health crisis and an associated uptick in substance abuse and addiction. The study authors mentioned earlier observed that state and federal agencies demonstrate limited ability to deal with addiction and substance abuse at the community level because it’s just not possible for those bodies to be connected to every community.
Faith leaders and faith communities already have those connections, though, putting them in a unique position. They’re better positioned than public authorities to know and reach their communities.
Unfortunately, faith leaders tend to be much less well equipped to deal with mental health and addiction issues, despite being more closely connected to the people who need help. There’s a deep lack of quality church mental health programs (and the church leadership training programs needed to prepare pastors and leaders to meet mental health needs).
Jesus and the Gospel Offer Hope
Ultimately, all of us can find hope in Jesus and in his Gospel, including the addicted. Jesus himself said, “I came to seek and to save the lost.” And the gospel is good news for all people: it’s good news for those in pain, those who feel isolated, those who need to regain self-control.
Faith communities have a tremendous opportunity to reach those struggling with addiction (both within the congregation and outside it) by pointing people to Jesus through the gospel.
A New Resource
There’s a great need for more mental health church resources that elaborate on the connection between faith and addiction recovery. Churches That Heal is a new digital toolkit for churches from Dr. Henry Cloud, psychologist and best-selling author of Changes That Heal. This church leadership training program will equip churches to minister to those with mental health needs, including addiction.
If you’re looking to extend your ministry’s reach in this crucial area, consider the Churches That Heal program for your ministry.