Ministry & Substance Abuse

Because of the stigma attached to abuse and addiction, Christians who experience the ravages of substance abuse often do so in shameful isolation, afraid to share their burdens with fellow church members.

The litany of issues related to substance abuse are familiar and formidable: family dysfunction and disintegration, health care costs, accident related injury and death, criminal activity and spiritual crises. Each issue presents challenges and opportunities for Christian ministry.

Incidence and Costs

The impact of alcohol and drug abuse in American society is massive and well-documented. Every year we incur staggering losses in terms of drug-related accidents, crime, family violence and workplace problems:

  1. The number of potential years of life lost to alcohol and drug-related injuries equals those lost to cancer and surpasses those lost to heart disease, the two leading causes of death in the United States.
  2. Alcohol and other drugs are a factor in 45 percent of all fatal automobile crashes and one-fifth of all crashes involving injury.
  3. Alcoholics are nearly 5 times more likely to die in motor vehicle crashes, 16 times more likely to die in falls and 10 times more likely to become fire or burn victims.
  4. Alcohol is associated with over one-half of adult drownings and fatal falls.
  5. A recent study of 1,023 patients admitted to a shock trauma unit (receiving only the most seriously injured accident victims), found that one-third had detectable levels of marijuana in their blood.
  6. Beyond the tragedy of lives lost, these incidents exact a huge economic cost. Alcohol-related injuries alone cost an estimated $47 billion annually. And, according to a recent study, illnesses and injuries caused by the use of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs accounted for nearly 40% of the medical costs at one large metropolitan hospital.
  7. 70% of attempted suicides involve frequent alcohol and other drug use.
  8. The economic cost of alcohol- and drug-related crime is $61.8 billion annually.
  9. Alcohol is a key factor in up to 68 percent of manslaughters, 62 percent of assaults, 54 percent of murders/attempted murders, 48 percent of robberies and 44 percent of burglaries.
  10. Many perpetrators of violent crime were also using illicit drugs. Some of these drugs, such as PCP and steroids, may induce violence. These drugs can also be a catalyst for aggressive-prone individuals who exhibit violent behavior as a result of taking them.
  11. Among jail inmates, 42 percent of those convicted of rape reported being under the influence of alcohol or alcohol and other drugs at the time of the offense.
  12. The percentage of batterers who are under the influence of alcohol when they assault their partners ranges from 48 percent to 87 percent, with most research indicating a 60 to 70 percent rate of alcohol abuse and a 13 to 20 percent rate of drug abuse.
  13. Workplace alcohol, tobacco and other drug-related problems cost U.S. companies over $100 billion each year.
  14. Approximately 70 percent of all illegal drug users are currently employed.
  15. Up to 40 percent of industrial fatalities can be linked to alcohol consumption and alcoholism.

The Church’s Role in Intervention, Treatment, and Recovery

No one in society is left untouched by these losses. Virtually every family has a substance abuse story somewhere in their history.

Because of the stigma attached to abuse and addiction, Christians who experience the ravages of substance abuse often do so in shameful isolation, afraid to share their burdens with fellow church members. This experience of isolation is both tragic and ironic since the basic issues of recovery fall squarely within the life of the church: repentance, turning life over to God, honest self-assessment, responsible living and spiritual devotion.

Because recovery is a spiritual process, churches are uniquely equipped to minister to recovering persons and their loved ones. As the people of God, congregations can provide caring community which fosters acceptance, nurtures self-worth, offers forgiveness and reconciliation and supports spiritual healing and growth.

Both people who are alcoholic or drug dependent (the afflicted) and people who live with someone who is alcoholic or drug dependent (the affected) may experience isolation because of the stigma and shame attached to alcohol and other drug problems. Most often it is the affected family member who first reaches out for help. Knowledgeable pastors can be sensitive to and assist these persons in finding the help they need.

Affected persons need information and education about alcohol and drug problems which often can be provided by community resources such as Councils on Alcohol and Drug Abuse. They need support and effective ways for dealing with the problem within the family through Al-Anon groups which meet regularly in almost every community.

When the afflicted person is ready for help, a professional assessment will determine his or her medical needs for detoxification (coming off the drug or alcohol) and constructing a plan for effective treatment and recovery.

Congregational Responses

Congregations with a substance abuse ministry team can support the pastor by keeping him aware of the community resources, by helping the congregation recognize the serious nature of addiction (including physical, mental, emotional and spiritual effects) through awareness and education and by facilitating the participation of both afflicted and affected persons in twelve-step support meetings.

Programmatically, ministry to recovering persons and their loved ones can take on many forms:

  1. Opening the congregation’s facilities to regular twelve-step meetings, Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon, Al-Ateen, Codependency Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous.
  2. Beginning a class that ties the twelve steps to the Bible.
  3. Beginning a support group for people in healing from addictions who have moved into the later stages of recovery.
  4. Offering parenting support groups and, if needed, an intervention support group for parents already concerned about their children’s behavior.
  5. Offering facilities and volunteers to lead curricula-based support groups for children and young adults who have been traumatized by alcoholism, other dependencies, divorce, illness or death.
  6. Inviting recovering persons to speak on awareness Sundays or make presentations to study groups, to Sunday school and other classes.
  7. Training interested ministers and other church members to advocate for and support people in recovery, to have familiarity with addictions and addictive family systems, to possess adequate assessment skills, to offer pastoral counseling and confidentiality and to develop resources within and without the congregation for connecting people with the help they need.

Churches have both the obligation and the opportunity to minister to substance abusers and their families. While every church cannot sustain multiple ministries, every church can choose a starting point for reaching out to persons affected by substance abuse who want and need help.

The Church’s Role in Prevention

The church has an active role to plan in prevention. In an examination of surveys from more than 47,000 youth in public schools, the Search Institute found that youth who attended religious services at least once or twice a month were nearly half as likely to engage in any of the at-risk behaviors, (i.e., frequent alcohol use, sexual activity, drug use, etc.), than those who rarely or never attended religious activities. This finding holds true for all ages and for both males and females. Significantly, the study confirms the fact that simply being involved in church is a protective factor for youth.

Yet, we cannot afford to be complacent because there are youth in our churches who are at risk for alcohol and drug problems. In another Search Institute study, 3000 adolescents gave poor ratings to the church when asked how well their churches helped them deal with at-risk behaviors. Most reported little time addressing a variety of issues of importance to them. Forty-three percent of the students reported two or fewer hours in their lifetime spent at church discussing sex. And thirty-six percent reported two or fewer hours learning about alcohol or other drugs.

Congregations can and must find people and other resources that address issues that youth face such as alcohol and drug abuse from a Christian standpoint. Education in church needs to include opportunities for young people to connect these issues to their faith, their values and their experience.

Another researcher, Bonnie Bernard, in her review of prevention literature, suggests there are three important protective factors that need to be in place in young people’s lives:

  1. Caring, supportive adults,
  2. High expectations, and
  3. Opportunities to participate.

The church can offer many opportunities for youth to experience caring relationships with adults – in Sunday School, youth groups and other church activities. Yet, it is important for adults to be intentional and to take the time to nurture these important relationships. Youth programs should be challenging as well as fun. They should address important issues giving youth opportunities to grow and mature. Adults who work with youth should communicate clear and consistent boundaries on alcohol and drug use. Recent research reveals that youth who begin to drink before age 15 are four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence than those who begin drinking at 21. It is important for all adults to know the value of postponing beginning use.

Youth also need opportunities to participate and be contributing members of the congregation. Community service projects not only help them live out their faith, but also teach them valuable leadership skills.

Prevention Ideas and Activities for Churches

The church is truly a community partner in prevention when clergy and members recognize and value the important role effective ministry to youth has in preventing alcohol and drug problems. With the help of appropriate resource people and materials, more time can be spent in discussions with youth about critical issues facing them as well as in activities and projects that build skills and help youth see themselves as faithful, contributing members to society. Other ideas and activities include:

  1. Bringing parents and their children together in workshops, retreats and other settings to learn about and discuss substance use and abuse.
  2. Sponsoring special activities to support young people in finding themselves and in gaining the strength of identity, as well as the information and skills needed to make wise choices.
  3. Sponsoring meaningful education, recreation and outreach programs for youth such as mentoring or Big Brothers/Big Sisters, which offer young people opportunities to establish relationships with adults who are not their parents.
  4. Using the church newsletter to provide parenting information and educational opportunities.
  5. Involving youth in planning and carrying out community service projects.
  6. Offering programs and projects that involve all ages and give youth an opportunity to establish relationships with numerous adults.
  7. Communicating with the congregation the importance of all adults giving some time and energy to teaching and supporting youth.

“Ministry and Substance Abuse” is one of fourteen articles in the Getting Well: Christian Perspectives on Health, Sickness, and Ministry series. Getting Well deals with major health and biomedical issues.

Published by
Christian Life Commission


Ferrell Foster
Director, Ethics & Justice,Christian Life Commission

(512) 473-2288