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The Church and the Drug Crisis in Rural Communities Part 4: The Role of the Church in Addressing Drug Addiction

The rural church is more than just a center of religious activities in a local community.  It is a critical part of the community in bringing not only the hope of the gospel, but also in fostering the social wellbeing of the community. Often the rural church is overlooked by outsiders as insignificant because of its size.  Yet its presence in these small communities doting the landscape provides the rural church a unique opportunity to have a significant impact on the lives of people.  Even for those who do not regularly attend the church, the local fellowship is still regarded as “their church,” a place they turn to in times of trials.  This gives the church an opportunity not only to have a positive impact on the community on a variety of social and spiritual issues, but also to have an impact in addressing the opioid crisis plaguing rural areas. 

The Gospel and Addiction

              For the church to become engaged in dealing with the problem of opioids, the church first needs to recognize that its involvement is grounded in, and driven by, the great commission and the gospel message.  While the gospel is centered upon the redemptive message of Christ, the means by which we communicate the gospel is found in the daily ministry we have in serving the needs of people. As Richard Lints points out, “Those who are empowered by the theological vision do not simply stand against the mainstream impulses of the culture but take the initiative both to understand and speak to that culture from the framework of the scriptures.”[i]  In other words, our message of the gospel is to be contextualized in the lives and daily struggles of people. To reach people for Christ we must enter their world and minister to their needs and struggles.  This includes those struggling with addiction who are often marginalized by the rest of the community. The gospel is first and foremost about Christ’s reconciliation through his substitutionary death.  But the gospel encompasses far more than just salvation.  It is about bringing complete transformation to people so that they are free from the bondage of sin and brought into the kingdom of Christ.  It is about coming alongside of the addict and giving them find hope and deliverance from the domination of addiction so that they might experience the freedom of Christ.  

The Church and the Addict

              A vital church is not one existing in isolation from the world, but one that is engaging the community by addressing the struggles people are facing.  God calls the church to be present in the lives of people, including those captured by addiction.  This is why the church must see the vital role it plays in helping people and communities deal with the current addiction crisis facing rural communities.  The church exists within the community as a place for people to seek help and bring hope to those struggling with opioids.

In rural communities, people are more family-centered and thus they are more likely to turn to family members for help rather than outside agencies.[ii] This stems from the foundation of trust that is critical before people will seek help.  This is also what opens the doors for the church to play a critical role in address addictions. In rural communities, it has already established trust within the community both because of its presence within the community and also because of the relational connections the congregation has with families and friends struggling to deal with addictions and its effect. This is critical, for research has shown that the most effective treatment involves not only the treatment of the physical, emotional, and mental issues giving rise to addiction, but also addressing the spiritual wellbeing of people as well.[iii] 

              In many rural communities, the church serves as the linchpin for dealing with the struggle of drugs for a number of important reasons. First, the church maintains a presence in the community. Because many rural communities do not have adequate mental health and social services available to deal with the drug crisis, the rural church remains a critical link for assistance for those who are struggling with addictions. Simply put, the church is already present within the communities where other services are not available.  Second, because of its knowledge of local communities provides adaptability.  The effectiveness of any program will be grounded in its ability to adapt to the local setting.   Consequently, understanding and recognizing the variety that exists within the rural/small town setting and the churches within them is crucial.  There are vast differences between rurality in Montana and rurality in New England.  Any program addressing the community crisis with drugs needs to be adaptable to the specific settings and culture of the community.  Faith-based institutions present in the local community have the insight and knowledge of the local community to effectively adapt the program to the local needs. Third, the rural church provides a holistic approach.  Dealing with opioid addiction requires a holistic approach to the person that encompasses their environment, personality, and spiritual life.  Studies have demonstrated that faith-based recovery programs increase the likelihood of success,[iv] which is no surprise for those of us who hold to a biblical world view where one’s relationship with God is the foundation of life.  The church serves as an important bridge between resources and the incorporation of spiritual and biblical guidance in helping individuals caught in the web of addiction.

However, this leads to several significant problems that can hinder the church from playing a critical role.  While the individual may seek help from the church, the church is often not prepared to provide the type of services needed.[v]  This is not only true of the church, but of the pastor as well.  Only 12.5 percent of pastors have had any training related to substance abuse, yet 94 percent of clergy report that substance abuse is an important issue among family members in their church and 38 percent state that alcohol abuse contributes to over half of the family problems they face in the counseling.[vi]  However, because of their lack of training, they often avoid the issue.  This is further compounded by the failure of medical professionals and social services to value or incorporate faith and spirituality in the treatment for substance abuse and addicts.[vii]  As a result, there is little effort to collaborate together to help individuals struggling with the misuse of drugs and help the families affected by it.

If the church is to be effective in helping both the individual and the family deal with the struggle of substance abuse, three areas need to be addressed.  First is readiness.  Readiness involves the church’s understanding of the issues contributing to addiction as well as understand the problems arising from addiction for both the individual and the families. This involves not only understanding the past experiences the congregation has had with family members with addiction problems but also their attitudes and perceptions about addiction and those who struggle with it.  Tragically only about 40 percent of Churches are moderately ready to help those with addiction and only ten percent of churches offer programs addressing substance abuse.[viii]  The second challenge involves resourcing.  Resourcing involves both the availability of resources to help individuals with recovery as well as the training in the use of these resources.  Often pastors and lay-leaders feel inadequate to tackle the complexity of problems that arise when helping people and families struggling with addiction.  As a result, it is important for the church to provide both training and support for people to further build their confidence in helping others.  Resourcing not only involves the use of and training related to faith-based recovery programs, but also assisting the person and family in connecting with other programs and services.  Last, is the area of recovery.  Recovery is the process of developing long-term relationships to help individuals overcome their addiction.  Just as spiritual discipleship is not an event but a process, so recovery is not an event but a continual process of support and encouragement.  This includes not only addressing the spiritual aspect of recovery but also the other emotional, economic, and mental health issues that contribute to addiction.  

Role of the Pastor

              Because of the position of the Pastor both in the community and in the church, the pastor becomes essential both within the church and within the community to bring significant change and resources to rural communities.  First, the pastor can serve as an advocate for those who are struggling with addiction by helping them connect with the services and resources the individual needs to obtain help in dealing with their substance abuse.  This includes helping the find the right medical and mental health treatment.  One of the problems with addiction is that the individual feels helpless and does not know how or where to get help.  While the pastor may not be adequately trained in all facets of addiction, they can serve as an advocate to help the individual find the help they need. 

              Second, the pastor can also develop collaborative connections with other agencies and services in the community to work together to provide help for those with addictions as well as work with collaboratively to provide education within the community regarding the dangers of medical opioids.  As a leader in the community, the pastor can play an important role in working with others in drug abuse prevention programs.

              Third, the pastor plays an important role in helping addicts find freedom from substance abuse.  Not only can they serve to connect the individual with recovery programs and services, but the pastor plays an important role in providing spiritual guidance and discipleship.  True recovery not only comes when the person is free from their struggle with addiction but also when the person finds true freedom in Christ.  This is why it is critical that the pastor is involved in any recovery program.  While they may not be trained to deal with all the nuances of both the cause as well as the struggle of addiction, their role as a spiritual guide cannot be understated.

Conclusion:

              As we have seen repeatedly throughout this series, the opioid crisis is not going away.  As rural communities are becoming the “new ghetto”[ix] the rural church needs to think differently about how they approach ministry.  Just as the inner-city church had to address the broad community struggles to effectively reach people with the gospel, the rural church will need to become involved with people facing deep and troubling issues if we are to reach them with the gospel. The church must move beyond the walls of the building and into the lives of people and that will require facing new challenges.


[i] Quoted in Stephen Witmer, A Big Gospel in Small Places,” p. 63

[ii] Elizabeth B. Robertson, Zili Sloboda, Gayle M. Boyd, Lula Beatty, Nicolas J. Kozel, eds. Rural Substance abuse: State of Knowledge and Issues. (Rockville, MD: National Institute on Drug Abuse, 1997,) p. 48

[iii] Dnika J. Travis, Joy A Learman, Drew Brooks, Trish Merrill, and Richard T. Pence, The faith Community, Substance Abuse, and Readiness for Change: A National Study, Journal of Social Service Research, https://faith-partners.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/The-Faith-Community-Substance-Abuse-and-Readiness-for-Change.pdf  Accessed 9/3/2020.

[iv] Aleandre B. Laudet, Keith Morgen, William L. White., “The Role of Social Supports, Spirituality, Religiousness, lLife Meaning and Affiliation with 12-sete Fellowships in Quality of Life Satisfaction Among Individuals in Recovery from Alcohol a Drug Problems.

[v] Ibid. p.

[vi] So Help Me God: Substance Abuse, Religion and Spirituality, The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia university, November 2001 p. 3

[vii]  So Help Me God: Substance Abuse, Religion and Spirituality, The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia university, November 2001 p. ii

[viii] Ibid. p. 10 and 14.

[ix] For a further discussion on what rural areas are becoming the new ghetto see, Osha Davidson, Broken Heartland: The Rise of America’s Rural Ghetto, (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1996).

The Gospel and Addiction

              For the church to become engaged in dealing with the problem of opioids, the church first needs to recognize that its involvement is grounded in, and driven by, the great commission and the gospel message.  While the gospel is centered upon the redemptive message of Christ, the means by which we communicate the gospel is found in the daily ministry we have in serving the needs of people. As Richard Lints points out, “Those who are empowered by the theological vision do not simply stand against the mainstream impulses of the culture but take the initiative both to understand and speak to that culture from the framework of the scriptures.”[i]  In other words, our message of the gospel is to be contextualized in the lives and daily struggles of people. To reach people for Christ we must enter their world and minister to their needs and struggles.  This includes those struggling with addiction who are often marginalized by the rest of the community. The gospel is first and foremost about Christ’s reconciliation through his substitutionary death.  But the gospel encompasses far more than just salvation.  It is about bringing complete transformation to people so that they are free from the bondage of sin and brought into the kingdom of Christ.  It is about coming alongside of the addict and giving them find hope and deliverance from the domination of addiction so that they might experience the freedom of Christ.  

The Church and the Addict

              A vital church is not one existing in isolation from the world, but one that is engaging the community by addressing the struggles people are facing.  God calls the church to be present in the lives of people, including those captured by addiction.  This is why the church must see the vital role it plays in helping people and communities deal with the current addiction crisis facing rural communities.  The church exists within the community as a place for people to seek help and bring hope to those struggling with opioids.

In rural communities, people are more family-centered and thus they are more likely to turn to family members for help rather than outside agencies.[ii] This stems from the foundation of trust that is critical before people will seek help.  This is also what opens the doors for the church to play a critical role in address addictions. In rural communities, it has already established trust within the community both because of its presence within the community and also because of the relational connections the congregation has with families and friends struggling to deal with addictions and its effect. This is critical, for research has shown that the most effective treatment involves not only the treatment of the physical, emotional, and mental issues giving rise to addiction, but also addressing the spiritual wellbeing of people as well.[iii] 

              In many rural communities, the church serves as the linchpin for dealing with the struggle of drugs for a number of important reasons. First, the church maintains a presence in the community. Because many rural communities do not have adequate mental health and social services available to deal with the drug crisis, the rural church remains a critical link for assistance for those who are struggling with addictions. Simply put, the church is already present within the communities where other services are not available.  Second, because of its knowledge of local communities provides adaptability.  The effectiveness of any program will be grounded in its ability to adapt to the local setting.   Consequently, understanding and recognizing the variety that exists within the rural/small town setting and the churches within them is crucial.  There are vast differences between rurality in Montana and rurality in New England.  Any program addressing the community crisis with drugs needs to be adaptable to the specific settings and culture of the community.  Faith-based institutions present in the local community have the insight and knowledge of the local community to effectively adapt the program to the local needs. Third, the rural church provides a holistic approach.  Dealing with opioid addiction requires a holistic approach to the person that encompasses their environment, personality, and spiritual life.  Studies have demonstrated that faith-based recovery programs increase the likelihood of success,[iv] which is no surprise for those of us who hold to a biblical world view where one’s relationship with God is the foundation of life.  The church serves as an important bridge between resources and the incorporation of spiritual and biblical guidance in helping individuals caught in the web of addiction.

However, this leads to several significant problems that can hinder the church from playing a critical role.  While the individual may seek help from the church, the church is often not prepared to provide the type of services needed.[v]  This is not only true of the church, but of the pastor as well.  Only 12.5 percent of pastors have had any training related to substance abuse, yet 94 percent of clergy report that substance abuse is an important issue among family members in their church and 38 percent state that alcohol abuse contributes to over half of the family problems they face in the counseling.[vi]  However, because of their lack of training, they often avoid the issue.  This is further compounded by the failure of medical professionals and social services to value or incorporate faith and spirituality in the treatment for substance abuse and addicts.[vii]  As a result, there is little effort to collaborate together to help individuals struggling with the misuse of drugs and help the families affected by it.

If the church is to be effective in helping both the individual and the family deal with the struggle of substance abuse, three areas need to be addressed.  First is readiness.  Readiness involves the church’s understanding of the issues contributing to addiction as well as understand the problems arising from addiction for both the individual and the families. This involves not only understanding the past experiences the congregation has had with family members with addiction problems but also their attitudes and perceptions about addiction and those who struggle with it.  Tragically only about 40 percent of Churches are moderately ready to help those with addiction and only ten percent of churches offer programs addressing substance abuse.[viii]  The second challenge involves resourcing.  Resourcing involves both the availability of resources to help individuals with recovery as well as the training in the use of these resources.  Often pastors and lay-leaders feel inadequate to tackle the complexity of problems that arise when helping people and families struggling with addiction.  As a result, it is important for the church to provide both training and support for people to further build their confidence in helping others.  Resourcing not only involves the use of and training related to faith-based recovery programs, but also assisting the person and family in connecting with other programs and services.  Last, is the area of recovery.  Recovery is the process of developing long-term relationships to help individuals overcome their addiction.  Just as spiritual discipleship is not an event but a process, so recovery is not an event but a continual process of support and encouragement.  This includes not only addressing the spiritual aspect of recovery but also the other emotional, economic, and mental health issues that contribute to addiction.  

Role of the Pastor

              Because of the position of the Pastor both in the community and in the church, the pastor becomes essential both within the church and within the community to bring significant change and resources to rural communities.  First, the pastor can serve as an advocate for those who are struggling with addiction by helping them connect with the services and resources the individual needs to obtain help in dealing with their substance abuse.  This includes helping the find the right medical and mental health treatment.  One of the problems with addiction is that the individual feels helpless and does not know how or where to get help.  While the pastor may not be adequately trained in all facets of addiction, they can serve as an advocate to help the individual find the help they need. 

              Second, the pastor can also develop collaborative connections with other agencies and services in the community to work together to provide help for those with addictions as well as work with collaboratively to provide education within the community regarding the dangers of medical opioids.  As a leader in the community, the pastor can play an important role in working with others in drug abuse prevention programs.

              Third, the pastor plays an important role in helping addicts find freedom from substance abuse.  Not only can they serve to connect the individual with recovery programs and services, but the pastor plays an important role in providing spiritual guidance and discipleship.  True recovery not only comes when the person is free from their struggle with addiction but also when the person finds true freedom in Christ.  This is why it is critical that the pastor is involved in any recovery program.  While they may not be trained to deal with all the nuances of both the cause as well as the struggle of addiction, their role as a spiritual guide cannot be understated.

Conclusion:

              As we have seen repeatedly throughout this series, the opioid crisis is not going away.  As rural communities are becoming the “new ghetto”[ix] the rural church needs to think differently about how they approach ministry.  Just as the inner-city church had to address the broad community struggles to effectively reach people with the gospel, the rural church will need to become involved with people facing deep and troubling issues if we are to reach them with the gospel. The church must move beyond the walls of the building and into the lives of people and that will require facing new challenges.


[i] Quoted in Stephen Witmer, A Big Gospel in Small Places,” p. 63

[ii] Elizabeth B. Robertson, Zili Sloboda, Gayle M. Boyd, Lula Beatty, Nicolas J. Kozel, eds. Rural Substance abuse: State of Knowledge and Issues. (Rockville, MD: National Institute on Drug Abuse, 1997,) p. 48

[iii] Dnika J. Travis, Joy A Learman, Drew Brooks, Trish Merrill, and Richard T. Pence, The faith Community, Substance Abuse, and Readiness for Change: A National Study, Journal of Social Service Research, https://faith-partners.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/The-Faith-Community-Substance-Abuse-and-Readiness-for-Change.pdf  Accessed 9/3/2020.

[iv] Aleandre B. Laudet, Keith Morgen, William L. White., “The Role of Social Supports, Spirituality, Religiousness, lLife Meaning and Affiliation with 12-sete Fellowships in Quality of Life Satisfaction Among Individuals in Recovery from Alcohol a Drug Problems.

[v] Ibid. p.

[vi] So Help Me God: Substance Abuse, Religion and Spirituality, The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia university, November 2001 p. 3

[vii]  So Help Me God: Substance Abuse, Religion and Spirituality, The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia university, November 2001 p. ii

[viii] Ibid. p. 10 and 14.

[ix] For a further discussion on what rural areas are becoming the new ghetto see, Osha Davidson, Broken Heartland: The Rise of America’s Rural Ghetto, (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1996).