Do you need a 12 step program to follow Jesus?

July 11th, 2018

I spend a lot of time, intentionally, with the spiritual but not religious folks in my community. I’m always amazed at the refreshing honesty and humor in our conversations. There’s a real willingness to laugh at former misfortunes, to give credit to a higher power, to talk of miracles and to be of service to others. I’ve often wondered how to bring those qualities to the congregations I once served or now coach. Turns out there’s a 12 step program for that! It’s outlined in an intriguing new book, Recovering from Church and Discovering Jesus: A 12 Step Program. It made me wonder: Do you need a 12 Step program to follow Jesus?

Retired pastors and authors Gerri Harvill and Stan Norman wondered the same thing. They shared their thoughts and ideas with me. Check it out; you’ll be inspired by the conversation.

Rebekah Simon-Peter: Gerri and Stan, you have written a book about spirituality apart from the institutional church and organized religion. Isn’t that an oxymoron for a Christian?

Gerri Harvill and Stan Norman: Well Rebekah, as pastors of a church we became aware that our own spirituality was gradually being taken away from us by the demands of the institution. We were told to pay attention to our spiritual health and then allowed no time or energy to do so. There was always one more report to fill out, one more person to visit, one more meeting to attend. We were stuck in upholding the institution at the expense of our spirituality.

RSP: I can relate. I’ve been there too! How did you respond?

GH & SN: We were very frustrated with the unwillingness of the institution, and of many in the congregation of the church where we served, to try anything new or change from getting together with friends for worship on Sunday, to following Jesus as a way of life. Since we had reached retirement age, we decided to step away from the institution and pursue spirituality with a few like-minded individuals. We gathered as a small community for 8 months before we realized that we were addicted to the rules and rituals of the church ourselves. Our friends in the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) communities seemed to have a better, more authentic handle on spirituality than we did as professional clergy.

RSP: What do you mean by that? Give me an example.

GH & SN: A few months into our gatherings we realized that we were becoming another church. We had only moved from the sanctuary to our living rooms and from Sunday morning to Saturday night. Our gathering time was scripted, we had liturgy and music and we were doing most of the talking. We had envisioned a community of equals gathering to help each other follow Jesus on a daily basis. But as leaders, we realized that we were still caught up in the rules and rituals of organized religion. We realized we were addicted.

RSP: What’s wrong with being addicted to the institutional church and organized religion?

GH & SN: The rules, rituals and traditions of the church itself become our “golden calf.” Church and religion become the idol that replaces God in our lives. It was a humbling experience to realize that we had become the very thing we had preached against for years.

RSP: So, is your book anti-church?

GH & SN: No! But our book does call for the institution of the church to change and become more like the movement that Jesus intended his church to be. The institution needs to die to some things so that God can resurrect it to new life.

RSP: How did you make the connection between substance addiction and spirituality?

GH & SN: Well Rebekah, we were exposed to the 12 step programs of AA and NA through groups that met at the church where we served. Our reading and research lead us to writers and teachers like Richard Rohr, Frederick Buechner, Gerald May and you yourself who had already recognized the intrinsic value of the 12 step programs for spiritual formation and growth.

RSP: What can 12 step groups teach the church about spiritual formation and growth?

GH & SN: Spiritual formation has to take place in community. It’s hard work; we shy away from it because we are scared and lazy. The authentic sharing and caring that takes place in AA and NA meetings is largely missing from the institutional church, replaced by judgment and hypocrisy.


I came away from my conversation with Gerri Harvill and Stan Norman energized and inspired by the bold steps they’d taken in reinventing the idea of church using the 12 step process. In my 2015 article “15 Things Alcoholics Anonymous Can Teach the Church,” I share their concerns about outdated rules and rituals impeding the process of spiritual awakening. I think Stan and Gerri are on to something; read their book and join them in discovering new ways to follow Jesus.

If you are looking for a way to connect up with the larger dreams of Jesus, contact me at to join my free one-hour webinar, Dream Like Jesus® on July 27 at 1:30 p.m. MT.

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