Theological Reflections on Celebrate Recovery:
A Prison Chaplain's Perspective
Over twenty years ago, Saddleback Church in the United States started a Celebrate Recovery program modelled on the twelve-steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (Appendix 1). They published twenty-five lessons in a series of four booklets that participants could take as part of a closed step study. They published a Celebrate Recovery Bible that included explanations of particular Scripture passages. Character sketches of fifty biblical and contemporary individuals were included. Saddleback Church deliberately made the AA program more Christian to reach parishioners who did not want to go to AA groups. Celebrate Recovery author John Baker explains that he felt uncomfortable in AA groups because he kept referring to Jesus Christ as his Higher Power. He felt uncomfortable in Christian groups because they did not know how to deal with his alcohol problem. Thus was born a Celebrate Recovery program aimed at Christians struggling in their personal lives.
I as a chaplain became involved in a local chapter of Celebrate Recovery nine years ago. I became a participant in the open share groups on Friday evenings. I completed a closed step study. I became a facilitator together with volunteers of CR in prison. I escorted inmates together with volunteers once a month to Celebrate Recovery sessions in the community.
Celebrate Recovery represented an excellent way for inmates to deal with their hurts, habits, and hang-ups. Offenders welcomed the opportunity to share a meal with community members. They enjoyed the music, worship, and prayer services. They listened carefully to the testimonies and teaching sessions. They felt comfortable sharing in the gender-specific groups dedicated to particular topics. I together with other chaplains encouraged volunteers to start a Celebrate Recovery group inside prison. Inmates generally have a lot of work to do before they can safely reintegrate in society. Celebrate Recovery represents one program among many others that help offenders move on with their lives.
Faith, Change, Equality, Identity, and Discipleship
What makes Celebrate Recovery so successful? I researched other programs offered to inmates in prison. I found that lawyer and religious studies professor Winnifred Sullivan had written a book about the success of the InnerChange Freedom Initiative program offered to offenders in an Iowa prison (1998-2008).  Five ingredients made this program work: faith, belief in change, egalitarianism, self-identity, and discipleship. All five aspects are included in the eight Christian principles of the Celebrate Recovery program (Appendix 1). Principle 2 of Celebrate Recovery fulfills the requirement of faith by asking participants to “earnestly believe that God exists.” Principle 3 fulfills the second requirement of belief in change. It involves “consciously committing all of my life and will to Christ’s care and control.”
Principle 4 speaks to the egalitarian nature of the program. After completing an inventory of their lives, participants share these experiences with someone they trust, usually a sponsor within the program. Believers work on self-identity, the fourth ingredient, when they ask God to “remove my character defects” in Principle 5, “evaluate my relationships” in Principle 6, and “reserve a daily time with God in self-examination” in Principle 7.
Discipleship is included throughout the eight principles. Principle 1 speaks about being powerless to “control my tendency to do the wrong thing.” Principle 2 says that God has the power to help the participant recover. A person consciously commits themselves to Christ’s care and control in principle 3. The person shares about their life with someone they trust in Principle 4. The person voluntarily submits themselves to any changes that God wants them to make in principle 5. The believer offers forgiveness for hurts experienced and makes amends for harm done in principle 6. Principle 7 has the participant gaining the power to follow God’s will. Principle 8 has to do with yielding oneself to God. Faith in God, will to change, egalitarian sharing, and self-understanding include the theme of discipleship at all stages of the process.
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