A Critique of Celebrate Recovery

Celebrate Recovery is a Christian faith-based version of Alcoholics Anonymous. So far, so good.

It also purports to help people find progress on non-addiction issues – any and all “hurts, habits, and hang-ups.” The latter is a serious mistake, in my opinion.

It is at best useless, and at worst abhorrent, for Celebrate Recovery to purport to offer help for grief, anger issues, codependency, depression, anxiety, any kind of unwanted sexual urge, self-harm, control issues, and – believe it or not – aftermath of sexual abuse! – with a 12 step program. It’s the equivalent of medical malpractice. 12 step programs were created as a model for moving out of chemical addiction. None of the above issues resemble addiction and shouldn’t be treated as such. Mental health issues, along with one’s emotional and psychological well-being, belong squarely in a counselor or doctor’s office.

The leaders of these small groups are only qualified in the sense that they have been through a 12 step program themselves and a Celebrate Recovery training retreat. That’s literally it. There’s no issue-specific education in this program whatsoever. The fact that a leader also deals with some version of “emotional issues” themselves is no qualification at all, because their experience and progress are measured solely by the length of time they’ve been in this addition-model program. Participants and leaders alike are expressly prohibited from offering any feedback on what is shared in the group sessions or recommending counseling except if someone’s safety is at stake. No tools, suggestions, insights, best practices, research, or helpful strategies are shared at all. No one seems to even be seeking them out on their own time, just showing up week after week to have parachurch about it. It’s a lot like a placebo, but with good people who feel like friends, so you want to keep coming back.

Cheerful, rote stagnation. Progress is just a chipper slogan along with “Keep coming back!”

Now, there is nothing wrong with – and plenty good with – an addiction support group that explicitly references Scripture and includes prayer, worship, etc. Celebrate Recovery meetings are structured as church services but focused on self-help or self-improvement in a 12-step model, with small group session afterwards to go through 12 step-inspired discussion questions regarding the message.

People absolutely have the right to faith-based support groups and/or treatment. It’s a huge priority for many, since addiction is an issue that lies in the middle of a very important Venn diagram – lifestyle/behavior change and spiritual journey. For earnest believers, these two categories are almost one and the same. They’re living their life in the middle of both circles and they want a recovery program that matches that convergence so they don’t feel like they have to leave their biggest support system at the door when they come to meetings.

To have to do so could possibly leave some people feeling embattled, unheard and unseen, make it difficult to trust, and put them at odds with their treatment program instead of wholeheartedly on board. It’s important that one’s core beliefs are upheld and respected in a process like this, and during the difficult, personal process of recovery, it becomes necessary to many to be in a space where those beliefs are also celebrated, encouraged, and openly preached. They not only want but need to be around like-minded people who will uphold their priorities on the road, because they’re only recently beginning to uphold them themselves.


About those other groups – “Emotional issues” etc.

What. Are. You. Getting. Chips. For?

Attendance. I kid you not.

The benefits of the meetings and group sessions for non-addicts lie almost exclusively in finding fellowship, hearing messages of hope and healing, and being in a vulnerable space where you realize you’re not alone and everyone else is dealing with stuff too. That is to say, the benefits for non-addicts lie in the people in the program and not in the program itself. Those attending week after week who clearly needed a change of meds or a good family therapist were the saddest cases. More insight could have be gained in one or two counseling sessions than in six months in the program, I dare say.

This will likely ruffle many feathers among those who found genuine community and support in the program, but I’m going to follow all the good inspirational advice that you and I have ever heard, and choose to speak out about my convictions anyway. This won’t be the last article I post in critique of something, nor will it be the most controversial. Sometimes your life circumstances put you in a unique position to see something that others in a community don’t. What you have in your mind and heart to say in those circumstances is almost always incredibly valuable and necessary, and only after speaking out will you find many others with similar experiences.

I’m writing this article to point out that joining a parachurch 12 Step program is hardly the logical solution to a lack of community or healthy peer support! You shouldn’t have to attend “recovery” meetings indefinitely with people who are just sort of camping out there permanently with no intention of leaving, define yourself as a person with issues week after week, and chant the Lord’s Prayer, 12 Steps, and Beatitudes (as good as those are, of course) in order to be accepted and loved as you are with all your brokenness. Most importantly, you shouldn’t be led to believe that doing those things is going to result in any kind of breakthrough in your personal life, because it just won’t.

A legitimate support group, on the other hand, focused on specific issues with informed leaders who were familiar with a variety of resources would actually be helpful. And if you just want to be around believers, go to church or small group. If you can’t vent and be vulnerable there – and unfortunately you frequently can’t – about all of the pain and mess in your life, turn to the realest people you know and invest in those relationships, or find another church group to be a part of (seriously).

Those pursuing sobriety are the best suited for the program, as they are going to be attending meetings of some kind anyway and will likely be very well served by a faith-based program. Their work with incarcerated individuals through CR Inside, as well as those in residential programs/halfway houses, is to be highly commended. But many of the folks without addiction I have some reservations about. So very many people have been helped by this program, but what about all those who weren’t helped? They showed up because of false advertising, essentially. How many wasted their time pursuing a friendly but at best inefficient approach to what they were going through?

I assure you there was no “progress” being made there for most folks. Friendships, yes. That was the main reason for going, and that’s not good enough. It’s the blind leading the blind.

If you’re at a really low point in your life, CR is a great place to come with your brokenness and be welcomed and accepted with it. It just may not be the best place to find a path forward out of it.

In hindsight, CR should have stuck to addiction – but that wouldn’t sell the program booklets and other materials, now would it? Yes, I “woke up today and chose violence”, as the kids are saying on the internet these days. Look, the people of CR are very sincere and enthusiastic about helping people and participating as much as possible in the program, and that gung-ho group mentality can be manipulated in a cultish way to focus more on salesmanship or evangelizing for the program rather than ever asking once if it’s the best solution for what everyone is going through.

Celebrate Recovery made a likely well-intentioned, ignorant mistake in widening its net beyond addiction. There is a lot of good and value in the program, but there’s no denying that it holds out the promise of help in areas in which it’s neither qualified nor interested in becoming qualified to do so.


Published by gracexaris

Explorer, thinker, writer, teacher, woman.

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