As the 70 of us gathered at St George’s Church in Leeds for the annual UK conference of the International Substance Abuse and Addiction Coalition (ISAAC), courage and unity filled the building. ISAAC represents Christian organisations working with those who suffer from substance abuse or addiction. There were also organisations there that focus on prevention, from Yeldall Manor and Jubilee Plus to Hope UK and Christians Against Poverty.

There was a sense of awe in the room, both by the amount of work still to do in this area and by what these various organisations manage to achieve. Perhaps the most powerful part of the conference was the testimony of two men whose lives had been transformed by the work of Lighthouse Yorkshire. Both had been homeless and used drugs after difficult life experiences. Through the outreach of Lighthouse, they were drawn to The Crypt at St George’s Church, where they not only were freed from their addictions but also went on to accept Christ and start a completely new life.

We also heard about the power of community to break the chains of addiction, such as the work of Betel which plants churches for people seeking to be free of addiction. They live together, work together and worship together, supporting each other in their recovery. The success of this model can be seen in the leaders of Betel’s many communities worldwide, who have themselves been freed from addiction and come to know Jesus through the ministry they now lead. Betel’s ministry is a wonderful illustration of the freedom for which Christians pray and advocate in society. For more on this, please read our What kind of society? resource, which has further information on Betel.

Christian intervention

All these stories exemplify how Christians offer a unique ministry to those with addictions. While other organisations can also help people to get off drugs, Christians offer a whole new life in Christ and freedom from the underlying factors that cause dependency on drugs. Many Christian ministries work in this area in the UK, and the need is great. In one year, 2016 – 17, 136,352 drug offences were recorded in England and Wales, and this no doubt represents
only a fraction of all those caught up in such addiction.

Many Christian ministries work in this area in the UK, and the need is great.

The Evangelical Alliance has responded in the past to the great damage that drugs can cause in our society. In 1987 it created the Evangelical Coalition on Drugs (ECOD) in response to rising numbers of people in the UK being exposed to and affected by drugs, while government policies merely focused on harm reduction’ rather than dealing with the issue at its roots. In addition, there was concern that the church was failing to provide vital long-term support to drug and alcohol users, so the Evangelical Alliance started the ECOD as an umbrella organisation to support those working in the area of drug and alcohol addiction, and to encourage more Christians to get involved.

The ECOD was involved in several projects, from policy work to providing educational resources. On policy, in 1992 it campaigned against the legalisation of cannabis by writing for different publications and lobbying MEPs before a vote in the European Parliament, where the motion to legalise cannabis was voted down. The debate about legalising certain drugs has not gone away since that time. As for education, the Drug-free Schools initiative was another large project undertaken by the ECOD. It provided a range of attractive and user-friendly materials alongside a promotional video and magazine articles for young people, parents, and youth leaders promoting a drug-free lifestyle.

As the Government revises its guidance on age-appropriate health education, this discussion remains vital even today. Christians dealing with this in the family and in schools need our prayers. In an effort to understand how Christian youth were affected by drugs compared to the general population, the ECOD put out a survey at Spring Harvest that polled around 8,000 young people from ages 12 to 30. Its findings were shockingly similar to that of secular studies and revealed the church’s drug problem”.

In 2001 the ECOD passed over its work to ISAAC. And from the recent conference, Christian work in this area is still going strong. What motivates evangelical Christians to engage with such a difficult set of problems as addiction? Some find it surprising that issues such as gambling, alcohol and illegal drugs are key areas of advocacy for evangelical Christians, as represented by the Evangelical Alliance. We work on these issues with the recognition, reinforced by the experience of those in our poorest communities, that addiction has a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable.

The church is not able to perform this role in its own strength, but only because it is the way God has chosen to act in the world.

But as the ECOD’s survey noted, those who struggle with such things are not only ministered to by our churches but are also part of our churches. These are reasons enough for Christians and churches to be concerned about addiction. So, when we engage with government on this issue, as the Evangelical Alliance we are giving a wider voice to the concerns of our members. When it came to gambling, this engagement was prompted by member churches that were concerned with the liberalisation of the gambling law and what that meant for their
communities. As with legal substances such as alcohol, and with illegal drugs, we want
policies that protect the most vulnerable and recognise moral concerns beyond maximising individual freedom.

More than policy

But this question is not simply a matter of finding the right government policies to address the problem. Above all, the church is called to be the community in which and through which God works in the lives of those dealing with addiction. We see this in different ways – from the prison chaplain giving hope in church leader Clyde Thomas’s story, which features in the January-February edition of idea, to the work of St George’s Crypt, to Christian teachers and youth workers focusing on prevention more than cure. We see it in larger ministries like Betel, which focus primarily on addiction, but also in the local church, which may offer a hand of support and walk with someone who struggles in this area.

The church is not able to perform this role in its own strength, but only because it is the way God has chosen to act in the world. The church is the body of Christ: Christ’s hands and feet and the conduit of God’s presence by the Holy Spirit. The hope that this presence of God brings to the darkest of situations is set out by Dr Anna Robbins in her theology piece for the January-February edition of idea. She writes: The Holy Spirit enables us to sing in the dark of the prison and hold the hand of the dying child. He shouts when we aren’t listening, and whispers when we are afraid. He enables us to speak truth to lies, and to cry justice to exploitation. He shows us how things really are. They are not what we expect.”

Part of this unexpectedness of God’s work can be seen when those who struggle with addiction are rescued and set free from it. This perhaps lies behind the words of missionary C.T. Studd, often cited as an inspiration to addiction ministries. He wrote: Some want to live within the sound of church or chapel bell; I want to run a rescue shop, within a yard of hell.” In ministries across the UK, the church remains that rescue shop from the living hell of addiction, even to this day.

So, what can Christians do to support these different ministries? We’ll leave you with three suggestions:

  1. Pray
    The organisations mentioned in this article are engaged in a tremendously difficult field. While they see great miracles and wonderful testimonies, they also face great difficulties in the issues they deal with, and need our prayers each day, both for those who work in this area and for those they support. Consider praying regularly for one of the organisations we have highlighted here, either individually or as a local church or small group.
  2. Learn
    Find out if any of the ministries mentioned above are active in your local area, or if any
    churches are working with those recovering from addiction. Why not ask one of them to
    speak at your own church, particularly if they are working nearby?
  3. Stay tuned
    As the issues of drug addiction and policy responses are debated in Parliament, the
    Evangelical Alliance will seek to be a voice for the vulnerable in these debates. Keep informed about our advocacy and public policy work on this and other issues by subscribing to our updates.

Kaiya Huleatt, advocacy team assistant, co-authored this article.