Opioid abuse has reached epidemic proportions – and it’s happening within your church. The face of the opioid crisis is no longer the heroin addict strung out on the streets. Roughly 21 to 29 percent of patients prescribed opioids for chronic pain misuse them – equating to 11.4 million prescription opioid addicts in 2016. He’s the former football player who’s a frequent attender but dealing silently with the long-term effects of knee injuries. She’s the mother of two that sits in the back pew suffering from loneliness and relationship issues stemming from childhood sexual abuse.
The game has changed for illegal opioids as well. Far more powerful drugs are on the market. Compared to Heroin, fentanyl is 50 times and Carfentanil (formerly best known as an elephant tranquilizer) 5,000 times more potent.
Overdoses and deaths from prescription and illegal opioid usage are dramatically increasing in nearly every city and county across the country, including yours. Consequently, government and secular agencies are pouring funds into intervention and recovery programs at unprecedented levels. The White House has declared the opioid epidemic a nationwide public health emergency and is seeking nearly $17 billion in opioid-related spending in 2019.
While taking measures to save lives and alleviate severe withdrawals are necessary, no amount of money spent on solutions apart from Christ will resolve the crisis. Yet few pastors have it on their radar. Most haven’t personally encountered it in their church. They aren’t aware of the alarming statistics in their communities. They are ill-equipped to respond to someone who approaches them with an addiction of any kind, much less an opiate. The knee-jerk reaction of most church leaders is to refer a confessing parishioner to a local agency, essentially outsourcing – when they hold the keys to recovery.
Should the Crisis Concern Churches?
Addiction is a faith issue. Jesus is the answer. Even the Department of Health and Human Services understands the critical role of the “faith community”, recently producing an extensive toolkit for faith leaders that even references the power of prayer. Our federal government is willing to risk crossing perceived church/state boundaries because they know faith is the only way out. Likewise, Narcotics Anonymous (and AA) continually stresses the importance of looking outside ourselves for answers. It is common knowledge that attempting to exorcise that particular demon through personal willpower only entrenches it further within.
Nevertheless, with the door wide open to demonstrate the love of Jesus to a waiting world, our churches largely ignore the opioid crisis and remain on the sidelines in the battle. Collaboration is called for, but the needle in America is instead moving toward churches doing more branded, independent and infrequent outreach. Proactive engagement and partnerships are needed, but many contend that pastors will not act in earnest unless the crisis threatens to disrupt the sanctity or growth of their church. Until that moment, most fail to see how the crisis relates to them.
However, every aspect of this crisis is linked integrally to a person’s relationship with God. Opioid use is entirely centered around one objective – pain alleviation, whether physical or psychological. The crisis is not about drugs, it’s about pain management. Pain stems from surgeries, PTSD, depression, isolation, failed relationships, socioeconomic factors, child neglect or abuse – to name a few. Faith in Christ eases each of these causes of psychological pain and stops necessary usage of opioids (for significant physical pain) from becoming abuse.
C.S. Lewis wrote “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” We miss out on all God wants to do through our pain when we try to escape (bearable) pain through drugs and alcohol. Romans 5:3-4 says “Let us also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”
Is anyone suffering in your congregation or community? If so, then be assured they are tempted to escape through self-medicating (whether prescribed or illegal) rather than running toward the Lord. Church leaders are gatekeepers for those in any sort of pain, who find themselves stuck between those two alternatives – Jesus or drugs. Hesitating to speak openly with the church about the opioid crisis, share facts about the dangers, train members to recognize the signs and intervene boldly when required leaves those in pain at risk of falling to temptation.
And the consequences of succumbing are dire – costing many their faith, families, careers, savings, health and lives. Consider the impact on children as well – like me who for all practical purposes lost my mom as a young boy to prescription drug and alcohol addiction. If you surveyed your congregation, there’s a good chance that nearly every family has been touched in some way by the opioid crisis – not to mention alcohol addiction.
What Can Churches Do About the Crisis?
Below is a blueprint to address opioid (and alcohol) abuse within your congregations and communities. Nearly all options are viable and applicable even for a small church.
- Increase your understanding of addiction and the opioid crisis
- Educate others in your congregation and community
- Break down the walls of shame and stigma
- Conduct an Awareness Sunday at your church
- Distribute information about the crisis
- Issue a call to action
- Encourage those impacted to seek help
- Share the hope that healing is possible
- Identify those able and willing to provide support
- Monitor and prevent risk factors for potential opioid abuse
- Recognize signs of opioid use and act early
- Foster genuine community and transparency
- Conduct a church-wide assessment
- Identify primary spiritual and social needs of the congregation
- Learn about outside resources that can be leveraged if needed
- Gauge preparedness to address risk factors and crisis internally
- Take note of those in physical or emotional pain
- Counsel those at risk (or their family members)
- Always ask tough questions when opioid abuse is suspected
- Advise and counsel those currently affected by addiction
- Provide and promote access to faith, social and clinical resources
- Appoint an (internal) leader on this issue
- Organize efforts to build support structures for families in crisis
- Improve perception of your church as a “safe” place for help
- Ensure staff and other key leaders are trained to recognize signs of suffering and stress
- Provide practical support to individuals and families in crisis
- Point congregants to vetted resources for clinical and medical support
- Celebrate overcomers and share success stories
- Support those struggling through the long road to recovery, reconciliation and redemption
- Provide a more wholistic picture of “health”
- Have resources and information ready and available
- Provide “family” and community for those in recovery
- Organize efforts to build support structures for families in crisis
- Provide economic, food, housing and transportation assistance
- Start a Celebrate Recovery program
The solution to the opioid crisis is not simply programs and pills. The answer lies in the hope found in Jesus alone and surrounding those tempted to abuse opioids with a loving community – the body of Christ. Disciples of Jesus will come to understand that this life is short, God teaches us through our pain, and we do not own our bodies – it is the temple of the Holy Spirit.
It’s Your Turn
Like me, have you seen addicts radically transformed solely by the love of Jesus? On that note, have you ever wondered whether any of the demons cast out by Jesus and His disciples were actually addictions? Those Jesus healed of demons were often described as incoherent, unable to speak and convulsing – doesn’t that sound a lot like an overdose?
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