Celebrate Recovery: A Critical Review

(Jump to the problems or Biblical alternatives.)

The Word of God is life-changing. It starts with hearing the Gospel (video): how we're saved through faith by grace by Jesus Christ. The Gospel is all about who Jesus is, what He did, and living in a relationship with Him. If we believe, God gives us the Holy Spirit to make all that happen. He grows us to be more like Christ through His Word, teaching based on it, and people in the church who guide and help us. Within churches, we fill our minds with His Word, obey God, and let our love for each other grow more and more. Outside churches, Jesus commands us to proclaim His name, make disciples, baptize them, and teach them to obey His Word. Those churches steadily grow upward in holiness and horizontally in numbers until His Gospel reaches all people groups. God makes us instruments of His will to His glory... if we believe in and obey Christ.

This is how Jesus Christ changed my life. I was guilty of most sins there's a Bible passage about. After surrendering to Christ, I spent every day reading the Bible (starting with NT), praying about how He wants us to live, and asking God to help me become that person. God sent others to give good feedback, too. Taking free classes online, esp Bible overviews and Proverbs, helped me see God's will in more areas of life. Reading, praying on, and (where capable) obeying the Word daily changed me into a (mostly) different person over about 1-2 years. I'm so grateful for my new life. These Biblical methods that Christ and His Apostles used have worked from the start of the church to today, in thousands of people groups, and in the harshest environments (examples). They've gotten these results for nearly 2,000 years.

(Edit: God just granted revival by these same methods.)

For that reason, I believed that Jesus Christ, His Word, and living in obedience to it via His Spirit all we really need. Extra work (aka spiritual gifts) that build on those foundations help us grow a lot more. The foundation is critical, though. Yet, I heard about another method that did things totally different, claimed to be Biblical, and claimed even better results than most churches. What is that?

Celebrate Recovery

Celebrate Recovery claimed to be a Christ-centered, 12-step program. Some people there told me it was inspired by Alcoholics Anonymous but based on the Bible instead. The proponents said it's a life-changing program "with information every Christian needs to know." It has worship, Bible teachings, practical lessons on every area of life, and groups of people supporting each other through hard times. Even people who won't go to church sometimes will go there. The founding church says over 5 million people have "gone through the program." That all sounded really exciting!

A friend who wouldn't go to regular churches invited me. She had emphasized it was like a Christian church. That C.R. was a welcoming, worshipful community with many people who love Jesus. I stayed to review the program, encourage people, and learn from them. Specific people there who I'm very grateful for had a big impact on me. That was both their advice and Christ-like character they displayed. In each case, what they were doing was in God's Word with discipleship being all that's required to get there. How much of the good in C.R. came just from them following Christ vs C.R.'s materials? Could we just improve discipleship in churches or did they lack something C.R. had? I stayed to assess this.

It was hard to see the problems at first. God kept making His servants do more for Him than what was in the program. One guy in the band spontaneously shouted a good chunk of the Gospel every night, often beautifully described, just in praise to Jesus. One presenter liked going deeper into the Word than the materials required. A few people from solid churches were there ministering. I was there doing the work of an evangelist. I kept carefully listening to and reading C.R.'s materials.

Over time, I noticed more and more stuff that bothered me. There were many gaps, or even contradictions, between Scripture and C.R.. Their interpretations of famous passages went far from normal teaching. They sometimes quoted a fake Bible as God's Word. They'd also promote worldly, pagan, or even false teachings over clear teachings in the Bible. They sounded like A.A. or a prosperity gospel. They also treated non-believers like they were the church, too. Some visitors from Biblical churches noticed these things before leaving.

My biggest gripe was that they didn't share the whole Gospel (or barely shared it). When I confronted them about it, some argued that we shouldn't on most nights or should wait for them to come to us. Besides, the Gospel "is Step 3." (What?!) Whereas, those same people would go into depth on C.R.'s material, our works, and encourage evangelizing C.R. itself in a direct way. Promoting C.R. directly has value but not the Gospel?

A pastor once taught me that Christianity isn't about practices. It's about a person: Jesus Christ. They always pointed us back to Jesus' identity, holiness, love, struggles, atonement, authority, interceding for us in heaven now, and so on. We weren't doing something so much as imitating who He is. Whereas, you could listen to hours of C.R. services without getting to deeply know the man and God who died for our sins, was raised, and our whole church is built on. Who or what was C.R. really centered on?

My skepticism peaked when they said not to question C.R. because the originating church spent decades figuring out how to get its results. Just believe, follow, and it will work for you to.

Time for More Discernment

I decided to step way back to look at the whole program with fresh eyes. I looked into the originating church (Saddleback), the founders (Warren/Baker), the history, booklets, and so on. What I learned made me discourage people from even visiting C.R., much less being in it. Later, I'd encourage C.R. people to cut ties with it and shift to something Biblical.

God will hold us accountable for whether we put Christ first and obeyed His Word. John 15 shows God does His best work in and through us that way. Whereas, Jesus warned His disciples to beware of the leaven of false teachers. He, Paul, and Peter all called out false teaching with stern warnings. Hebrews says God also disciplines His children's sin. For those reasons, we're to avoid false teaching or call it out to obey God and keep others out of sin.

To warn all of you, I'll do a quick rundown of its good points, corrupt philosophy of the host church, pagan history, and false teachings in the program. People must turn away from them and repent regardless of what else they do. Then, I drafted some proposals on how to do a Biblical, support group. I also dug up some free resources on counseling in case they help people.

(Note: Before I go into it, I want to be clear that my statements about C.R. are about the program's development, materials, and operating philosophy. How a C.R. chapter actually runs is decided locally. The leaders may be much more focused on Christ and God's Word. Or much less. It's still important to review the program since it's the framework through which they operate. And they promote and give out its materials. If there's sin in these, even the best-run C.R. would be leading others into sin while endorsing false teachers.)

Strengths of Celebrate Recovery

The strengths in the order that I ran into them:

Many of those practices were in the New Testament. I expected to see them in churches. Yet, most of us attending C.R. didn't see that in our churches. The results people claimed that C.R. gave them made me keep coming to understand it better. Plus, it was just really awesome to see God move in many, visible ways every week. 

Both church-going and un-churched people kept asking for help like this. Even with that demand, most believers I talked to about it had no interest in doing something similar or helping those people in a Biblical way. Most would say it was interesting before going back to daily activities. Some people told me to refer those in need to a therapist or something. Most wouldn't even speak to them if they visited a church. If they did, it was a few minutes before leaving them alone again.

Yet, we're called to love and help others. I feel like there's instead a lot of apathy toward people in need in otherwise Biblical churches. I feel like this drives people to seek help outside of those churches in programs like these. And, if those churches lack love, how can they claim to be more Biblical? If better at interpreting the Word, shouldn't we hold them to an even higher standard when they love and care less than non-Biblical programs?

We need Christ, His Word, solid teaching, personal holiness, and love all together. All are necessary and work together. If a group failed in one or more areas, I struggled to figure out how to react to that with what priorities. I stayed in C.R. longer for that reason. What I noticed was churches with bad teaching, esp not Bible-driven, went in the wrong directions the most with turn around being hard or never happening. I'd continue to make the Gospel and God's Word the highest priority, use conformance to them as main tests, and address the remaining problems from there using the Word. Let's see where that led.

Problems of Celebrate Recovery (esp false teaching)

The problems of Celebrate Recovery are severe. I'll split this into a few sections. One set is where Celebrate Recovery came from with what philosophy. There's so much disobedience to God's Word in each step that big problems are inevitable. The next set describes the problems that showed up in abundance.

The Purpose-Driven Life (Rick Warren's philosophy)

So far, testing P.D.L. against God's Word shows there's a big gap between the two. For seven days straight, Rick minimized the person of Christ, put about 30s-1m into the Gospel, and went into enormous detail on everything else. He also focuses on earthly things more than heavenly things. He hasn't repented of or changed these practices that I know of. We should avoid his writing and church since this philosophy will corrupt whatever they do. If C.R. builds on it, our review will be that much easier.

Alcoholics Anonymous and John Baker (briefly)

Celebrate Recovery's Problems (in order I encountered them)

In summary, C.R. is thoroughly filled with false teaching and pagan practice. The "Christ-centered program" also minimizes the person of Christ and His Gospel. That makes "Christ-centered" more like a lie. The founding church hasn't fixed these issues in decades. That's enough to walk away from both Saddleback and Celebrate Recovery immediately. At least, that's what most people would advise if just using verses on false teaching.

If your theology leans toward 1 Thes. 5:21, these are still enough problems to avoid promoting C.R. to reduce the spread of false teaching. Even buying C.R. materials for a non-C.R. group would fund Saddleback which spreads their false teaching. Others who didn't know better might read them thinking you believe in all of it. The devil aims for these ripple effects of false teaching.

Can Churches Have the Same Benefits?

With their life-changing experiences, many Christians attending C.R. believe it makes sense to have a C.R.-like program. I tried to imagine one with all its benefits but none of its weaknesses. The alternative must be solidly ground in the Gospel, God's Word, have accountability for acting on both, and practical lessons that don't contradict either. Churches could implement it themselves alongside regular, Bible teaching. If they didn't, groups in churches or outside of them could do the same. What might that look like?

Developing Biblical Alternatives

We'll need a model to start with that's flexible, easy to learn, and grows believers. Many missionaries in South Asia use Three Thirds. It divides a meeting up into discussing the past week, a lesson, and goals for next week. If needed, that can be expanded into a full service with more information and activities. Three Thirds meetings already have group prayer, personal sharing, worship, lessons with group discussions, and goal setting. Just make sure the sharing time includes our actual sins, temptations, and worries.

For the lessons, the new program can ditch the pagan, 12-step model. Instead, they can use topical lessons grounded in God's Word. They can cover issues such as suffering, forgiveness, marriage, addiction, mental health, and so on. The topics of the new program can be in any order. If open-source and online, they can also be given to the group members ahead of time so they can jump right to learning what's most important to them. They can share what they learned on any topic in the personal-sharing part of the meeting. If on-topic, they might share it during the lesson discussion.

My big questions include what topics to teach, how much is theology, how much is personal issues, how to embed the Gospel, what Bible passages teach on specific topics, and whether and how much to use secular sources for therapy questions (esp worksheets). While brainstorming, I came up with a few models that might work. I encourage people to experiment while being careful about false teaching.

I have many resources on Biblical counseling to get people trained for this stuff. Ideally, Biblical counselors would write topical lessons for us. They could also write questions for participants to answer about themselves. I think such topical questions are called "therapy worksheets." Ideally, we'd have open-source worksheets that can be used for any purpose. Do those exist anywhere? If not, what Biblical counselors would make them for us? If they don't, there's probably questions you can use and cite in Christian articles, podcasts, and YouTube videos.

I know the therapy questions are really important to many people in C.R.. If they're not available, you can also produce your own by working backwards from information in articles, books, etc. They'll describe specific problems. You rephrase those statements into questions that people can ask themselves. You can also make broader statements to cover more ground. For example, a question about sexual abuse might be broadened into "have you suffered abuse at different points in your life?"

Try to use sources who profess a solid, doctrine statement (simple / detailed). Whatever source you use, carefully vet their claims and therapy questions against God's Word, cite them as external sources, and mark any that are non-Christian in your references. We don't want to repeat C.R.'s mistake of presenting worldly teaching as if it's Biblical.

Bible Study Method

Before I describe alternative models, I want to mention why and how we'll study the Bible. Doing that the right way prevents the problems I mentioned, will catch those we haven't foreseen, and keeps any material we develop grounded in God's Word.

Let's briefly look at our goals with a Bible study method. We want participants first and foremost to know who Jesus Christ is, how He saves us from our biggest problem (Hell), and that God's Word is the ultimate authority. We're putting Christ and His Word first. We also show these people how to properly read it, apply it to their lives, and just soak up more of it. My approach also builds on sources of free, theological training to encourage believers to use them, too. Using the Word might also lead the Holy Spirit to speak to and through believers in ways that weren't in the planned lesson.

We'll teach Bible passages using the historical-grammatical method. That will show the audience how to read God's Word in its original context. We'll teach them the SWORD method so they can get a quick and easy application out of any passage. Then, we'll tie the passage into the person of Christ and the redemptive story that runs across the whole Bible. We'll embed the Gospel into the lesson somewhere since it's the only way people are saved.

Once we understand the passage, we will draw out the practical lessons it taught people of that time. Then, we'll apply them to today. We can add therapy questions that tie-in to the passage. They can discuss all of that. We can give them web sites and/or handouts on those topics to let them dig in as deeply as they want to.

If we do topical lessons, we'll use Bible passages that teach those or similar lessons. The topics might be theological (eg God's character, nature of sin). The topics might be therapeutic. A lesson on forgiveness or family issues might use Joseph's story. Instead of "Starting Over" in C.R., we'll teach the need for repentance, regeneration, and sanctification. For non-C.R. topics, we might cover identity (including gender roles), marriage, and children. We might use Jacob's and David's families to make those interesting. If about feeling stuck or hopeless, we can use Israel's exile in the O.T. and Paul's imprisonment in the N.T..

Many programs have an orientation class (or several). We might open by teaching the techniques above. Basic interpretation, SWORD, good translations, good commentaries, and where to get Biblical answers. To support using SWORD, we might summarize God's character, man's attributes, our sins, basic commands, and God's institutions. We'll give them solid resources to learn about topics on their own: GotQuestions, DesiringGod, IBCD's free resources, and ACBC reading list. For deeper education, we'll give them BibleProject, BiblicalTraining, and No Place Left's training. The only mandatory requirements will be a good translation of the Bible and the SWORD method.

The point of all of this is to equip them in a way that keeps paying off during these and other Bible studies. They'll see how and where to look for answers to important questions in God's Word. If unchurched or in an un-Biblical church, this might be their first exposure to Bible study like this.

Proposed Models for Biblical, Support Groups

(aka brainstorming results)

Option 1

(Far as I know, this is how God has used His Word to transform most peoples' lives since the church was founded. John Wesley also made this a formal, group activity in his churches. Many others have, too.)

We'll look at passages with sins, good traits, and outright commands. Then, we'll ask if we've done or are doing any of those individually.

Next, we'll look at each institution in our lives: parents/children (family unit), jobs (business), neighborhood/schools (community), and government interactions. In each case, we'll ask what sins we've committed, been victim of, what good we've done, and so on. We'll assess our spiritual health in all areas of life.

Optionally, there might be a day-to-day portion. Participants will be given basic lists of sins and fruits of obedience. They're to journal day to day what God shows them in their interactions with other people, esp failures or improvements. They share those. People answer any questions they have about what God's Word says in such situations. So, they're are meditating on what God is showing them now in their own lives while also steadily learning from His Word.

Doing this is basically how God transformed the lives of many Christians for thousands of years. That includes mine which started with a long list of sins. We just read the Bible, explore all the ways it might apply, pray for answers, note what pops into our minds, research it, and apply it. We also discuss and pray together. We often learn from the example set by mature believers, too. God sanctifies us in these ways.

Option 2

(This is the most centered on the person of Christ.)

This is similar to Option 1. The difference is we focus on passages about Christ, who He is, who we are, and try to close the gap. I mention it second because it takes more interpretation than passages with clear commands. The benefit is you really get to know Jesus Christ as you try to imitate His character.

If being more specific, you might pick part of God's design which Christ exemplifies in His life and character. Examples might be being filled with God's Word, putting others' needs first, humility, purity, or even respect for authority. Teach and discuss verses that illustrate it. If you know any, include verses and real-world examples of any benefits that come from living that way to show God's goodness.

Then, start listing the ways we fall short of that, the problems that result, verses showing that, and real-world examples.

Give therapy questions that tie into those failures. Maybe ask follow-up questions about how God's principles might have prevented or helped each situation.

Give pragmatic advice on those topics ground in or at least compatible with God's Word.

Option 3

(This is the most like C.R..)

This option assumes two things: the real value of church is growing together in Christ and God's Word; the remaining value of C.R. is in its therapy workbooks that help us dig into our lives. We've already talked about finding and developing them. I'll just give a few more tips.

Start with Bible passages that teach the same points as the exemplary questions. If you don't know any, teach passages on the same topics with their applications. Then, say something like: "Let's look at this topic some more. We have some questions about it from (sources)." Then, go to the questions. Each topic might use one or several passages with amount of teaching tied to timing requirements.

People are also naturally attracted to both stories and mysteries that get us asking more questions. God hardwired us for it. Then, He wrote most of His Word that way. Follow His lead! Use Biblical narratives and loaded passages (eg Beatitudes). For confirmation, missionaries in many countries said narrative evangelism worked well even with non-believers. An evangelist also pointed out that loaded passages let you squeeze lots of God's truth into limited time. The follow-up questions people ask give you more time to discuss God's Word with them.

Option 4

(This is most like doing a "Foundations" program in BiblicalTraining or No Place Left.)

This one is more of a theological class. The idea is that a church wants theological lessons, counseling lessons, or a mix of both. Also, that this church sees more value in theology than in support groups. So, you mix in practical lessons from counseling materials. You tell people how the theology applies to their lives. Some call these courses "practical" or "everyday" theology.

Extra Considerations

The support group should have a list of Christian counselors people can see for one-on-one advice. The hosting church might consider having Biblical counselors or other professionals there. They might be volunteers or paid for blocks of time. There might also be people in the church who specialize in specific kinds of struggles. I've seen "grief" and "DivorceCare" ministries. Make sure people know who they can talk to.

In church, we should have brothers and sisters we regularly talk to about our issues. Preferably, people we can call at any time if something gets too much. That conversation might prevent the sin we were about to commit. In A.A. and C.R., they have "sponsors" and "accountability partners" for this. We should already just be doing this with Biblical terms like "brother," "sister," and "church family." Support it with passages that emphasize what loving each other means. Paul, James, and John all have good ones.

Celebrate Recovery opened with food and fellowship. The local church that hosts ours had volunteers who supplied a meal. The charge was $2 but free if you needed it. Some people there thought the fellowship time was too short at 30-minutes. Standing in line took quite a bit of it. Consider this if you implement it. Also, if your church already does fellowship, that night might be a good one to implement this program. Our own church already has up to an hour and a half of food and fellowship if you show up on Wednesdays. Then, there's classes of many types. The support group could happen that night to build on what's already there.

The "Celebration Station" is a table with their booklets, Recovery Bibles, daily devotionals, and prayer requests. Saddleback is good at marketing. Some churches likewise have helpful materials at their "welcome booths." I suggest having on-hand materials from solid, Bible-based sources. For study Bible, maybe the ESV Study Bible saying it will just teach you the Bible. Although NIV, the Life Application Bibles are quite popular with this crowd. Maybe have a few devotionals to choose from. In the long run, someone should consider making an alternative to the Celebrate Recovery Bible with a solid translation, sound teaching, testimonials pointing to Biblical practices, and money going to a trustworthy organization.

Include training on how to lead small groups and do the services. How to train leaders. Again, all based on good, discipleship materials. My Serving page has small groups guides in it.

If there's music, I'd include a warning about churches that push a false gospel with music that sounds great as bait. C.R. had many songs with these problems. List the churches, their false teachings, and the band labels. Instead, use songs from safe sources that worship Christ using Biblical concepts.

Host church should have cards or web sites with their own service times. If church-neutral, maybe a list of good churches in nearby areas. Plus, online sources where they can get good articles, sermons, and Youtube content. Get people plugged into Biblical churches!

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