“Attraction Rather than Promotion”: Evangelism according to Bill W (and, as it turns out, St Peter, too)

In the last post, we explored AA and other Twelve Step programs as “underground fellowships” of vulnerability, joy and love, and we considered what lessons might be learned from these programs that could strengthen the Christian Church.  In the introduction to that post, I commented that there are many ways in which the institutional structure of AA could help the Church see how to be more faithful to its corporate mission:  the policy of intentional corporate poverty practiced in the Twelve Step programs, the idea of servant leadership, and the notion of outreach based on attraction rather than promotion, to name just a few.  It is to this last dynamic that I want to turn now, with this question:  what would it mean for Christian churches to incorporate into their approach towards outreach and evangelism this idea of “attraction, not promotion”?

This phrase comes from the recovery programs, specifically the 11th Tradition of Alcoholics Anonymous, which says, in part, that “our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion….”  Those familiar with the Twelve Step Programs will know that this statement, is, in fact, exactly the way it works.  AA has no advertising campaigns, no marketing component, no systems or structures to “spread the word” about the program.  You will never see AA as the subject of any paid or public interest advertising on TV, radio or the internet.  Even more remarkably, the members of AA, or any Twelve Step program, are not expected or asked to do any recruiting or proselytizing. Now, of course, it is part of our recovery to try to help others suffering from addiction, but the AA Big Book makes clear that the reason for this practice is not to “grow AA” or any such thing, but rather because helping other addicts is how we stay sober.  There simply is no advertising or marketing in the Twelve Step programs.

This raises at least two questions to outsiders: first, if that is true, then how is it that these programs have grown so dramatically in a few short decades?  And second, what is the rationale behind this policy?

To the first question—how to explain the rapid growth in the 12 Step programs.  After all, AA was only started in 1935, and the other related programs such as Narcotics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, and the numerous others are even newer than that, most of them coming on line only since about the 1970’s or 80’s.  And yet there are millions of addicts in hundreds of countries worldwide whose lives are being saved by the simple but rigorous process outlined in the Twelve Steps.  With no advertising or marketing or even intentional promotion, how has this growth happened?  The answer is, I think, both straightforward and yet remarkable.

The response you will get from most any recovering addict about how he or she heard about the fellowship of recovery is usually that someone—“my doctor, my wife, my buddy, my parents, my employer told me about it and suggested that I go there.”  And I think it an undeniable fact that the growth of the recovery programs has happened by millions of such examples of “word of mouth”– the miraculous, viral, exponential dynamic that is the envy of marketing professionals everywhere.  It is the way that small-budget movies turn into blockbusters in a few weeks, it is how new and hip products go from prototype to cultural icon in a season, and it is how AA and the other 12 Step programs became worldwide phenomena in the space of a few decades.  Those inside the programs describe the process as “one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.”  But the fact is, it is not just the “beggars”—the addicts—but it is also their families, friends, doctors and colleagues who have spread the word about these programs, because these people have their own personal stories of how their friends, spouses, patients, employees, were lost to addiction, but came back, seemingly from the dead, with the help of these programs.  So the simple answer to the first question is that the rapid growth of the 12 Step programs can be explained by the ordinary but powerful dynamic of  a program that saves lives, and the accompanying “word of mouth” that naturally occurs among those grateful that it does.

Turning to the second question above—why would Bill W and the founders of AA and the other programs choose this path as its approach to public relations?  I mean, if they really believed that AA was a spiritual program that had its origins in sacred encounters between broken addicts and a Higher Power and had the potential to save untold human suffering, then why would they not have wanted to create a very aggressive, high profile public relations campaign to spread the good news of recovery and grow the fellowship?   Here, I think, is a remarkable examples of faith in action, and it begins our transition into what Christian churches can learn from AA about spreading the word.

You see, Bill, Dr Bob, and the other AA pioneers sensed that, often, in any intentional promotional effort, it inevitably occurs that those trying to reach others with the message will put “the best foot forward,” and minimize any shortcomings. So, for example, we know that advertising executives will talk about success stories, but not about failures of their products, or doctors will talk about the patients they saved and not the ones who died on the operating table.  It is human nature, of course, to want to do this, and quite understandable.  And yet, if we remember one of the cornerstones of the recovery programs is “rigorous honesty,” well, we can see the problem that Bill W and his friends faced.  They could not afford to put themselves in a position where they might be less than rigorously honest– for they knew their own recoveries depended upon this honesty.  They could not afford to become “spin doctors”—even for such a worthy cause.  For the sad fact is, as they well knew, that not everyone “gets” recovery through the Twelve Steps: in fact, the “success rate”—depending upon how it is measured— is actually pretty low for newcomers to recovery.  Indeed, it is not an overstatement to say that, in the early days, there was absolutely no guarantee that AA would be “successful” at all, or that it would even survive as an organization.  It depended entirely on how well Bill and the other early AA pioneers worked their own programs of recovery, on how true they could be to their mission. And so they knew that staying rigorously honest, and focusing on the essentials of AA, and not on “promotion,” was their task.

And here is where the very great faith of these men took over:  for they reasoned that their job was to recover from alcoholism, to help other alcoholics to do so, and to learn to live a spiritual life of love and service to others. And they also reasoned, and trusted, that if they did so, then God—not they—would see to the growth and survival of the fellowship.  The early AAs accepted that they had no control over whether AA was successful or not, only whether they as individuals in recovery were faithful to their mission of recovery and service.  And so they did their best, and then left the results—growth, stagnation, or failure of the program—to God. And, as part of this faith and trust in their Higher Power, they believed that, if they lived their new lives with love and joy and service, if they recovered and lived vibrant lives, in short if they were good examples, then others would naturally be drawn to their way.  If we think about this for a moment, given natural human “pride of authorship,” and given their understandable yearning that others would receive the gift of recovery, it is utterly astonishing that they would choose “attraction rather than promotion” as their public relations policy.

So what can we Christians learn from this experience?  After all, for two millennia now the churches have taken as one of their core missions to spread the good news—the “gospel”—of Jesus Christ.  And, indeed, Jesus Himself, as recorded in St Matthew’s Gospel, commissioned His followers to “go and make disciples in all nations,” and so they have done.  So spreading the good news of Jesus is not an option for us; it is something we are called to do. And, of course, if we are living a vibrant Christian life, if we, like our friends the addicts, are conscious that we have been saved from spiritual death by this miraculous experience of new life in Christ, we should want to spread the word.  But the New Testament says very little about how we should spread the word.  And, sadly, when we get honest about our history, especially when it comes to our history of evangelism, we must admit that the churches have a very checkered record, especially after the first few centuries, in bringing any integrity to our efforts to spread the faith.  “Christian mission” has often been done very badly, in highly un-Christlike ways, at the point of swords and coercion, accompanied by empire and all kinds of economic colonialism.  Even in more modern times, “evangelism campaigns” are often ungainly, awkward and sometimes just plain manipulative.  So what would it mean for the churches to think about a public relations policy based on attraction rather than promotion?

Well, as it turns out, Bill W and the AA pioneers were not the first spiritual pilgrims to embrace such a policy.  Indeed, one of the few clues we get in the New Testament about an evangelism with integrity comes from St Peter. In his First Letter (3.15), he says, “always be ready to give an answer for the hope that is in you, with gentleness and reverence.”  You see, Peter was assuming that the Christians were being asked certain questions: “why do you live as you do? Why are you so free from the corruptions of the culture, why so committed to caring for one another and the poor, why are you so joyful, even in the midst of your persecutions?”  And, Peter says, be ready to give an answer to these questions.  But the problem for so many Christians and churches today is that no one is asking us such questions.  When was the last time someone asked you, “why are you so free from the materialism and narcissism of Western culture, why so committed to a simple lifestyle and service to the poor, why are you so joyful and peaceful”?  So since not many of us live in a way that marks us as different, we are not being asked many questions, and so our churches create all sorts of ambitious “evangelism campaigns” designed to get people to ask questions they are not inclined to ask.

And so it is that perhaps our primary mission as evangelists is simply to be deeply faithful to the call we have in Christ, to be pure in heart, to be peacemakers, to be merciful, to bear one another’s burdens, to visit the sick and those imprisoned, to lay down our lives for the poor and the outcast and for one another.  Like Bill W and his friends, whose primary job was just to do the work of recovery, maybe our main task as Christians is simply to be the Church—and to trust God with the results.  After all, the Church is ultimately in God’s hands, not ours, and when Christians act as if it is our job to grow the Church at all costs, rather than simply to be faithful to our task, then our evangelism is forced, flat and false.  But if we can take our lead from our brothers and sisters in recovery, and simply be faithful to the task we have been given, then, no doubt—as has happened with our friends the addicts for many decades now– others will notice, others will join us, and others will help spread the word, one beggar telling another where to find bread.  Attraction rather than promotion.  It is one more lesson that Christians can learn from the Gospel of Bill.

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About Kelly Clark

I am a convinced, if not very virtuous, Christian, recovering from alcohol abuse and many other addictions, and have been working a program of recovery consistently for over nineteen years-- since I blew my life up with chaos and crimes and hurt many people I loved. I am active in 12 Step Fellowships, sponsoring several men and attending several meetings each week. I expect to finish a Masters of Divinity in the Fall of 2011, and soon will begin a discernment process in my church about possible ordained ministry. In my day job, I am a trial attorney, representing adult victims of childhood sexual abuse.
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2 Responses to “Attraction Rather than Promotion”: Evangelism according to Bill W (and, as it turns out, St Peter, too)

  1. Being in ministry for most of my life, which now spans many decades, everything said here resonates with my experience. People are pretty good at knowing when they are presented with genuine friendship/concern/love as opposed to a sales pitch. And they react according.

  2. Pingback: Easter Aftermath: Reflections on Death, Recovery and Resurrection | Gospel of Bill (W)

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