12 Steps, Christian Style

William Lobdell, editor of the Daily Pilot, looks at faith in Orange County as a regular contributor to The Times Orange County religion page. He can be reached at

John D. used to spend his Friday nights drinking. He’d get home early and pour himself a tall glass of gin with a splash of tonic.

“I’d keep the buzz level down until my little girl went to bed,” John says, “and then I’d drink enough that I’d black out on the couch by 9.”

Karrie liked to stay put on Friday nights. Abused by her now ex-husband and battling anorexia and bulimia, she isolated herself at home. “That was my haven,” she says.


Sam’s Friday nights were like most other evenings he spent as a teenager. “I was hanging out, getting high and stealing,” he says.

These days, John, Karrie, and Sam--along with about 500 others--can be found at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest on Friday nights. They sing worship songs, recite the 12 steps--along with their biblical roots--made famous by Alcoholics Anonymous, listen to a message and meet in small groups to talk about their “hurts, hang-ups and habits.” An early-evening barbecue and chats at a makeshift late-night coffeehouse bookend the night. This church within a church is part of the Celebrate Recovery ministry at Saddleback, a program that’s helped 3,300 people in its eight-year existence. It has been duplicated in more than 500 churches across the nation and even has its own Web site, Heroin addicts, drunks, sex addicts, people with eating disorders, co-dependents, people who have been physically or sexually abused and their children have found help at Saddleback.

Alcoholics and drug addicts make up only 30% of Celebrate Recovery’s membership. “We are all broken,” program founder John Baker says. “We have all sinned. We have all missed the mark. We are all struggling with a hurt, habit or hang-up. It’s time for the church to be a safe place--’safe place’ are key words--for hurting people to discover and receive Christ’s healing grace.”

The recovery program has become so popular that Baker has put together an inexpensive Celebrate Recovery kit, which--with its workbooks, videos and audiotapes--allows churches to more easily start a ministry for people with addictions and compulsions.

Saddleback’s 12-step program began when Baker, a recovering alcoholic and increasingly devoted Christian, grew frustrated with the taboo of mentioning his higher power--Jesus Christ--at traditional Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

In the secular world, the concept of a higher power--the cornerstone of 12-step programs--can be anything from God to a doorknob, depending on the spiritual comfort level of the person in recovery.

“At an AA meeting, you can talk about anything else, but not Jesus Christ,” Baker says. “I’d be mocked when I talked about my higher power.”

So Baker fired off a 13-page, single-spaced letter to his pastor, Saddleback’s Rick Warren, outlining the need for a Christ-centered 12-step program at the church. Baker soon found himself first running the fledgling program--43 people showed up to the first meeting. Eventually he quit his high-paying sales job to join Saddleback’s staff.

“God’s call was so strong that I really didn’t have a choice,” the 50-year-old Baker says. “It was a sacrifice my wife and I were glad to make.”

In Celebrate Recovery, Jesus Christ is front and center. When an addict introduces himself, he gives his name and then: “I’m a believer who struggles with . . . “

“Our identity is in Jesus Christ, not the addiction or compulsion,” Baker says. “This really is a spiritual maturity program.”

The program, which attracts 70% of its members from outside the church, is Saddleback’s top outreach ministry. And 85% of the people who go through the program stay with the church. Nearly half now serve as church volunteers.

“You can get addicted to recovery,” Baker says. “Most people don’t need to be in recovery the rest of their life. We want people to work through the program and go on to other areas of service in the church.”

There are happy endings at Celebrate Recovery.

John D., 50--who’d spend his Friday nights passed out on his living room couch--has been sober for three years, is back together with his wife and is doing well in business.

“I’m finally zeroing in on [being] ‘reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with him forever in the next,’ he says, quoting from the little-known last verse of the traditional AA Serenity Prayer.

Karrie, 29, has been in recovery for five years. She’s remarried, having found her new husband at Celebrate Recovery, and volunteers up to 20 hours a week at the church.

“I feel like I have a purpose,” she says. “I’m able to reach out and help lift people out of that pit I was once in.”

Sam, 21, hasn’t used drugs in 27 months. He got clean two years before he could legally drink. He works with handicapped kids and is going to college to get his teaching credential.

“I don’t have anything to hide anymore,” he says. “I can have a clear mind and sanity in my life. I have hope today that the Lord is with me and I have trust in him and can get through anything. I have a peaceful feeling inside.”

So does Sam’s mom, Linda. She tried for years to get her son to stop doing drugs, including calling the police and sending him to a treatment center. Nothing worked until Saddleback.

“I’ve been praying for him for years to get well,” she says. “I almost lost him [to drug overdoses] three times. And now--he’s like a miracle.”