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Lessons for the Church from ‘Recovery Boys’

Photo credit: Netflix

A new Netflix documentary, Recovery Boys, looks at the harrowing realities of opioid addiction by following four young men on their rehabilitation journeys. Jeff, Rush, Ryan, and Adam are addicts who enter rehab at a place called Jacob’s Ladder, a farm-based program in rural West Virginia. Directed by West Virginia native Elaine McMillion Sheldon, the film shows the distinct struggles, temptations, and recovery paths of these four men, putting a human face on America’s opioid crisis.

The film is beautifully made: moving without being manipulative, informative without being didactic, subtly observational in the manner of great documentary filmmaking. It’s a helpful film for anyone who battles addiction or knows an addict. It’s also one every pastor, parent, and youth leader should see. Though not a “Christian” film (and despite its name, Jacob’s Ladder is not an explicitly Christian rehab program), Recovery Boys vividly portrays sin’s corrosive grip on God’s image-bearersand the rocky but beautiful process of receiving grace and growing toward holiness.

Recovery Boys caused me to reflect on my own calling as a local church pastor-elder, inspiring me anew to take up the challenges—and joyfully persist amid the frustrations—of discipleship and local church ministry.

Growth Is Never Done

Early in Recovery Boys, Jacob’s Ladder founder Kevin Blankenship describes the significance of the farm work central to the program at Jacob’s Ladder. “Farming life is a series of advances and a couple of setbacks,” he says. It’s work that is ever ongoing.

The agricultural metaphor is apt for the life of sanctification. Seasons of fruitfulness are often followed by droughts, and a healthy farm takes years of careful work to cultivate. There’s a reason Jesus talked about kingdom life using imagery of seeds and vines and farmers. Growth is a process, a long-obedience endeavor requiring patience and endurance and humility and grit.

Growth is a process, a long-obedience endeavor requiring patience and endurance and humility and grit.

The structure of Recovery Boys reveals this process well. The first half is upbeat and inspiring as we watch Jeff, Rush, Ryan, and Adam complete and “graduate” from the recovery program. You see their transformation even physically over their months on the farmtheir gaunt bodies and lost facial expressions giving way to healthier physiques and determined eyes. But the second half is a different story. The four men struggle after they leave Jacob’s Ladder, some more severely than others. A few relapse and hit new lows. For some it’s two steps forward, one step back. For others it’s 12 steps forward, 14 steps back.

It would be easy for the staff at Jacob’s Ladder to give up on the relapse-prone addicts, just as it would be easy for pastors to grow hopeless with those in their flock who show little or no progress. But Jesus doesn’t give up on them. As the parables of the lost sheep, lost coin, and prodigal son show, our God relentlessly pursues those who are his.

In one of the film’s final scenes, Jeff returns to Jacob’s Ladder, having relapsed hard. “My life’s getting unmanageable,” he says in a phone-call cry for help. “I don’t want this life no more.” When he walks back into the facility, doubtless ashamed, he is met with an big, welcoming hug that resembles the father’s enthusiastic embrace of his prodigal son in Luke 15:20. The world outside might view Jeff as just another junkie who deserves whatever fate befalls him. But at Jacob’s Ladder, Jeff is a beloved being of great worth and dignity; like all of us, a work in progress.

Growth Is Attractive

One of the great challenges in ministry today is that “authenticity” is more prized than holiness. Recurring struggles and “mess” are more compelling and animating than the prospect of growth and the process of sanctification. Brokenness is simply a more credible currency than righteousness in many churches today, to our shame. Suburban youth pastors feel they must have tattoos and intense testimonies in order to be relatable. But shouldn’t churches and ministers be in the business of making growth, healing, maturity, and wholeness more compelling than sin and brokenness? Can’t righteousness be authentic too?

Shouldn’t churches and ministers be in the business of making growth, healing, maturity, and wholeness more compelling than sin and brokenness? Can’t righteousness be authentic too?

Recovery Boys certainly shows the reality: Growth is much more attractive and desirable than its alternative. Everything’s better when the guys are making progress in their sobriety. They look better. Their relationships are healthier. They are more enjoyable people to be around. Perhaps most significantly, they have a purpose beyond themselves. They have work and friends and stories that eclipse the relative smallness of their addiction struggles.

No addict who watches Recovery Boys would envy the relapsed addict more than the one who exhibits sustained growth. None would say Jeff’s brokenness in his rock-bottom moment is more “authentic” than the health displayed by Ryan at the film’s end. Christians should learn from films like this that testimonies of growth are important. Pictures of healing are compelling. Growth should be celebrated more than brokenness.

Community Is Key

A key element of any recovery program is community, for good reason. God created us to flourish and grow together, not as isolated, unaccountable individuals. Recovery Boys shows this purpose beautifully. The men at Jacob’s Ladder live in community. They develop deep bonds over the course of the program, creating a brotherhood that is a more conducive context for growth than isolation.

At a time when technology, demographic patterns, and other factors are contributing to a loneliness epidemic, it’s no surprise we also have an opioid epidemic. Sin thrives in isolation. Satan preys on loneliness. Addiction especially seems to be a sin struggle that is nearly insurmountable when we’re isolated from community. Blankenship understands this struggle. “You really want to keep the guys from isolating,” he says of his program’s communal emphasis, “because that’s where their life’s been. It’s been them and their drug.”

Community is a context conducive to growth. This is one of the great gifts a church can offer a lonely, isolated, increasingly disembodied world. Christians today should embrace the naturally communal rhythms of their local church as an asset, not an analog relic or uncool liability. The “iWorld” of 21st-century Western culture is lonely and full of despair, and it will get worse before it gets better. But the doors of churches remain open, the family of God remains welcoming, and the transforming power of the gospel—God’s ultimate recovery program—remains true.

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