It was 2 a.m. when I received the call. A young man in our church had gotten high on heroin, cut his wrist, and posted on Facebook that he was ready to die. Since his relapse a few months prior, members of the church had been trying to help him. I rushed out of bed and spent the night driving the streets of our little town, alongside law enforcement, looking for him.
Miraculously, he didn’t die. But the journey of helping him escape his addiction is ongoing and painful. It has already included multiple detox facilities and rehabs.
In these situations, it can be tempting to throw up our hands in exasperation: “Why can’t he just get over this?” But “just do it” isn’t how real heart change occurs. It’s not just that this young man has a hold on something; something has a hold on him.
Opioid addiction is a pandemic. I’ve no doubt it’s affecting many people you know. I’ve met kids as young as 14, soccer moms, and even sweet grandmas who are hooked. And it doesn’t just happen to certain kinds of people or in certain neighborhoods; I’ve seen overdoses in both extremes. This is a nationwide crisis. Shockingly, the National Security Council announced you are now more likely to die from an opioid overdose than a car accident.
An American is more likely to die from an opioid overdose than a car accident.
The crisis seems overwhelming, but God’s people have been put here for such a time as this. How can we care for those suffering from an opioid addiction in our church and in our community?
1. Acknowledge That Addicts Are in Your Church
“I don’t associate with people like that” is what I’ve been told. “Yes, you do” is my response. They may be hiding it from you, but you know people trapped by addiction. We unintentionally alienate them when we deny their existence.
Preachers, especially, can miss weekly opportunities to speak hope and grace. Every sermon I preach at our church includes an invitation to addicts to come and speak with us. Some think we talk too much about addiction. And yet as we’ve talked about this regularly, folks are lining up to talk about addiction every single Sunday.
These are opportunities to pray, mourn, and get outside help. These sermons are also opportunities to educate the uninformed and to call the apathetic to repent. Not knowing is one thing; not caring is another. We serve a Jesus who was “moved with compassion” and willingly entered into the suffering of others (Matt. 9:36). If we are to “weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15), we will be weeping much as we engage with addiction.
Addicts are likely in the room on Sunday mornings, and they all have a story that would bring you to tears. No one just wakes up one day and starts shooting heroin. They need the same hope of the gospel as everyone else. They need the good news that Jesus is able and willing to redeem.
2. Get Educated and Get Involved
Many people I meet are uneducated regarding the nature and complexity of opioid addiction. They may have taken bong-hits in college, but they can’t comprehend what addiction looks like now. It’s hard to fight against something you don’t understand.
To be able to care for addicts and help them, I think a basic knowledge of the differences among opioids is essential, as well as some understanding of how these drugs are taken. If you don’t know about Fentanyl, you should, because it’s killing tens of thousands of addicts, many of whom don’t even know they’ve taken it until it’s too late.
Additionally, you should know about Naloxone, or Narcan, which counteracts the effects of an opioid overdose. Some addicts now intentionally overdose, relying on Naloxone to get them back. But, as an EMT said to me, “Sometimes nar-can and sometimes nar-can’t.”
You also need to be familiar with local treatment options. Where are the good detox facilities and sober-living programs in your area? What ministries or non-profits are in the community? Support them with volunteers and resources. As you get involved, you will likely discover areas that still need attention. These are opportunities to prayerfully consider how you can help.
People re-entering the community after treatment also need our help. Lack of transportation, employment, and housing are three major reasons people relapse. So having a loving and supportive church community ready to receive and come alongside is essential.
You can help. My 4- and 7-year-old boys run lemonade stands to raise money. Our church has volunteers who serve at addiction-related funerals, former addicts who serve as mentors, and two pregnant moms who called all the rehab facilities in our state to create a spreadsheet of available resources.
3. Be a Safe Place for All Involved
Addiction functions like a bomb, not a bullet. It’s never just the addict who is affected. Parents, spouses, and family members of addicts also need care and support. Upward of 76 percent of the children in our county’s foster-care system are there directly because of addiction. That means if we find ways to help addicts, fewer children would be ripped from their homes with a trash bag full of toys. If that doesn’t grip you, check your pulse.
Upward of 76 percent of the children in our county’s foster-care system are there directly because of addiction.
Our churches can be a safe place for people to find hope and help. Consider hosting a Nar-anon meeting at your building. Reach out to local first responders and find ways to show your support to them. Make your building available for difficult funerals related to addiction. Overdoses and suicides aren’t the funerals anyone wants to do, but they’re opportunities to weep with those who weep and to bring the hope of the gospel.
4. Don’t Run into This Darkness on Your Own Strength
The only thing worse than running away from the darkness of opioid addiction or turning a blind eye to it is running into it on your own strength. Allow the seven sons of Sceva in Acts 19 to show you what happens when we think that our care is enough. While those men were naively trying to defeat the powers of darkness, the darkness overpowered them (Acts 19:16).
Fellow Christian, if all you do is raise money, send people to rehab, and attend funerals, it won’t be enough. In our local church, we’re finally realizing that prayer and fasting are the most effective things we can do. We do all we can, but we are more aware than ever before of what we can’t do. The opioid crisis is a problem only Jesus can finally fix.
Nothing about this fight is easy. I doubt our team will even get through this week without at least one emergency call. The voice on the other end will tell us someone battling addiction has relapsed or overdosed or even passed away. It’s hard to answer these calls, but for the sake of people created in God’s image, we will. We’ll pray. We’ll work. And then we’ll pray some more.
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America’s Epidemic: How Opioid Addicts Find Help in the Church