The United States is in the middle of a fast-growing epidemic: the number of alcohol-related deaths has more than doubled over the last two decades.
In 1999, alcohol contributed to the deaths of 35,914 people aged 16 and older. In 2017, the number of alcohol-related deaths had reached 72,558. The death rate tied to alcohol rose 51 percent, from 16.9 to 25.5 per 100,000, according to a study published Jan. 7 by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
Just shy of one million alcohol-related deaths — 944,880 — were recorded between 1999 and 2017. And in 2017 alone, nearly 3 percent of roughly 3 million deaths in the U.S. involved alcohol. Of those, almost half resulted from liver disease (30.7 percent) or overdoses on alcohol alone or paired with other drugs (17.9 percent).
Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new data revealing a 12 percent increase in binge drinking over a span of six years. The CDC totaled the annual number of alcoholic drinks consumed by adult binge drinkers — which includes people who have seven or more drinks during one occasion per week and makes up 17 percent of U.S. adults — and found the average number had spiked from 472 in 2011 to 529 in 2017.
The state with the lowest average number of drinks during a binge was Massachusetts at 320. The highest, by contrast, was Wyoming at 1,219.
These troubling numbers, as Gospel Coalition editor Joe Carter pointed out, present an opportunity for the church to step in.
There are more than 2 million people participating in Alcoholics Anonymous around the world. At its founding in the the late 1930s, the support group was deeply Christian. Co-founder Bill Wilson was hospitalized in 1934 as a result of his drinking. Wilson never drank alcohol again and he and his wife, Lois, joined the Oxford Group, a nondenominational Christian movement formed by Dr. Frank Buchman, a Lutheran pastor, in 1931. To this day, though the group is now secular, four of the 12 steps in the AA program directly mention God and the 12th step calls for a “spiritual awakening as a result of these steps.”
While addiction is not identical to sin, as Christian ethicist Kent Dunnington explained in his 2011 book, “Addiction and Virtue: Beyond the Models of Disease and Choice,” it also cannot be separated from our sinful nature, because our unhealthy dependences are directly connected to our innate desire for relationship with God.
“The power of addiction cannot be adequately appraised until addiction is understood as a misguided enactment of our quest for right relationship with God,” wrote Dunnington. “I argue that addiction is in fact a sort of counterfeit worship.”
He continued, “Although it is true that the church has much to learn from recovery programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, it is also true that the church has much to offer to the recovery movement and indeed to all of us who struggle with addiction.”
The church now has an opportunity to pick up the spiritual underpinnings Alcoholics Anonymous has shed over time. Dunnington argued in his book that part of the problem is church leaders have failed to live out the biblical mandate to “train disciples to narrate their lives as repentant sinners,” referring to 1 John 1:8, which reads, “If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth.” Publicly declaring our sinfulness, he explained, is “crucial to our growth in holiness,” according to 1 John 1:9, which continues, “If we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness.”
Transparency and vulnerability is not only common in Alcoholics Anonymous and other groups like it; it’s expected. But in the church, it’s all too often seen as optional. Sin is addictive and believers require accountability — that’s why God ordained the church, his community of followers, in which we can challenge and strengthen one another (Proverbs 27:17).
In James 5:16, the apostle encouraged transparency this way: “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results.”
The church should be a safe place for believers to be vulnerable, to open up about their struggles and to speak with transparency about the sins that so easily entangle us (Hebrews 12:1-3).
The U.S. is in the midst of a deadly epidemic — experts have been calling it “a public health crisis” for years — and the body of Christ cannot afford to stay silent.
As a lifelong teetotaler, the best advice I can give to avoid dangerous levels of drinking is to just not drink at all (you can read about that here).