Soon after West Virginia Baptists passed a resolution last November urging churches to get involved in addressing the opioid crisis, the state’s Upper Ohio Valley Baptist Association started preliminary planning for a Celebrate Recovery group.
Alex, who is in recovery, is baptized by Brent Beckett, left, and Ryan Navy, two of the pastors of New Heights Church in Huntington, W.Va., as part of the church's ministry amid the state and city's opioid crisis.
After five months of leader training, an interdenominational group of churches in the Moundsville area hosted their first Celebrate Recovery meeting in early September.
Ed Goodman, the association’s director of missions, helps lead a men’s discussion group on Tuesday evenings and a small men’s group on Monday nights. The latter involves participants working their way through Celebrate Recovery’s eight biblically-based steps.
“There’s a great need here,” Goodman said. “When we were doing a community forum, I told people I wasn’t involved in Celebrate Recovery for the purpose of seeing people set free from addiction. I was involved for the purpose of seeing people come to Christ. Addiction is just a symptom of a deeper sin problem.”
Bill Henard, executive director of the West Virginia Convention of Southern Baptists, said such reports are becoming more common as the one-year mark approaches.
In the resolution, messengers dedicated themselves to an “active, gospel involvement in the effort to rid West Virginia of drug abuse” by “seeking partnerships with civil, religious, and government groups and agencies to discover effective ways to solve the drug abuse problem in our state, including, but not limited to, the provision of spiritual counseling, the elimination of poverty, the strengthening of families, the restoration of hope, and the sharing of the gospel.”
The resolution further stated, “West Virginia has become the epicenter of opioid abuse, suffering from a rate of 33.5 drug overdoses per 100,000 people, compared to a national average of 13.4 deaths.”
Fairlawn Baptist Church, which will host the 2018 annual meeting Nov. 1-2, recently began working with a Parkersburg-based ministry called High on Hope.
Pastor Jason Spade said members are providing gasoline cards to enable clients to get to rehab appointments and preparing toiletry kits for men and women going into treatment.
There have been discussions about Fairlawn hosting a community Bible study for those in recovery, the pastor added.
“We had a High on Hope group come to the church in late September,” Spade said. “The testimonies of what God brought them through were amazing. We have a lot of members with family who are having problems, so a lot of people are participating.”
Among other efforts statewide Henard mentioned are Immanuel Baptist Church in Princeton working with women in the adult entertainment industry; members of Cross Lanes Baptist developing bonds with inmates at the Charleston Correctional Center; and First Baptist Church in Kenova hosting a Celebrate Recovery meeting.
While a progress report on the opioid response will be presented at the pastors’ conference that kicks off the annual meeting, Henard said the effort is in its early stages.
With two new appointees due to join the convention’s Christian Life Committee (CLC) at the annual meeting, Henard hopes to see additional progress soon.
“This past year has been a discovery time – how can our churches engage the community?” said Henard, who drafted the resolution with help from Ryan Navy, pastor of the Huntington campus of New Heights Church.
“Ryan has been figuring out ways to do this. We need to provide more strategies. One thing the CLC will be able to look at is how more established churches can address the crisis. The advantage Ryan’s church has is the fact his people are young.
“It’s been slow the first year, but as we get information, the ball will roll more. There’s hardly a church out there that doesn’t have a family member or friend who’s been affected by this.”
New Heights Church has been a leader in reaching out to people recovering from addiction. A North American Mission Board plant, New Heights launched in 2014 in the neighboring town of Milton.
A year later, Navy and a core group of 20 moved to Huntington to start a second campus. The church gathers at Huntington High School on Sunday mornings and in 15 life groups throughout the week.
Two years after they started, Navy raised a critical issue during a deacons’ meeting: Too many people in the congregation looked the same – young white adults from a middle-class background.
“We had a conversation about what we wanted our church to look like,” said 27-year-old Navy, who is in his first pastorate. “The week after, we reached out to the director of a recovery program and said we’d love to come serve them. That’s what got it going.”
At a weekly gathering for participants in the program, New Heights’ worship band provided the music, with a meal afterward served by members.
That created relationships that snowballed to the point that participants in seven different recovery programs attend Sunday morning services, Navy said. Three of New Heights’ life groups meet in recovery homes.
All this activity helped swell New Heights’ average Sunday morning attendance from 110 to 250 over the past year, Navy said, with newcomers spanning a cross-section of the area.
“It isn’t just people in recovery, it’s people who want to get involved,” Navy said. “There are a lot of people in the community who see God moving and want to get involved as well. They’ve never been in recovery but they want to bring solutions.”
Among the newer members is Alicia Bowman, a care support specialist at Lily’s Place, a facility in Huntington offering medical care to infants suffering from neonatal abstinence syndrome because of their mother’s drug use.
Ryan Navy, pastor of New Heights Church in Huntington, W.Va., is leading the congregation in ministry amid the opioid crisis. "It isn't just people in recovery," he notes, "it's people who want to get involved."
Although at the time she lived in Charleston, Bowman made the 50-minute drive to Huntington after learning about New Heights through Facebook. After a bad experience previously at a church that she said emphasized rules and regulations instead of Christ’s grace, Bowman is glad she found New Heights.
“The first time I went there I got a text two days later from Ryan asking, ‘How can I pray for you today?’” Bowman said. “That’s never happened at any church I had gone to before. The love he has for his congregation can be felt by every person who walks through the door.”
It’s that kind of love that will make the difference in people’s lives, missions director Goodman said.
“I think West Virginia churches can have a great impact if they see the opioid crisis as a gospel opportunity and are willing to partner with like-minded, gospel-centered churches,” Goodman said. “The gospel is the answer. I think we have a unique opportunity. We possess the only answer to the opioid crisis.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Ken Walker is a freelance writer in Huntington, W.Va. Reprinted from Baptist Press, baptistpress.com, news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.)