A short parable: A man contemplates a pond some distance from his house. Dead fish are floating, lazily drifting in the gentle currents. It becomes clear to him that the water is not suited for the health of his fish. So, in a desperate plan to save the remaining fish the man attempts to fashion protective gear for them to wear.

A neighbor happens by and sees the man measuring, cutting, sewing and piecing together a rather elaborate fish-styled wetsuit. He is amazed by his friend’s tenacity and his foolishness. “Why,” wonders the neighbor, “doesn’t my friend simply stop pumping waste into the pool?”

This parable can serve as a slightly overstated metaphor for the environmental approach to substance abuse. Although it is important for the church to prepare people to live in an imperfect world, it must not neglect the equally important role to change the world in which we live.

Three factors stand out that inform the faith community’s capacity to alter the climate.

Factor number one: The church’s natural influence is to create an environment less conducive to substance abuse. Discipline, responsibility, peacemaking and justice are all essential ingredients to an environment that promotes a growing faith and a healthy (non-addictive) lifestyle.

Discipline leads a person toward moderation that has obvious implications in a person’s choices concerning drugs and alcohol. Notions of responsibility create a climate of concern for the longer-range consequences of actions taken both by individuals and by community policies.

The notions of justice and peacemaking must, at times, overcome the system of supply and demand. The excessive use of both drugs and alcohol leads to more profit by the suppliers. Therefore, out of a sense of justice and peace, the faith community must influence all sectors of a community to join in collective efforts to protect the young and vulnerable from greed-driven selling tactics.

These attributes have been shown to be important aspects of a person’s ability to resist the environmental gravity toward excessive use of alcohol. A white paper published by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse shows strong ties between church involvement and moderation in the use of all drugs. The data show this relationship in both adults and teens.

Factor number two: The church has community presence and resources. There may be no other institution that has as many “branch offices” in our communities as the church. This presumes, of course, that there is a theme or function connecting these branches to a common trunk. Although theology, polity and other issues define and divide congregations, perhaps it is not too naive to hope that the threat of substance abuse to the common good is powerful enough to unify the church.

If the church rallies behind this issue, the range of resources that could be brought to bear is staggering. Church buildings could be used to house prevention and treatment programs. The people who make up the church and have access to civic and governmental processes could impact policy. History has proven that the pulpit can be a primary source of inspiration and motivation, stirring whole communities into action.

Factor number three: The church has access to the most important environmental component—the family. Intergenerational anchors deter substance abuse. Research conducted by the Search Institute and the Partnership for a Drug Free America clearly shows that teens who feel attached to something greater than themselves are more resistant to drug use.

The church can also equip and empower parents to voice and model responsible behaviors associated with drinking. Again, research indicates that parental modeling and teaching are far more valuable in a teen’s decision-making process than most parents realize.

The church can change a societal environment that promotes addictive behavior by letting its light shine in all sectors of the community. The church is big enough, its message powerful enough, and its impact life-changing enough to create a healthier landscape.

Steve Sumerel is director of the department of family life and substance abuse, of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina‘s council on Christian life and public affairs.

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