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Leading in an addicted world

Mark Cook is the program coordinator for the Institute for Global Engagement, a partnership between Denison Forum and Dallas Baptist University. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Dallas Baptist University, and completed his Masters of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School and Truett Seminary. His ministry background is college ministry, and he has served both on a church staff as well as within campus ministries.

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A heroin addict using a needle to shoot the drug into her bruised and scarred arm (Credit: Tatty via Fotolia)

There is a massive substance abuse problem in America, and very few are talking about it. Widening out the scope to the rest of the world, it could be easily argued that the modern world could be described succinctly as the addicted world. CBS’s 60 Minutes aired a feature piece recently entitled “Heroin in the Heartland” that explored how substance abuse has grown in suburbia and wealthier parts of middle-American cities, smashing the notion that heroin (and drug use in general) is merely an inner-city problem.

Mike DeWine, the Attorney General of Ohio, makes the startling statement in the interview that “this is the worst drug epidemic I’ve seen in my lifetime”. While the 60 Minutes piece only focuses on heroin use, the wider problem is that other forms of harmful addiction are on the rise as well. The Chronicle of Higher Education released a series of in-depth articles last year on the upsurge in binge drinking and intoxication by college students. The “Monitoring the Future” report, sponsored by the National Institute of Health, described the stunning problem of heavy drinking with teens and college students, reporting that “five or more drinks in a row at least once in the prior two-week period…was reported by 5% of 8th graders, 14% of 10th graders, and 22% of 12th graders.” The results also reveal that 40.2% of college students say they’ve had five or more drinks in a row in the last month.

Across the board, young and old alike are increasingly becoming addicted to harmful substances. As one of the most distressing problems facing contemporary society, it must be asked, how are Christians to lead in an addicted world?

First, we must understand the reality of the problem. Max DePree, in Leadership is an Art, says the first task of a leader is to “define reality”. True leaders do not isolate themselves so that they cannot see the reality of the context they find themselves in. They push themselves to better understand the reality of their context by gathering as much information as possible from trustworthy and reliable sources.  Remember, before we can respond to the crisis, whatever it is, we must know what the crisis is.

Second, we must see the interconnectedness of the causes of addiction. There are societal factors, family factors, economic factors, emotional and spiritual factors, and physical factors that all contribute to the greater problem. Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline discusses the need for systems thinking in leadership, seeing the whole rather than just the constitutive parts. For any crisis or epidemic, it is vital that we seek to understand the interrelatedness of all of these factors in the larger problem. In the 60 Minutes piece, every person who was interviewed about their drug addiction mentioned some desire to either escape from pain, boredom, or emotional distress, or increase excitement and fun.

When we begin to unearth these multiple causalities, we begin to see the larger issues of loneliness, meaninglessness, broken families, anxiety, and poor judgment that contribute to the problem of addiction. Christians have a unique hope and unique message in the Gospel that addresses every one of those causalities, but we have to speak and live out the message of the Gospel through our life and leadership to the hurting around us.

This is where Christian leaders from all sectors of society must consider how they can provide the hope of the Gospel in whatever sphere God has them. Who are those people who are hurting, bored, or disengaged from society? How can we better articulate the hope of the Gospel, that there is an entirely different way to live and flourish in the kingdom of God? We need Christians from all sectors—educators, politicians and government officials, healthcare professionals, small business owners, you name it— to use their influence, creativity, and resources to meet this particularly debilitating challenge of modern life.

It all begins with how you as a leader see yourself. Are you seeking to serve, or merely to get on about your merry way and build a bigger barn for yourself? J. Oswald Sanders’ words in Spiritual Leadership are prescient for us all:

“True service is never without cost. Often it comes with a bitter cup of challenges and a painful baptism of suffering. For genuine godly leadership weighs carefully Jesus’ question: “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” (Mark 10:38b). The real spiritual leader is focused on the service he and she can render to God and other people, not on the residuals and perks of high office or holy title. We must aim to put more into life than we take out.”

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