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What Is Celebrate Recovery and Why Did It Get Started

By Randy Sexton

As I related in my last article, “This Is My Story,” I fell into secret sin in 2009. I was firmly enmeshed in pornography and sexual addiction, when I began seeking counseling to battle these sinful defects of character. I began seeing a Counselor in November 20, 2018. This Counselor had 12 years’ experience as a counselor, was gifted in working with families and couples, had a heart for working with men’s issues, and had been trained at the Institute of Sexual Wholeness. He was certified as an LPC (Licensed Professional Counselor) and as an LMFT (Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist). During our very first session, he told me about this Christ-centered recovery program called Celebrate Recovery. He recommended that I check it out. He said there were several churches in the area that offered Celebrate Recovery ministries. Following his advice, I attended my first Celebrate Recovery meeting at West-Ark Church of Christ in Fort Smith, Arkansas on January 7, 2019. On that same night I asked someone to be my Sponsor and I signed up for a Step Study. I had been reading several books that my Therapist had recommended and I was more than ready for the help that the CR Program offered.

In that first meeting, I attended what was called a “Newcomers Meeting” and was given a little paperback book, Your First Step to Celebrate Recovery by John Baker. That book helped me to understand the history and the benefit of attending Celebrate Recovery meetings. In this article, I would like to share thoughts from the Introduction: What Is Celebrate Recovery written by Rick Warren and from Chapter 1: Why Did Celebrate Recovery Get Started written by John Baker. I would also like to invite you to check out the website to find a local Celebrate Recovery program in your area

I have now been a part of the West-Ark Celebrate Recovery ministry for almost four years and have found healing. In Celebrate Recovery I have found a safe place to work on my hurts, habits and hang-ups. If you are struggling to find healing, I offer the following words as a first step in your recovery journey. God Bless you!

What Is Celebrate Recovery?



Celebrate Recovery started in 1991 at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California. At that time, the church was meeting at a high school gymnasium. John Baker wrote Pastor Rick Warren the “now-famous, concise, 13-page, single-spaced” letter outlining the vision God had given John for Celebrate Recovery. After reading John’s letter, Pastor Rick said, “Great, John — go do it!”

As Rick Warren points out, the Bible makes it clear “all have sinned.” Because of that sin, we hurt ourselves as well as others. “This means each of us needs recovery in order to live our lives the way God intended.” Because time doesn’t heal all wounds, we need something more to address hurts because “wounds that are left untended fester and spread infection throughout your entire body. Time only extends the pain if the problem isn’t dealt with.”

“Celebrate Recovery is a biblical and balanced program that helps us overcome our hurts, hang-ups, and habits. It is based on the actual words of Jesus rather than psychological theory. Celebrate Recovery is more effective in helping us change than anything else I’ve seen or heard of.” While there are many 12-step programs around, most of those programs are very vague about the nature of God, the saving power of Jesus Christ, and the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

Rick Warren describes how he began an intense study of the Scriptures to discover what God had to say about recovery, “My study resulted in a ten-week series of messages called, ‘The Road to Recovery.’ During that series, Pastor John Baker developed the participant’s guides which became the heart of our Celebrate Recovery program. I believe that this program is unlike any recover program you may have seen. There are six features that make it unique.

  1. Celebrate Recovery is based on God’s Word, the Bible….
  2. Celebrate Recovery is forward-looking….
  3. Celebrate Recover emphasizes personal responsibility….
  4. Celebrate Recover emphasizes spiritual commitment to Jesus Christ….
  5. Celebrate Recovery utilizes the biblical truth that we need each other in order to grow spiritually and emotionally….
  6. Celebrate Recovery addresses all types of hurts, hang-ups, and habits….”

Why Did Celebrate Recovery Get Started?

The short answer to this question is that CR got started because John and Cheryl Baker realized they needed something more than, what then existed, to help them heal from the hurts that they had experienced in their lives. As Cheryl tells their story in the opening chapter of this book, we see two people who experienced the negative effects of alcohol in their lives, but who also suffered from deeper underlying issues of low self-esteem, insecurity, co-dependency, and need to control.

John and Cheryl met at a fraternity-sorority football game at the University of Missouri where they were both going to school. John was president of his fraternity and Cheryl was president of her sorority.  Cheryl and John were married in John’s senior year.  Little did Cheryl know what the next 19 years would have in store for her.

After graduation John joined the Air Force and was chosen to be a pilot.  He attended Officers Training School and, in 90 days, learned to act like an officer and drink like a gentleman!  He continued to abuse alcohol and viewed it as cure for his pain, certainly not a sin!  In the service he quickly found the proper use for 100% oxygen – to cure hangovers!  You know, the service is gifted in discovering one’s talents.  John was selected as his squadron’s social officer.  Perfect!  A job that required a lot of hours planning functions at the officers club’s bar.

After the service he joined Scott Paper Co., got his MBA degree at night school and God gave he and Cheryl their first child, a daughter, Laura.  And two years later they were blessed with their son, John Jr.  John was promoted eight times in the first eleven years of his business career.  He was the vice president of sales and marketing for two very large consumer food manufacturers. All of this by the time he was 30 years old.

With all the business success came several relocations.  Attending church became less and less important to John as his drinking increased.  He believed that if he died he was saved; however, he also was beginning to be uncomfortable with his lifestyle, business practices, and priorities.  To the outside world everything with his family seemed normal, but in his heart he knew something was very wrong. As John’s drinking continued to increase, he turned his back completely on God.

John was known as a functioning alcoholic.  He knew he had a problem, but he never lost a job or never got arrested for drunk driving.  Up to this point his secret was still safe.  Cheryl was in denial, or so he thought.  She just couldn’t label him as an “alcoholic” until she noticed his new breakfast drink – beer!  One evening, in her anger, she asked him to go to counseling with her or to just leave.  Much to her surprise, he left!  And their separation began.

John’s life was out of control.  It was an October morning, and he was in Salt Lake City on a business trip.  He woke up and knew he couldn’t take another drink.  But, he also knew that he couldn’t live without one!  He had finally hit his bottom.  He made it back to Orange County and went to his first AA meeting.  He started going to AA meetings daily.  He went to over 90 meetings in 90 days.  As the days passed, he came to “earnestly believe that God exists, that I matter to him, and that he has the power to help me recover.”

Cheryl was completely unaware that John was beginning to deal with his alcoholism. She tells of how her dysfunctions began to surface. She had never told anyone about the breakup of their marriage. She had wanted to tell her close Christian friends at the church pre-school where she worked but she just didn’t feel safe. She wondered if there were others who were also struggling with pain that they were too afraid to share and feeling so different and alone. She says, “Thinking that if we switched churches we would find a safe place to tell others about our pain, the kids and I began attending Saddleback Church. But we didn’t want to feel different or alone, so we didn’t tell anyone there about the separation either.”

Meanwhile, as John was continuing to work the 12-Steps of the AA program, he came to Step 8: We made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all and Step 9: We made direct amends to such people whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

He had quite a long list of names on his amends list.  They ranged from former employers, former employees, friends, and neighbors.  But his most special amends he owed were to his family – especially to Cheryl.  When he got to step nine they were still separated.

On February 14, 1991, after being separated for a year, John left a note on Cheryl’s table asking her to meet him for lunch.  On Valentine’s Day!  She thought it was a little strange to be meeting her separated husband on Valentine’s Day!  During that lunch, John told her that he had been attending Alcoholics Anonymous and that he went to meetings several times a week and had a sponsor.  He told her that AA was founded on the principles of the 12 steps, and he needed to share the ninth step with her.  He simply told her that he was truly sorry for the pain he caused in her life, that he still loved her, and that if he could ever do anything for her – anything – just ask.  Now this is where it really gets interesting.

One Saturday night he was visiting the kids and they asked him to go to church with them on Sunday morning.  Much to their surprise he said yes!  He hadn’t been in a church for five years! John describes what happened, “That Sunday morning, I heard the music and Pastor Rick’s message, and I knew I was home.  Cheryl and I began in earnest to work on our issues that had torn our relationship apart.  And five months later God opened our hearts and we renewed our marriage vows.  As a family, we were baptized and took all the church’s classes – Class 101 (Membership) – Class 201 (Maturity), and Class 301 (Ministry) which is the class that I now teach.  Folks, that can only be the power and grace of God!”

As John attended his AA meetings he was mocked when he talked about his Higher Power – the only true Higher Power – Jesus Christ.  And at church he couldn’t find a place where individuals could openly relate to his struggle with alcoholism. He knew they were there because in a church of then 6000, he couldn’t be the only one struggling with a hurt, hang up, or addictive habit.  So John wrote Pastor Rick a concise 13 page single-spaced letter outlining the vision that God gave him – the vision of Celebrate Recovery a Christ-centered 12 step recovery program.  And he said, “Great…do it!”

John was finally able to accept God’s call, and he entered Golden Gate Baptist Seminary.  He committed his life to God to serve him wherever and whenever he chose. The first meeting for Celebrate Recovery started on November 21, 1991 with four open share groups: women’s chemical addictions, women’s codependent, men’s chemical addiction, and men’s codependent. Forty-three people attended that first meeting with volunteers leading their worship and lessons were taught in a large group format. John was asked to join the Saddleback Church Staff in 1992. In 1993, Rick Warren preached “The Road to Recovery” sermon series that became the basis for the 8 Principle of Celebrate Recovery. In 1994 and 1995 John wrote the 4 Participant Guides that now serve as the basis of the Celebrate Recovery Step Study.

Read Cheryl’s words as she describes the growth that resulted, “As we began to use the participant guides, we had a huge growth spurt. Leaders began to emerge from those step study groups and wanted us to start new groups. Gradually groups for newcomers, anger, eating disorders, food addictions, love and relationship addiction, sexual addiction, codependents in a relationship with a with a sexually addicted man, gambling, sexual/physical/emotional abuse, and adult children of the chemically addicted were added to the original four small groups.”

“Celebrate Recovery has helped more than 17,000 people at Saddleback, attracting over 70% of its members from outside the church. Eighty-five percent of the people who go through the program stay with the church and nearly half serve as church volunteers. Celebrate Recovery is now in over 37,000 churches worldwide!” (

If this sounds like a program that you would benefit from, I would invite you to begin your Celebrate Recovery journey by visiting a local Celebrate Recovery ministry near you.