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Celebrate Recovery is Maryland church’s ‘discipleship factory’

Emmanuel Church proudly displays a Celebrate Recovery sign. Photo submitted

HUNTINGTOWN, Md. (BP) – Many people know that Celebrate Recovery (CR) is a place for those struggling with hurts, hang-ups and habits. But Marc Bartholomew, the CR pastor and a leader at Emmanuel Church, knows it’s more than that. “It’s a discipleship factory,” he said.

Emmanuel Church Pastor Rick Hancock, who previously served as director of evangelism and interim executive director of the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware, agrees. “It’s everything you want a discipleship program to be about,” Hancock said. “It’s a life transformation process. It’s not just learning about the disciples or the 12 tribes of Israel, but it’s about the truth from the Word of God and dependency on Scripture, and trusting in God to transform lives.”

Marc Bartholomew (center) and his Kelly are with Jeff Stultz, who leads a 4000-strong “Broken Chains” motorcycle CR group. Submitted photo

Every Friday the CR group has a meal together, a large group meeting with recognitions, worship and prayer, and then breaks into various small groups for those struggling with addictions and other issues. Then throughout the week, groups go through Scripture-based studies together.

Emmanuel Church has a membership class requiring new members to be in a small group. Hancock is so impressed with CR that it is now considered one of those groups.


Willie Forman is a Chippewa American Indian – a gifted student who began experimenting with drugs and alcohol only to fall fully into addiction. He was incarcerated more than 25 times, overdosed and almost died. “The insanity of drug abuse led me to look for the same drugs I overdosed on,” he said.

When he ran out of drugs, he was desperate, even resorting to drinking mouthwash. “I stole, lied, and cheated to get the next trip,” Forman said. As his tolerance level increased, he had to keep using more substances to get the same effect.

After going through rehab and attending meetings, he was clean and sober for three years before relapsing and discovering he had physically harmed someone. He was horrified. “They showed me pictures. I hurt someone badly,” he said.

Forman was sentenced to 20 years in prison with 10 years suspended. When his father passed away while Forman was in jail, he said, “My heart broke into pieces.”

“I began crying and asking God for help,” he said. God answered that prayer and began to move in his heart and Forman began to change. “I was trapped in a cell the size of a closet with a toilet, but God blessed me. I grew, studied, and prepared. I was active. I worked out, played basketball and learned a lot.

“Prison was one of the best things to happen to me. The best thing, though, was accepting the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Forman, a Christian rapper who goes by the handle “Indian Will God’s Arrow” has become a longtime CR participant. It is a lifeline for him. He is now a part of the CR team, helping with worship, leading small groups and anything else needed. He even wrote a song about CR that Bartholomew regularly uses during their large group sessions. He is working with other musicians to record a video.

The masks come off

CR members share testimonies every other week – gritty, uncoated, true stories.

A Celebrate Recovery chip commemorating the first 24 hours of “sobriety.” Chips are used to mark milestones. 

“When I heard the first few CR testimonies, I was amazed at how candid and transparent they were,” Hancock said. “People talked about addiction to pornography, drug use, alcoholism, codependency issues, and abusive marriages. And they weren’t ‘churched up’ for acceptable conversations. I’ve been in other churches where people share dramatic testimonies, but I’ve never heard them as raw and real as those at Emmanuel. Once I got over the shock and awe, I began to really feel sympathetic to what they were facing.”

And then, Hancock began some self-examination. “I thought, what am I doing about my issues? Am I working through a process to become healthier?” Hancock said he realized “that’s my story too – just a different label, a different issue.”

Bartholomew said there is a misconception that everyone at CR is dealing with alcohol or drug addictions. In reality, only about a third of the attendees are dealing with substance abuse, a statistic that is fairly consistent throughout the country.

Those who do abuse drugs or alcohol are usually attempting to deal with underlying issues. As they work through the physical addiction, they then move to the other challenges.

“There’s sexual addiction, grief, depression, overeating, co-dependency, family dysfunction – it’s a broad spectrum of stuff,” Bartholomew said. “Christ says bring those burdens to Him. He can handle all that.”

The impact, he said, is felt throughout the church, not just in CR.

“People like Anita, Kelly, Steve, others and I are now mentoring and discipling younger or newer people, helping them build a life that’s built on Christ – praying, reading the Bible, being supported and constantly moving forward,” he said.

“What that has done to the church is that, as a whole, CR has been accepted because now it’s not just ‘oh for those people. It’s part of the church, and we speak it from the pulpit, on the floor, on just about every platform we speak it. We speak about CR as a way to get you balanced and lined back up with God; It gets you into a family that unconditionally loves you. You don’t have to feel ashamed. You don’t have to feel like you have to put a mask on for Sundays. That’s the atmosphere CR breathes. People don’t come in with a big façade. They’re relaxed. They can be themselves.”

During each Friday’s small-group time, there are groups for addiction, sexual purity, overeating, grief and loss, depression and a general life issues group. There was a need for a divorce care group for a season. Bartholomew thought it would draw maybe three people, but it became one of the largest groups. Groups are fluid. They are formed as needed and as leaders are available. They are dissolved when no longer needed.

Hurt people hurt people

Summing up the need for CR, Bartholomew said, “Healthy people help people. Hurt people hurt people, and churches are full of hurt people.” And he gets it on a personal level. He went through a painful time at a previous church years ago and was hurt deeply.

“Here’s the beauty of CR,” he said. “Even as a leader and minister, I had to humble myself and go through the steps and go through the process again to ensure that I was grounded in God. I made mistakes, I said things and I did things. I had to make amends, ask and offer forgiveness. It wasn’t pretty. But I had supportive friends who believed in me, and knew me, lifted me up, encouraged me, and mentored and discipled me back to health.” Eventually, the broken relationship was restored.

“I think CR produces healthy people, though not perfect,” he said. “I don’t know of any other program in the church world that does that.”