11/01/2016 04:08 pm ET Updated Nov 02, 2017

The Church's Sobering Silence on Alcohol

As a campus minister I am painfully aware of the statistics on binge drinking on college campuses. I also know that more than 90% of sexual assaults committed on or near campuses (it has become a horrific epidemic) involve alcohol.

The alcohol industry has become one of the most destructive industries in the world and a majority of the Christian Church has not raised its voice in protest and calling for justice.

In fact, Christians support the alcohol industry with our purchasing power, and promote it with our social media posts highlighting our drinks of choice. Instead, I believe the church must raise its voice in objection, combat the industry's predatory business practices, be mindful of what we are teaching and modeling with our own alcohol use, and stand with the people, families and communities suffering the consequences of alcohol.

Worse than Heroin and Crack

The research is deeply convicting. Of all drugs, alcohol is the most harmful.

That's the conclusion of a 2010 study published in the United Kingdom's well-regarded science journal, The Lancet. Researchers said the most harmful drugs to an individual are heroin and crack, but when family and community effects are taken into account, "the most harmful drug to others was alcohol by a wide margin." (See "Drug Harms in the UK: A Multicriteria Decision Analysis," by D. Nutt, J. King, and L.D. Phillips, The Lancet 376 (9752).)

Targeting the Poor, the Young

We must also recognize that the alcohol industry is targeting low-income communities, racial and ethnic minorities, and children and teenagers.

Walk through an inner-city neighborhood, anywhere in the world, and you will notice an over-abundance of alcohol advertising. Not only that. Take note of how much of it is within just a few yards of schools.

A study of alcohol advertisements in city subway stations said:

alcohol is disproportionately advertised in low-income neighborhoods and in neighborhoods with a proportion of racial and ethnic minorities... Because racial ethnic minorities and individuals of lower socioeconomic status are at a higher risk for poor health and have been identified as targets of alcohol advertising, it is critical that advertising polices change to protect these disadvantaged groups. (See "Alcohol Advertising at Boston Subway Stations: An Assessment of Exposure by Race and Socioeconomic Status," by E. Gentry, K. Poirier, T. Wilkinson, S. Nhean, J. Nyborn, and M. Siegel, American Journal of Public Health, 101(10).)

Not only does the alcohol industry target their advertising to the most vulnerable people and communities with the most harmful of all drugs, they then flood these communities with liquor stores.

A 2007 report from the Journal of Studies on Alcohol & Drugs reinforced findings from many studies when it said, "the mismatch between supply and demand may cause people in the most-depraved neighborhoods to disproportionately suffer the negative health consequences of living near alcohol outlets. Such mismatches are at the heart of the environmental justice movement." (See "Alcohol and Environmental Justice: The Density of Liquor Stores and Bars in Urban Neighborhoods in the United States" by J.A. Romley, D. Cohen, J. Ringle, and R. Strum, 68(1).)

Becoming Community Aware

Christians must become aware of the alcohol industry's unethical business practices in their own community. With just a simple Google search or a few phones calls churches can learn a great deal about their surrounding neighborhoods. Call your local government office to see if your county does a health assessment, or something similar. County health assessments often highlight the number alcohol outlets and where the greatest concentrations of them are located.

Here is an example of a "Health Impact Assessment" from Mendocino County, CA:

Churches should become educated on how their local government makes decisions with zoning laws and advertising ordinances. Knowing how and where community meetings like these are taking place can provide an opportunity for the church to be present and have her voice heard in local government meetings and decisions.

How to best act will vary from church to church and community to community, given its own county, neighborhood, and cultural context. Regardless of how you and your church choose to respond, it is critical that we no longer be silent and just stand by as the alcohol industry targets and destroys families and communities we are called to love and serve.

Not Just a Private Decision

There will be those who say advocating teetotalism is unreasonable, and besides, all we need to do is be balanced and teach "responsible" drinking. While research continues in this area, early findings clearly indicate that families teaching abstinence from alcohol is more effective than teaching lessons about "responsible" drinking.

According to a study published in Addictive Behaviors:

Analyses revealed that, in comparison to light drinkers who primarily received harm-reduction messaging from parents, light drinkers who received more abstinence messaging reported less frequent alcohol use, lower peak alcohol consumption, and greater use of protective drinking strategies aimed at changing the way they drank and avoiding serious hazards associated with drinking." (JUL2015 Vol. 46). (See "Alcohol Abstinence or Harm-Reduction? Parental Messages for College-Bound Light Drinkers," by Joseph W. LeBrie, Sarah C. Boyle, and Lucy E. Napper.)

And there's a spiritual lesson involved as well. The Apostle Paul wrote in one of his letters to the church in Corinth about the issue of freedom versus sensitivity to "weaker" brothers and sisters. Corinthian believers were divided on whether or not they should eat meat that had been destined for use in idol temples but was now being sold in the marketplace. Some opposed it as tinged by a godless philosophy; others had no problem with it. Is there a parallel to the consumption of alcohol?

Paul agreed that there was nothing wrong with eating the sacrifice meant for idols -- but with this caution: "But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak... Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble" (1 Corinthians 8:9, 13).

Thus, while Christians have a "right" to drink alcohol, we must be careful not to allow it to become "a stumbling block" to individuals or communities we love.

We may say talking with students -- or anyone -- about religion might seem easier while sharing a beer at a bar. But unlike during biblical times, the pervasiveness of alcohol in our culture has become such an evil, we can no longer use such easy reasoning to justify our own drinking practices. Alcohol is in fact destroying our young people.

The Church Must Take a Stand

What researchers consider as "harm to others" includes loss of relationships, crime, and family and community adversities. Churches often talk about the importance of "living in community" and "building and strengthening communities." Thus the church cannot stand by as the alcohol industry destroys our families and communities.