Thirst for Life: Could you go alcohol-free?

|PIC1|The issue of drinking alcohol has long been a grey area among Christians, but one charity is setting believers and non-believers alike the challenge to go 40 days without alcohol.

The challenge is not only to see if they can take control of their drinking, but also to help set a strong alcohol-free example for others in an age of alcohol-influenced hedonism and binge drinking.

Originally the idea of Share Jesus International director Andy Frost, Thirst for Life (TfL) was launched by Christian drug education charity Hope UK in 2006, initially as a challenge to Christians to give up alcohol for 40 days over Lent. 2008 is the first year that TfL has been rolled out for year-round participation.

"The Thirst for Life campaign is based around the simple premise that if people could stop drinking for 40 days they would start conversations that would then affect other people's thoughts about drinking," explains George Ruston, Executive Director of Hope UK.

During the course of the 40 days, participants are invited to wear a TfL tag as a conversation starter and fill in their own progress chart.

One of the unexpected outcomes of TfL has been the insight it has given to the drinking habits of people who are not big drinkers. A couple of weeks into the campaign's first run in 2006, Hope UK started receiving emails from participants saying how tough they were finding it to stop drinking.

"We had emails from people saying, 'I thought I didn't drink very much at all,' and yet they were finding it really difficult to stop drinking," says George. "These were not alcoholics, but people who enjoyed a couple of glasses of wine or a few beers at home in the evening, for example."

After week four, Hope UK started to receive encouraging emails from participants who were feeling the benefits of taking a break from alcohol. "I must admit I feel better, less tired, and it's such a great feeling to wake on a Sunday morning not feeling like I should be in intensive care," one participant said.

"It's not that these people are addicted," says George. "It is more a psychological thing than a physical thing and it might even be a social thing in that they go to the places they would ordinarily go to, like the pub for football, and so they are surrounded by people who are just carrying on drinking. That is bringing up people short and they are saying 'what's going on here?!'"

A self-audit test on the Hope UK website ( allows people to assess their own drinking and see how they measure up. It's clearly an unexpected wake up call for the majority who take it - most people tell Hope that they actually measured up badly.

"I'm surprised by what an immediate effect TfL can have. It's a direct hit to people who need to take time out, and going by the anecdotal stories we have received, it has changed lives," says George.

Although TfL is not actually designed for alcoholics, one alcohol-dependent person got in touch with Hope to say that he had taken the TfL challenge and found it had made all the difference in his efforts to dry out because it had actually given him something to aim for that was achievable.

On a social level, the reality of Britain's binge-drinking culture makes TfL particularly relevant and timely.

According to Alcohol Concern, 11-13-year-olds drank an average of 5.6 units of alcohol a week in 2001 - about equivalent to a bottle of wine. By 2006, however, the same age group was drinking on average 10.1 units of alcohol a week, almost double the 2001 rate.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that TfL is only about self-denial. "The 'Life' part of 'Thirst for Life' is quite important," says George.

"If people just do it with the same heart as they would deny themselves chocolate for Lent then the whole point is lost. TfL is so much bigger than giving up simply for the sake of giving up. People are giving up something to benefit other people and to start conversations with others. It is also about giving up something to enjoy a healthier life and to take time out," he explains.

"So, it is a positive thing. It is a lifestyle change. We are asking people, 'Do you have to carry on doing stuff like this? Is there another way?' We want to get people talking and thinking about alcohol like that."

Historically, Christians have been divided over the issue of alcohol consumption. Whilst some feel it to be evil and sinful, others believe that it is acceptable in moderation. Thus, many Christians simply opt to remain stumm on the issue.

"We at Hope UK have looked at a model of choice," says George. "There isn't a commandment that says don't drink but there is an awful lot of instruction about doing things to benefit other people and about keeping yourself fit and healthy for God's service. And because drinking is related to so much harm these are both very biblically founded.

"There is a bigger need to get conversations about alcohol within the church because there is a history of avoiding talking about it. I managed in my own church to get people talking about alcohol in a way that they would never have talked about it.

"In today's culture the imperative should be to think about other people and how grace can be applied in a national situation where alcohol is causing so many problems. That is a call for people to think about being alcohol free. Thirst for Life is part of a wakening up exercise in that sense."

Should the congregation meet in the pub after service? Should the twenties group meet down the road in the pub? If I am in the pub, do I have to drink alcohol? Or could I drink alcohol-free drinks? These are positive things for Christians to think about, thinks George.

"I was having a conversation with Christians about this, they said we might have had a bottle of wine for special occasions like a birthday or Christmas now we have it with every meal because that's how we've slipped into the culture and it's happened without people thinking about it.

"Does an adult who drinks encourage an 11-13-year-old to drink or not?" asks George. "I suspect that most 11-13-year-olds want to be adults. And if they only see role models who drink alcohol then we are going to get more 11-13-year-olds drinking.

"If they've got more role models showing that alcohol-free is ok and you don't always have to drink to have a good time then that is an alternative model of something positive. Although there is no biblical injunction that says don't drink, I think in today's society there is a lot that challenges us to be role models for others. It is because the problem in the UK is spiralling."

Christians need to reflect on whether their alcohol consumption is healthy, he continues.

"I think that the church has slipped into the alcohol culture that exists and it does not seem to me to be different. What I particularly dispute is this idea that drinking enables non-Christians to see Christians as human beings. I know so many people who don't drink and it doesn't affect their relationship with anybody. It actually helps people if they've got an alcohol problem.

"The need to have a glass of beer in your right hand is a falsehood. You don't need that to relate to people. Such culture within the church has not cropped up overnight. It has been a decades-long process."

Hope UK is calling on the church to start leading the way in overturning Britain's over-dependence on alcohol.

"I would love it if the church was driving that change back but I think that right now it is society that is starting to drive the change," believes George. "Before Christmas, a minister said that the Government was going to invest in a social marketing campaign to encourage the acceptance of alcohol-free choices. That's what I want the church to do. It's what the church did in the 19th century and it led the way. These days we seem to be following more than leading."

The one exception to that appears, to George, to be the black majority churches. Most of the voluntary drug educators that join Hope from the black majority churches don't have to think about stopping drinking because they are already abstainers.

"The black majority churches appear to put much more of an emphasis on not drinking as part of Christian witness," says George.

On a political level, there are already signs of a change of heart within Government.

"The tide is turning. One year ago the Government was not saying, 'Let's talk alcohol-free.' It was saying, 'Oh, it's only the people who are drinking who have got a problem.' The pressure for change has been growing and growing and growing outside the church and in the big wide world more people are saying we have got to do something about this. I would love to see the church embrace that challenge and opportunity."