This past weekend, I visited Saddleback Church, the Baptist evangelical megachurch founded by Pastor Rick Warren, the author of, among many other books, The Purpose Driven Life (2002). It was my first time in a church in a long time, and, honestly, blew me away with its powerful, inclusive, and healing message.

I came to Saddleback at the invitation of Dr. Ron Wolfson, author of God’s To Do List, to talk with church leaders about the potential as a religious community for catalyzing a grassroots campaign to address the opioid crisis. I have been a big fan of The Purpose Driven Life since I first read it 15 years ago, and particularly of Warren’s articulation that the path to a life of personal fulfillment, happiness, and purpose runs through being of service to others.

Perhaps the central problem of our era may be the vast numbers of people who are suffering because they don’t feel they are part of anything. In Chapter 6 of The United State of OpioidsI examine how the opioid crisis parallels a crisis of suicidality (as much as one-third of overdoses may be suicides) and reflects the anxiety, depression, isolation, chronic stress, and lost sense of purpose of the present and recent decades. These sources of pain explain why the crisis keeps getting worse. A 2018 study by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh identified a 40-year exponential rise in the overdose death rate (a majority accidental and a minority suicides) across all types of drugs—underscoring that the solution does not lie in drug policy, but rather in attention to the social crisis manifesting across America. We are a society in pain, with too many people whose needs are going unmet turning to self-medicating as a solution.

The thing that frustrates me most is the way that most of the coverage of the crisis amounts to “rubbernecking”. We watch the latest news story passively. Nothing seems to move us out of shock and into action.

One of my overarching messages in the book is that the real challenge in front of us — to bring down the exponentially increasing overdose rates and the scary rates of addiction and chronic pain — demands a new conversation, one that eradicates the shame that keeps people disconnected. To me, a critical part of the “work” of beating back the opioid crisis is developing awareness, skills, and resources to empower people to be agents of engagement, connection, prevention and intervention.

Saddleback, with its volunteer infrastructure, reach, and ministries that already focus on key elements of the crisis (including Celebrate Recovery, Grief Support, and Chronic Pain) seemed like a perfect place to test my theory that religious communities are uniquely positioned to lead when it comes to the work in front of us. Imagine how many people could be reached if we enlisted more people who walk through the doors of churches and synagogues to reach out to the people who are just one degrees of separation away. I have been heartened to find allies in the church leadership who have put the opioid crisis on their agenda and are eager to think about and begin implementing the work ahead.

Beyond Saddleback, I am looking forward to sharing more in the weeks ahead about my dialogue with a wide range of Christian, Jewish, and other religious communal leaders about potential collaboration and the role religious communities can play in this crisis. One takeaway in these conversations so far has been a different sense of urgency in some places. The first challenge of awareness is getting people to realize that this crisis is happening everywhere. There may be more overdose deaths in one community than another, but people are dying everywhere, and the rest of the suffering — the addiction, the chronic pain, the emotional pain, which we know from the data are pervasive — are disturbingly unseen. If you are interested in finding out how you and your community can play a role, I invite you to order a copy of The United States of Opioids and email me to discuss next steps. I look forward to hearing from you.


Harry Nelson can be reached at