Sometimes, in the world of Big Book AA, there is an insistence that the meeting discuss the Steps and the Big Book and only the Steps and the Big Book.
I have discerned three other chief purposes in meetings.
(1) To provide a fellowship
This is intangible but real. My home group is strong, discussing the Big Book and the Steps closely and faithfully every week. However, there have been occasions when I have been drowsy and barely able to follow. I still feel strengthened throughout the week by the experience of the hour in that room, and it's not because of the odd bits of wisdom or instruction that come my way. My 'second home group' (not really my home group but a group I attend weekly and perform service at) is much less focused, but oddly I feel just as at home, 'part of', and inspired about the programme. There is much that is conveyed in AA under the radar; the spirit and principles of AA can be reinforced as much by behaviour, deportment, aura, etc. as by actual words. Sometimes it is in the silence when we are asked to remember the 'still-suffering alcoholic' that major communication can take place; equally, a meeting I once attended that included a 20-minute silence often produced the same shift in my consciousness as my current home group with its almost incessant discourse.
The feeling of being subsumed into a whole that has a single purpose and sharing the strength of others (with giving and receiving indistinguishable) is at the heart of how AA works and goes far beyond the issuing of concrete instructions to newcomers.
(2) Acting as a collective twelfth-step call
Ideally, individuals are twelfth-stepped into AA and launched into their first AA meeting, sold on their own alcoholism and the solution contained in AA's twelve-step programme and eager to absorb every tidbit they can about the programme they are already so heartily engaged in following.
How often is this actually the reality? In truth, the vast majority of newcomers in AA (and a large proportion of people who drift, sometimes for decades, with a half-hearted, double-minded, cafeteria-style hodgepodge of half-misunderstood scraps of programme) are not at all sold on their alcoholism or on the solution.
The twelfth-step call function, whilst still discharged in part through the telephone service, other official access routes to AA, and individual ad hoc, opportunistic twelfth-stepping of friends and acquaintances, is in great part left to meetings. Groups that focus solely on the dry conveying of instructions (and there are such meetings) are often quite ineffective in their 'attraction' function, and the groups I know in London that have tried this approach, although technically kosher, can be spiritually deadly—as an old sponsor of mine described it, 'heavy pudding'. Newcomers I have taken are rarely keen to return.
Before we get down to conveying instructions, we need to demonstrate why we are here and that we have something to offer in terms of a solution that has transformed our lives.
A lot of apparently pointless recounting of details of life, past and present, is actually serving to fulfil this twelfth-stepping function of attracting people into the actual twelve-step programme.
(3) Acting as a holding pen
As an extension of the above ideas, most people grab the twelve-step programme with both hands only after a substantial delay. This period of delay may or may not involving slipping repeatedly.
If the only option were full-throttle AA, individuals would be faced with the choice of this or nothing, and would have to make the choice right now, and who knows how many people would be lost forever who actually do, eventually, recover, driven by the lash of alcoholism and their own egos.
The huge number of meetings that are relatively weak as far as the programme is concerned are, however, hugely effective in temporarily sobering people up, or even sobering them up reasonably long term, allowing them to be held safe until they are actually ready to work the programme.
I was one such person, and I'm glad I was not presented with 'work the programme now or leave' on arrival and could find my faltering way to a full-throttle form of AA by about six months in.
To conclude: AA meetings perform several functions, and not all are immediately evident. One might be so rash as to conclude that AA as it has developed, far from being a deviation from 'true AA' of 'the olden days', is actually precisely as God intended it, almost as if by design.