A.J. Schwanz is asking a great question, about whether detoxing from church has to be done “cold turkey.” Wow, that’s a great one — and one I really want to take a stab at. The basic question is about the best means of detoxing from church. Indeed, an interesting question to ponder.

First, we should define “cold turkey.” The phrase dates to 1910 when cold turkey was the quickest thing to prepare in the kitchen, requiring no planning or forethought. It began to be applied to quitting addictive substances in 1922, first to heroin. Basically it means to quit suddenly, but the common usage of the phrase seems to imply quitting without a slow-down period or aids such as the patch for smoking.

So, must detoxing from church be done “cold turkey”?

First, “suddenly.” Here my answer is “no.” I would in fact argue that only rarely is detox sudden, or even the the decision to begin a season of detox. My own experience is one of the few that I know of which has a major crisis-moment, and yet even that is just the cap on a long process of growing disillusionment. It’s a milestone, not the whole event.

Next, the lack of aids and slow-down periods. I might suggest trying the gum, but the endless chewing of a tasteless, nutritionless glob might be too reminiscent of the thing we’re trying to detox from here, and it won’t help break the pattern. The metaphor here is probably the attempt to keep believing exactly the same things as before, including continuing to agree with the old guard regarding church structure and practice…. but in the end this isn’t going to quench the detox drive or nourish the soul that cries out longing for detox. The patch perhaps has more merit for this application, but I think it will ultimately only prolong the process. The way this works is to give you a constant but diminishing dose of the thing you’re trying to kick, which makes sense for a drug… but for a habit I think a different strategy is required. The patch metaphor in this context might be to keep attending the midweek Bible study or small group but decline to attend Sunday mornings. The problem here is that it won’t help you to keep being fed on Wednesday or Thursday by people who tell you each week that you’re in mortal danger on Sunday.

To kick a habit, you have to change your ways so that you begin to see what was wrong with the old ways to the point where you can’t imagine how you used to practice the former habit. This is where detox comes in, and why it works the way it does. Here we imagine a distancing from the regular meetings of the church or church structure you formerly attended… what will become your CLB. During this period, the gradual slowdown might be contemplated. Drop in on different congregations, but be resolute about not making a decision to simply change churches. You’re trying to make a bigger migration than simply swapping brands, and until you’re well into the process, you won’t be prepared to make such a decision — you’ll be tempted to decide you’ve found a better church, but ignore it. Even if you have, you’re not making a switch to menthol, you’re seeking to find the clarity of mind to see this whole thing with greater perspective. For some, the occasional visit to different churches may serve to help change the way you see the place you’ve come from. Eventually, a return visit to your CLB will leave you seeing it from an entirely different perspective, and it may be a while before it elicits nostalgic feelings. For others, I suppose that true “cold turkey” is a reasonable way to go about it… and I suspect that it may speed the process, but that’s only a suspicion.

A final word about detox. You’ll be warned about how, you know, the Bible says not to forsake meeting together, and that means you’re supposed to park your buttocks in a pew every Sunday, or something like that… they might phrase it differently. This is one of the things that becomes increasingly clear in the detox process… that proximity is not community. To guide you through the detox process, I strongly urge a focus on community, meaning that I suggest anyone on this path find a few people who have been down it before to help guide and encourage them along the way. Find some people you can share your life with, and who will share theirs with you. Be certain to discuss the subject head-on and to talk through all the questions along the way as they come up. This is the essence of what the misquoted verse urges, and I can tell you from experience, it makes all the difference. This alone will ensure you come through it with your faith intact — and perhaps even stronger than ever.

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