Drying Out With Jesus

By Jeff Winkler 06/03/12

How different are evangelical Christian drug-and-alcohol rehabs from their secular cousins? The Fix investigates.

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"The times when you have seen only one set of footprints, is when I carried your
drunk ass."
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Twelve-Step skeptics scoff at what they view as the unscientific, faith-based approach to substance-abuse treatment, as seen in Alcoholics Anonymous and mainstream rehabs across the country. Evangelical Christian rehab—a growing force in the treatment industry—doubles down on this by doing away with vague notions of a “higher power,” and explicitly prescribing belief in and reliance upon Jesus Christ as the only true road to recovery.

You can see this dynamic in action at Big Creek Ranch Retreat, an evangelical addiction treatment center nestled in the Ozark Mountains near Harriet, Arkansas. “God uses this one,” says Big Creek proprietor Rodney Love, confidently.

Even with his cheerful, singsong Southern cadence, the declaration almost sounds as if Love is vying for bragging rights—as if God himself had a two-bag-a-day habit and came here to clean up.

According to a 2008 report from the National Survey of Substance Abuse Treatment Services (N-SSATS), God actually uses about 527 faith-based rehabs. As for Big Creek Ranch, it looks less like a place to get clean and sober and more like Hunger Games heroine Katniss Everdeen’s summer cottage. The inside is all exposed frames, with walls of stone and timber. Perched in the forefront of the panoramic view is a plaque emblazoned with a Bible verse, from 1 Kings chapter 19: “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” While Love expounds on all the good the retreat does for those seeking relief—from various addictions, depression and more—the all-glass wall of the lodge looks out onto high, green hills rubbing gently against the cloudy sky. Somewhere below, the Buffalo River meanders through the valley.

Many evangelical rehabs recognize the “disease model” of addiction, and some utilize the 12 Steps. But their treatment plans offer a more holy approach.

“Here’s what we do here,” grins the ruddy-faced Love, as he goes Old Testament with his analogy. “I describe it as a boil on our skin. You gotta get down in there and lance that boil out. Get rid of that stuff and start the healing process, and that’s what we do here. We don’t want to treat the symptoms, we want to treat the root.”

The root, of course, is faith—an assessment with which AA is more or less in agreement; in the “Big Book” (AA’s Bible, if you will), alcoholism is described as “an illness which only a spiritual experience will conquer.” But Love does not grant, as AA does, that faith in a self-defined higher power will suffice; rather, Love believes that only faith in capital-G God and in Jesus Christ, your personal lord and savior—and de facto sponsor, for that matter—will save you.

Like many other Christian drug and alcohol treatment centers, Big Creek Ranch—which usually hosts about six people for two weeks at a stretch, sometimes longer—is non-denominational, concerned only with bringing people to a recovery that sits firm on the rock of Jesus, rather than any specific Christian sect. Many of these rehabs recognize the “disease model” of addiction, and some utilize the secular 12 Steps, or a version thereof. But their treatment plans tend to offer a more holistic—or, rather, holy—approach.

“I call this holy ground. It’s indescribable what God does here,” says Love, unabashedly. 

During this reporter’s visit, Love enthusiastically invited me to watch a group session that was taking place in the lodge’s main living room. Sitting in wood rocking chairs, the group of kids seemed to range in age from about 16 to 18. A couple of the girls looked exactly like my younger, atheist/agnostic sibling did when she, too, went through group therapy.

The only difference is that these teens don’t seem to be grasping for some tangible idea of a higher power, because “The Word” is already understood to be a central part of their recovery—and in that sense, Love and his treatment program are not alone.

Take Christian Love Ministries, in Murphy, North Carolina. Its genesis began, according to its website, with a Noah-like decree that “God would build a drug/alcohol recovery center … (Halley’s Comet was passing by that winter).” The ministry relays instructions and lessons by founder Denny Smith, theologian Bill Goff and Tim LaHaye, co-author of the wildly popular (in certain circles) Left Behind series of novels about the End Times and the Rapture.

During the 11-week treatment program at Christian Love Ministries, residents watch 63 videos, six times a week. “Ours is very unique,” says program coordinator Mick McCloskey.

Perhaps the video marathons are unique, but the religious language is typical. Case in point is Lakeside, California’s Calvary Ranch, “Where God Does the Healing” (and entertainer Pat Boone does the endorsing). Here’s what Jordan Wright, an “elder” at Calvary Ranch, has to say about the grip of drugs and alcohol: “There’s a demonic force behind addiction. Unless you deal with it on a basis of something more powerful than the demonic force ... then [it] will be happy enough to switch addictions to have you switch bondages.”

"We believe that addiction comes from the original sin of man, and that God has the answers and offers the ultimate healing.”

Calvary Ranch typically accepts people for a 30-day program, but it also has 60- and 90-day tracks. Wright says that in secular treatment facilities, the addiction is always there, that you’re perpetually “in recovery” and therefore “bound forever.”

For those of the faith, that’s like saying you need to be saved “90-in-90,” or that Jesus got involved in a critical, but not deadly, incident for your sins. For Christ-based centers that focus on scripture, recovery and a relationship with Jesus Christ are one in the same. Also, it’s eternal.

“We believe God can heal people of their addiction,” says Wright. “And as they go on in the discipleship they can stay out of their addiction. To some it sounds nuanced, but it’s a different way of looking at addiction.”

At Penfield Christian Homes, with three locations in Georgia, and which describes itself as “science-based recovery from a Christian perspective,” they’re equally self-assured about the origins of addiction.

“We do adhere to the disease model,” says Director of Development David Jordan. “But we believe all disease is sin-based because of the fall of man … and that there was no disease [or] sin when we entered into the world. So we do believe that addiction comes from the original sin of man, and that God has the answers and ... offers the ultimate healing.”

The first few lines from a 2005 paper contrasting faith-based treatment programs with traditional programs in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment sound like they were penned by a modern-day Doubting Thomas.

“Unfortunately,” the paper reads, “systemic empirical research regarding the efficacy of faith-based interventions … for alcohol or substance abuse is sparse.” (To be fair, systemic empirical research regarding the efficacy of secular rehab programs is similarly sparse.)

Directors of evangelical rehabs aren’t able to definitively answer the question, either. Love wasn’t sure about his facility’s success rate, only that it is “off the charts.” Penfield Christian Homes doesn’t have hard and fast numbers either, but after 34 years of operation, it’s “highly thought of” by both secular and religious treatment centers, said Jordan. Michael Campbell, President and Director of Education Programs of the St. Joseph Institute in Port Matilda, Pennsylvania, claims that 70–80 percent of their alumni have not had a relapse in the past year. Christian Love Ministry’s McCloskey cites a two-year, in-house study which found that about 48 percent of its graduates remained clean and sober since leaving treatment.

“It’s the Holy Spirit that’s here,” McCloskey said, referring to the third person of Christianity’s Holy Trinity.

But regardless of data or the presence or absence of the Holy Spirit, there may be another reason that there is a growing interest in faith-based rehab.

Similar to how some people seem perpetually vexed about the “religious” aspect of groups like AA or NA, addicted or recovering Christians also have their frustrations with 12-Step programs—not about their spiritual nature, but in fact about their very lack of religiosity.

Internet message boards for Christians in recovery are rife with threads discussing the problems AA has with not meeting their spiritual needs. Picking apart the logic of AA’s central “god of your own understanding” concept, one of the more aggressive (and funny) posts reads, “That’s like me saying this snowman is made of Coke, not snow, because he is a snowman of my own understanding!”

Christ-based treatment centers are trying to provide a solution to this problem.

“If people are simply approaching or understanding [addiction] from the secular perspective, they really don’t know where they end up going, and you sort of end up right back at the point of Abraham trying to understand ‘Who is God?’ and ‘What is God?’,” says Campbell. “We believe that the higher power of the 12 Steps is God and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”

Calvary Ranch’s Wright is even more straightforward: “For us [the higher power] is Jesus Christ. Not the doorknob, or the Porsche on the corner.”

“Secular treatment really just brings out a lot of your problems. With the Christ-based focus, you’re running to something.”

Doorknobs—the tried-and-true higher-power stand-in for 12-Steppers having trouble with the god concept—come up a lot in conversations regarding Christ-based recovery. Even if that conversation is with James Christopher, the founder of Secular Organizations for Sobriety, the “world’s largest alternative to AA or Christ-based or spiritual-based groups.” Counterintuitively, SOS and Christian rehabs have a couple things in common—a commitment to help those who distrust AA’s quasi-religious fence-straddling.

“I would tend to agree with them,” says Christopher, perhaps proving that God does in fact work in mysterious ways. “AA is being disingenuous in that that approach and that shtick is just to help them feel comfortable,” he says. “They’ll say something nonsensical like, ‘You could make your higher power a doorknob,’ but then when you apply my will and my life to the doorknob … that would be more suitable for a late-night comedy show.”

One alumnus of an evangelical treatment center who spoke to The Fix—Billy Bob, a recovering coke addict with six months clean—had similar issues with seeking salvation in the gleam of a brass knob. And he wasn’t even that religious to begin with. During his 25 years of addiction, Billy Bob said he really just went to church with his wife, to make her happy, and he dismisses the notion that one can just pray away serious problems. But something about Christ-based treatment clicked for him.

“Secular treatment doesn’t offer solutions,” says Billy Bob, a four-time rehab veteran. “It really just brings out a lot of your problems. With the Christ-based focus, you’re not running from something, you’re running to something.”

Billy Bob did have a few good things to say about his time at secular treatment. He believes AA’s insistence on service is great—and, during secular rehab, he said that his volleyball serve got really good and that he got a nice tan.

“That was about it,” says Billy Bob. “[Secular treatment] just didn’t work for me. There wasn’t a change in my heart. There was no real endgame. So I was going to do my 12 Steps and then what? Go to meetings for the rest of my life and substitute AA for drugs? I just couldn’t see how it was going to work out. But I look at faith—there’s an eternity.”

Of course, just as secular treatment doesn’t work for some, faith-based treatment doesn’t work for others. My own sibling struggled under the weight of the ideas contained within both Big Books—AA’s and Christianity’s—which, although they brought her to the water, also seemed to drag her down.

She never did find a higher power, but after finishing a recent jail stint for a DWI, she did find a “Dog”—so, anagrammatically speaking, she’s halfway there. In that sense, there is one tenet upon which secular and faith-based rehabs can agree: That recovery is possible. It just takes a little faith.

Arkansan Jeff Winkler has written about breaking his penis for The Awl, his drinking and money problems for The Billfold, and fringe politics and firearms for The Daily Caller. 

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Jeff Winkler is a Nashville-based writer, video anchor, and documentary producer. He is the winner of the Carter Journalism Institute's Matthew Power Literary Reporting Award and you can find him on Twitter.