Recent headlines and statistics reveal the undeniable truth that there are some Christians who struggle with serious emotional and mental problems in the church today. There is enough evidence now that shows that individuals with these problems are growing in number and need help from the church. Yet, there are very few churches in the US today who have active counseling ministries. This article will discuss why there are so few counseling ministries in the church today and the growing need for such counseling ministries.
There are many Christians in the church today who suffer and continue to struggle with issues that prevent them from abiding in the love of God and God being glorified in their lives. These issues vary and range from outright sinful habits and behaviors to emotional problems, depression, wounds and scares that prevent Christians from moving forward with life in Christ and overcoming and realizing victory over these problems. These “blocks” to spiritual growth wreak havoc with the Christian’s emotional and spiritual well-being leading to broken marriages, families and setting the individual on the sidelines of faith.
Individuals seeking help with overcoming these blocks often consult with their pastor for counsel and discipleship. Many of these care seekers already realize they have a problem with certain harmful, and often, sinful behavior, but after many years of struggle in the fight to overcome the behavior they have not been able to make any progress and overcome their problem.
Biblically speaking, the church, and pastors specifically, are the correct and appropriate resource for people struggling with spiritual and emotional problems. Secular science and psychology cannot offer the hope needed by those who suffer with depression and other emotional problems due to the very basis of their methodology.1 However, more recently, many churches have decided not to pursue ministries that seek to minister to the needs of those who suffer with emotional problems or problem behaviors like substance abuse or other addictions.
According to LifeWay Research,
- Few churches have plans to assist families affected by mental illness;
- Few churches are staffed with a counselor skilled in mental illness
- There is a lack of training for leaders on how to recognize mental illness
- There is a need for churches to communicate to congregations about local mental health resources
- There is a stigma and culture of silence that leads to shame 2
Many of the churches who are not equipped to minister to the needs of those who suffer with emotional and mental problems refer their church members to other resources like the Focus on the Family Christian Counselors Network which is a database of mental health professionals located throughout the US who have obtained state licensure to practice in their chosen specialization of study and practice.3 While these practitioners appear on Focuses’ Christian database of therapists, and Focus on the Family states, “they believe these therapists will counsel from a biblical perspective;” nevertheless, in order to obtain State licensure, a therapist must study and abide by secular models and guidelines with their practice. Therefore, it is questionable whether the recommended treatment of these therapists will be biblical or not. For many Christians, this may not be of concern, but for a pastor who seeks to biblically shepherd his flock, it is troubling to refer a congregant for treatment that is contrary to biblical precepts. Can you imagine being a struggling Christian desiring to overcome the grief associated with the loss of a loved one, and your church sends you to a non-Christian psychologist who does not share your beliefs in God or future hope of glory, and therefore, can offer no hope whatsoever. It simply makes no sense at all.
The idea of referring people out to professional specialists is evidence of a growing trend in evangelicalism that has developed on the basis of the trichotomous theory of man, where the person is cut up and divided into three-parts: body, mind and spirit.4 On the basis of this theory, churches feel justified holding the view that medical doctors treat the needs of the body, psychologists treat the needs of the mind, and pastors minister to the needs of the spirit. However, this theory is neither biblical or helpful toward meeting the emotional needs of congregants (see footnotes).5 Moreover, it has been clinically proven that it is ineffective to divide up and compartmentalize a person in this way, but rather it is more effective to view the person as a whole and treat the whole person holistically taking all aspects of the person into consideration.6
It is my contention that Evangelicals need to wake up to the reality that biblical counseling is a ministry that is very much needed in most communities today and something the church has a responsibility to provide to the Christian community as well as non-believers. While there are some mental health problems that require medical treatment, many can be resolved through the application of biblical precepts and counseling.
We have experienced three very high-profile deaths to suicide in the Evangelical community over the past six years and it is concerning that the church still refuses to minister to those who struggle with depression and other spiritual and emotional problems.7 There are only two churches in the valley where I live who have made any effort to develop a biblical counseling ministry.8 The one church has a cumbrous non-accredited training program for counselors and a consistent backlog of care seekers they cannot minister to due to the need for more counselors. The other church I mentioned earlier has a few trusted pastors and elders who are available to meet with care seekers, but there is no training or future plan to grow and expand the ministry. There is another church with pastoral care ministries focusing mostly on bereavement. This church has one pastor for counseling and another pastor for bereavement, but with a weekly attendance in the thousands it is apparent the need far outweighs the ability of the pastoral staff.
Why Doesn’t the Church Support More Counseling Ministries?
There are at least two primary reasons for the church’s lack of interest with counseling ministries. First, many churches find the legal exposure and insurance costs associated with these ministries make them cost prohibitive. The argument is that to do these ministries the way many churches have been advised by their legal advisors is simply too costly and exposes the church to legal risks. However, in response to these arguments, it should be noted that we are talking about biblical counseling under the umbrella of the church. We are not talking about psychoanalysis that would require licensure, but simply spiritual counsel. If the person requires medication or medical treatment, then the church could do a referral and then come alongside the person to offer spiritual support and counsel as they pursue medical treatment. In this way, the whole person receives love, care and spiritual guidance in their time of need.
James MacDonald, Harvest Bible Chapel, IL, has been an advocate of biblical counseling ministries for a number of years and has made effort to grow the biblical counseling ministry at his church. MacDonald has gone on record as saying that after teaching his ministry leaders in counseling they witness a significant decline in the number of calls received by the church from people wanting to meet with pastors for counseling.10 The ministry leaders themselves had met the need of the congregation so effectively it actually reduced the need for counseling by the pastoral staff!
Another reason for the church’s lack of interest with counseling ministries is the business of the church simply does not support such a ministry. To be honest, this is simply an indicator of a larger problem in the church today, and that is that the general congregation of church goers today only attend church on Sunday mornings. Therefore, most churches in the US today apply the majority of their time and resources into their Sunday morning services. In ministry today, if a church doesn’t produce an attractive and convenient Sunday morning service, they will not retain their congregation and they will not experience any growth in the way of the number of people attending the church. Therefore, a counseling ministry of any kind is viewed by the leadership of many churches as an add-on ministry that unnecessarily taps into the limited resources of the church. Since it is not a money maker for the church it is deemed to be unnecessary and expendable. There are a number of other reasons why churches do not pursue biblical counseling ministries, but to point them out is not helpful so I will refrain from doing so.
What Is the Fallout of the Lack of Counseling Ministries in the Church?
The fallout of the church’s lack of counseling ministries is really much larger than most imagine. First, to point out the obvious, who do you imagine will sit and listen and seek to minister to the needs of a person who just lost their husband, wife or beloved family member? Who is going to care for the person who has witnessed or fallen victim to a violent crime or tragedy? Who will minister to the cancer treatment patient or those going through divorce or bereavement? With no active counseling ministry, the small pastoral staff of most churches will not track with the growing ministry needs of the congregation and community. With this said, it is safe to say, if your church doesn’t have a future plan for a growing counseling ministry, then you are not sufficiently meeting the needs of your congregation.
Secondly, counseling and discipleship ministries seek to fulfill Christ’s Great Commission to make disciples (Matthew 28:19-20). Many churches claim to be in the business of evangelism and raising up disciples for Christ, yet when you look at their ministries, very few actually have a plan for accomplishing the task. Counseling ministries do just that, their aim and focus is on making disciples for Christ. By helping people overcome their spiritual and emotional problems and move on to grow in the knowledge and grace of Christ, those who learn and grow through biblical counseling are equipped to be disciples of Christ.
With all this, the biblical basis, as well as the needs and benefits far outweigh the reasons for not engaging in a biblical counseling ministry. While not all churches have the resources available to fully develop a growing biblical counseling ministry, all should be doing what they can to minister to their congregations and surrounding community through biblical counseling to help people and raise up disciples for Christ.
Questions for Reflection
- Is your church making any effort to develop and grow a counseling ministry?
- Have you given any thought to what you and your church are doing to intentionally raise up and make disciples for Christ?
- Do you have an action plan for making disciples?
- What steps have you taken toward training and equipping others for biblical counseling?
- Have you developed a discipleship program?
- What can you do to develop, support and grow a counseling ministry at your church?
- This statement comes with the caveat: only when the therapist has integrated Christian principles and biblical precepts and theology will they be able to offer the hope needed to the individual suffering from depression and other emotional problems. If the therapist is a Christian and has integrated Christian principles and theology into their treatment, they too can offer hope to care seekers.
- Study of Acute Mental Illness and Christian Faith: Research Report, LifeWay Research (2014), http://lifewayresearch.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Acute-Mental-Illness-and-Christian-Faith-Research-Report-1.pdf
- Focus on the Family’s Christian Counselors Network, https://christiancounselors.network/
- Augustus Strong, in his Systematic Theology states, “The trichotomous theory… as it is ordinarily defined, endangers the unity and immateriality of our higher nature, by holding that man consists of three substances, or three component parts—body, soul, and spirit—and that soul and spirit are as distinct from each other as are soul and body” in Augustus Hopkins Strong, Systematic Theology (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1907), 484.
- David Benner in his book states, “Biblical discussions of persons emphasize first and foremost our essential unity of being. Humans are ultimately understandable only in the light of this primary and irreducible wholeness and helping efforts that are truly Christian must resist the temptation to see persons only through their thoughts, feelings, behaviors, or any other manifestation of being. The alternative to holistic counseling involves focusing on only one of these modalities of functioning. Unfortunately, this is precisely what many approaches to counseling do—each tending to focus on one limited sphere of human functioning and ignoring the others” in David G. Benner, Strategic Pastoral Counseling: A Short-Term Structured Model, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2003), 56.
- Ian Jones, Wheaton College, makes an excellent point with his argument that to separate the spirit and body is to fall into Gnostic heresy. Jones writes, “Back in the late 1800s, the church bought into a neo-Platonic or Descartesian view of the soul…the separation of the body from the mind and the elevation of the mind or the immaterial…However, this is not biblical. We go about focusing on the mind and our beliefs, and we ignore the body or taking care of our body. When we start doing that, we’re not understanding the holistic view that we find in Scripture of who we are as humans. For example, when you take that into the incarnation of Christ and you try to separate out Christ in terms of body and spirit, we end up with a Gnosticism. Not only that, but what happens to the resurrection of the body? What happens, indeed, to Christ’s resurrection in bodily form? We are diminishing the element that is human, the element that is material. We are not getting a biblical picture. In so doing, we are failing to understand, in terms of the eschatological hope, what happens in terms of future resurrection. We have bought into a neo-Platonic view that is not biblical. Clinically speaking, we must address the whole person in a holistic fashion with our biblical counseling” in Ian Jones, CO107 Introducing Biblical Counseling: The History of Counseling, Logos Mobile Education (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).
- Hailey Branson-Potts, “Another Young Pastor Advocating for Mental Health Dies by Suicide,” Los Angeles Times, September 12, 2019, https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2019-09-12/california-megachurch-pastor-mental-health-suicide
- My research in 2018 of churches in the Temecula Valley confirmed findings of only two churches in the valley who were intentionally pursuing biblical counseling ministries. Further, Google searches performed in August of 2019 revealed that only two churches in the Temecula Valley have counseling ministries on their web pages.
- Counseling Ministry, Harvest Bible Chapel, https://www.harvestbiblechapel.org/counseling-ministry-overview/