Counseling and Discipleship
How are counseling and discipleship related? Let’s think about this in terms of two pictures, a river and a battle scene.
Our discipleship in Christ is like sitting in a boat on a river that flows toward him. Sometimes the river is winding and slow. Other times it’s is rocky and fast. But gratefully his Spirit is always drawing us toward him, increasing our love for him, his word, and his people. As we flow down the river toward him, different men and women help to disciple us along the way. And we are called to help disciple them.
Now, I am not a fisherman, but I have been told that along the river there are “eddies.” These are small pools of water where the fishermen can pull off the river, reload their gear, get some rest, and even strategize before continuing along the river again.
Counseling is like an eddy. It’s a particular form of discipleship, where Christians pull off the river for a period of time to focus on the “problems” that are hindering their movement. It’s a time to stop and ask, “What slows us down from growing closer to our Savior?” The counselor sits in the eddy and waits for the fishermen to pull off and ask for help. The biblical counselor patiently helps them. They sort through the Scriptures together, pray, and work at removing the obstacles from the fishermen’s paths. Then the counselor sends the fishermen back into the river that heads towards Christ.
Now, I believe this is a helpful illustration as far as it goes. But it’s not the full picture. More explanation is needed. You might have heard someone say in the context of football, “The best offense is a good defense.” In counseling, the reverse is true: “The best defense is a good offense.” In this case, the “offense” is a healthy culture of discipleship. A church with a well-developed culture of discipleship is one of the best ways to aggressively head off life’s struggles as they emerge. Discipling relationships in a church should work to counsel people all along the way, so that there is less need to pull into the eddies. Let’s try another illustration.
Think of discipleship in terms of a battle. The front line of the battle is not the counseling room, but the weekly gathering as well as the conversations that take place among members of the church every day in their homes, over lunch meetings, in Bible study, in conversations after church, over the phone, and even on emails! All of a church’s life together involves counseling and each of these opportunities gives us a chance to counsel one another in the Word. If people have at least one or two people in their lives who are willing to share in the ugly details, to be open about their struggles, to hold one another accountable, to admonish and encourage one another, then God can use these experiences to shed light on the darkness and confusion.
One step back from the front line is not the counselor, but wise and godly older men and women in the faith who take time to pour themselves into the lives of younger Christians. These are the “captains” and “generals” of the faith, who by their wisdom and experience direct the soldiers in battle. A culture of discipleship that encourages younger members of the faith to seek out the wise older ones honors Christ by making good use of the rich relational resources that God has built into his church.
To carry the battle analogy one last step, think of the counseling room as the M.A.S.H. unit that sits far behind the front line. It’s only when people are beaten up, bleeding, or maimed so badly that they are no longer useful in the battle that they must be sent to get special medical help. Most people only retreat to the counseling room when their problems get too far out of hand, when they are at a complete loss for wisdom, or when they can no longer tolerate their own struggles. As counselors (or doctor of souls?) we do our best to consider what unseen infections might lie deeper than what can be seen on the surface, treat them accordingly, and then send them back into battle.
1. Every Christian is called to a ministry of discipleship.
Every Christian should either be discipling someone else, be discipled by someone else, or be doing both. Biblical counseling is just one form of Christian discipleship, and it’s meant to be a temporary activity.
The main work of discipling should be done by the members of the congregation. The counselor sends the fisherman back into the river of discipleship, the M.A.S.H. unit sends the soldier back to the front line, to be built up in his faith as he or she engages in one-on-one discipleship with other members.
2. It’s important for pastors to equip their people to do the work of discipleship on the front lines of the battle.
It’s easy for pastors to become over-taxed and over-burdened and still just barely keep up with the congregation’s demands. Pastor, have you ever thought strategically about how to equip your people to be better disciplers and counselors of the Word? By equipping your members, you enable them to do the work on the front lines, which in turn saves you time because many of the problems on the “front lines” never get back to you.
Think about preaching a series on discipleship, or running an annual Sunday school class on discipleship, or having your members read through some good books on discipleship. Make it an expectation that church members should be involved in each other’s lives, teaching them to invite one another into their own lives for correction and rebuke. Have you modeled this kind of humility for the church? Pray that the Lord will help you build a healthy culture of discipleship in your church.
ONE LAST PRACTICAL SUGGESTION
One last practical suggestion: last spring our church began a lay counseling training class for the members of our church. The class is based on two curriculums—How People Change and Helping Others Change—developed by the Christian Counseling Education Foundation (CCEF). These user-friendly leader’s guides and workbooks make it very easy for pastors, lay leaders, and members to teach one another how to counsel the Word and how to better care for one another. The format is useable in a Sunday school, small group, or one-on-one discipleship setting. To find out more or to order material for your church, check out CCEF’s bookstore at www.ccef.org.
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 This idea of discipleship as a river and counseling as an eddy comes from Steve Viar’s “The Discipleship River,” Journal of Biblical Counseling 20 (2002): 58-60.