Cultivating a Culture of Counseling and Discipleship
THE MINISTRY OF THE WORD
9Marks: Do you think a pastor can counsel from the pulpit?
Tim Lane: Certainly. Preaching is a form of counseling because it’s one part of ministry of the Word. Now, there needs to be consistent exegesis and good application. But if preaching is pointing people to Christ so that they’re learning to worship him and the living God—Father, Son, and Spirit—then it’s counseling.
9M: I’ve heard you like the word “discipleship” more than the word “counseling” in the context of the local church. Is that right?
TL: Let me nuance that slightly. The word “discipleship” communicates daily growth in grace as a result of the means of grace in the life of the church—fellowship, the Word, prayer, sacraments. The word “counseling” is understood oftentimes as a formal session with a degreed person trained to deal with complex issues. But the liability of the “counseling” word is that it tends to communicate that there’s another solution or theory or message that changes the person. Christians understand, hopefully, that discipleship occurs through the gospel. But when you talk about counseling, people can think that the gospel isn’t sufficient. And that’s clearly wrong.
I’m comfortable using both terms, but would put both the discipling ministry of the church and the counseling ministry of the church (which will focus more on severe problems) under the ministry of the Word. Both discipleship and counseling depend on the same message of change (the gospel) and the same text (the Scriptures).
9M: So describe the ideal church in regard to counseling and discipleship. What picture should we aim at?
TL: I would paint a picture of a church that has as broad a definition as possible of what the ministry of the Word looks like. People who emphasize the ministry of the Word typically point to preaching. I want to say, “That’s a very important aspect of ministry of the Word, but what about everything that follows?” The small group, the one-on-one formal meeting, or the conversation in the hallway where someone’s asking for advice are all opportunities for the ministry of the Word.
Now, are the conversations in the hallway consistent with the pulpit ministry? Suppose the pastor preaches on anger from the Scriptures. Then the person who hears the sermon goes to a friend and says, “I’m struggling with anger.” At that point, the friend will either support the ministry of the Word in the church or not.
The ideal church is where the pastors who do the more formal public ministry of the Word focus on Christ in their preaching. Then the ministry of the Word doesn’t stop there; it continues throughout the church. The discipling ministry, the children’s ministry, the youth ministry, the missions work, the worship ministry, the friendships and families—all of this operates on the same page by being Word oriented and Christ centered. Elders and deacons are taking the Word into their work. Parents are learning to bring the gospel into how they train their kids. Husbands and wives are thinking about the centrality of the gospel as they relate to one another. And the list goes on and on.
In terms of counseling, I do believe in the importance of having better trained and more skilled pastoral counseling staff for intervening in serious crises,but they should not be doing all the counseling themselves. They should be training and equipping small group leaders, maybe for more skilled lay counselors. They should be creating a culture of discipleship and counseling in the life of the church.
In the ideal church, you’re swimming in a sea of Word-saturated relationships. People are constantly asking, “How can we make this message—the redemptive work of Father, Son, and Spirit for us through what Jesus has done in His life, death, and resurrection—drive what we do?”
9M: Where do you see this broader idea of the ministry of the Word pictured in Scripture?
TL: There are many passages, but three stand out in my mind. The first is 1 Peter 5. The elders are to be shepherds, to feed, to care for, to exhort, to correct, to guide, and to nurture the sheep through the Word. The primary work of the elders is to ask the question, how can we best see our people be conformed to the image of Jesus?
The second is Ephesians 4, particularly where Paul calls the leadership to equip the saints. The leaders should think about how they can we equip the entire body of Christ to be participants in one another’s sanctification.
The third passage presents what 1 Peter 5 and Ephesians 4 look like when the leaders apply them. It’s Colossians 3:12-17, where Paul exhorts the entire body of Christ—not just the teaching elders—to let the Word of Christ dwell in them richly, so that they may instruct and exhort one another with all wisdom.
Where there is a culture of gospel saturation in a church’s relationships, there is this growing skill in teaching and admonishing one another with all wisdom.
9M: How would you envision a non-Christian responding upon entering this kind of church?
TL: The life of the Word-centered church is an incredible apologetic to a watching world. Paul says in Ephesians 5 that we’re to live as children of light and—he uses an interesting phrase—”expose the darkness.” The word translated as “expose” doesn’t so much get at the idea of finger pointing as it does the idea of persuading by our counter example. When we live as children of light, we live a persuasive lifestyle that gets the attention of the non-Christian. A rich counseling ministry in the life of the church has wonderful evangelistic implications as we live life in the culture and persuade others of the truth of the gospel.
9M: Moving into the topic of a counseling ministry itself, what’s distinctive about CCEF’s and your understanding of counseling? And what distinguishes your approach from modern secular psychology?
TL: The major category that gets excised in secular psychology is the category of the transcendent—the reality of a living God before whom we’re accountable, a living God who intervenes by his grace in the person and work of Jesus.
In our own work, and in what we try to teach through all our resources at CCEF, is a view of counseling that is utterly Christ-centered. The gospel forms the center of how we think about counseling, and so you will find on-going connections to what Jesus has done for us and the benefits and blessings that are ours if we are united to him.
Start with justification. That’s a wonderful blessing that comes to us by virtue of our union with Jesus. We are forgiven and counted righteous. Jesus died in my place the death that I should have died because I was a sinner. And the life that I’m required to live—a perfect life—has been lived by Jesus for me.
Then think of the doctrine of regeneration which is connected to progressive sanctification. Sanctification starts at the moment you’re regenerated because you are given the Spirit. I have a new nature. I am a new creation in Christ. I have a new heart. That doesn’t mean I have a perfect heart. I have a new heart. A new heart is valuable, because it’s sensitive in the way the old heart wasn’t to the things of God, to the Scriptures, to the influence of Christian brothers and sisters.
Often we use the word “progressive” in front of the word sanctification because most of the time it’s a very slow process that takes place over a long period of time. Sometimes a person might be delivered in a short period of time from a dominating enslavement to anger or sexual lust, and we’re thankful for those. But by and large, growth requires a lot of effort that is, of course, given to you by the work of the Spirit. We are participants. It’s a fight. J. C. Ryle said the two marks of the Christian is a new peace in a person’s life because he is now free from guilt and condemnation, but also a new fight because of the Spirit’s work to destroy remaining sin completely.
Another blessing that comes to me because of my union in Jesus is the fact that I am adopted. I am no longer living with God in a court room trying to woefully defend myself and saying “I’m not guilty,” when in fact I am. Because of what Christ has done for me, God is now my Father, and I live with him in the context of a family, and that relationship is irrevocable.
Not only does the doctrine of adoption focus individually. It’s also corporate. I am adopted into a family—brothers and sisters in Christ, and that’s to be worked out in the context of commitment in the local church.
Another benefit of our union with Christ is the assurance of perseverance and glory. If I really belong to Jesus, he’s not going to let go of me, even when I’m struggling at my lowest. Then there is the wonderful promise that one day this struggling sinner will be glorified. There is an end to the struggle, and there’s hope.
9M: Does your book How People Change address these issues?
TL: Yes, the book How People Change seeks to put forth a very basic and fundamental understanding of who God is, who we are, what kind of world we live in, and how change happens through the redeeming work of Christ. It’s trying to lay out the big picture and to put forth a very practical view of the Christian life. You might say it’s trying to put forth a robust biblical and gospel-centered Christian psychology.
PROMOTING DISCIPLESHIP AND COUNSELING
9M: What are the most important things pastors or elders should think about as they seek to promote discipleship in their church?
TL: Oftentimes, in some evangelical and Reformed contexts, we’re first and foremost concerned about protecting the purity of our doctrine. That’s certainly important. But we also need to think about how we are going to help our people live the Christian life with the common problems that we all struggle with. If we don’t move to the practice of our doctrine, then we’re missing something fundamental. How do we diagnose people’s struggles and problems biblically? How can elders and pastors apply the gospel with skill and relevance to people’s lives, to marriages, to families? These questions need to be on the radar screen.
This is why I love the Book of Ephesians in this regard. Ephesians 1 through 3 is awesome stuff. Look at all the wonderful things God has done for you and his glory. Then in chapter 4 he takes this jumbo jet that was flying at 30,000 feet and lands. He says, “Here’s how it plays out in your daily life.” Chapters 4 to 6 are how to work together as a church, how to parent your kids, what marriage should look like, and how you should view your role in the world that God has placed you in.
9M: How do you train lay people in lay counseling and discipleship?
TL: If I were pastoring right now, I would be using CCEF’s curriculum!
COUNSELING REFERRALS AND RECOVERY GROUPS
9M: Many pastors prefer to refer their counseling to a professional counselor who does not attend their church. What do you think about counseling referrals, and how does this work in connection with the culture of discipleship?
TL: I would say that there isn’t room to be legalistic about this, and there probably are many occasions where you may want to refer. But I would have two very important qualifications: First, I would want to know where the particular counselor is coming from and his or her understanding of how change happens. Is it consistent with what the church teaches? Second, I would want to know if the outside counselor is willing to work with the leadership of the church, because the ultimate responsibility for giving oversight in the counselee’s life is with the leaders of the church, not the outside counselor.
9M: One popular way to do discipleship and counseling in churches is to start therapy groups—addiction recovery, financial debt recovery, grieving, sexual purity, and so forth. What role should such groups play in a church setting?
TL: I would say that there is certainly a place for these groups so that people can find specific help for specific sin struggles, and there can be great encouragement in those groups. The danger occurs when people remain in them indefinitely and start to define themselves based on a sense of unique struggle with that sin. So “I’m an addict” or “I’m a divorced person” or “I’m someone who struggles with pornography,” rather than, “I am in Christ. My fundamental core identity is that I’m a Christian, a new creation in Christ, who struggles with this particular sin.”
I would say there is a place for them, but it’s important to mainstream the people in these groups back into the life of the church because, at the end of the day, every sin struggle has a similar dynamic. It’s a worship disorder. Mainstream these people back into the life of the church so they can be useful to everyone.
9M: Tell us about the course that you teach for both pastors and lay people in our distance education program.
TL: The name of the course is called “Counseling in the Local Church.” In it, I’m trying to give pastors, lay leaders, and even average church members a picture of what it would look like if you took all the other courses of CCEF and actually worked them out into the life of the church. It explains what a culture of discipleship or counseling actually looks like and how you can promote it. It gets at the question of how to take advantage of the opportunities that God has given you so that you can be a part of the sanctification of another person.
(Note – CCEF offers this course, along with 8 others, through their distance education program. You can learn more about this program here: http://ccef.org/distance_ed_faqs.asp)