In this two-part series we want to talk about equipping the ground troops to care for the hurting people in our midst. This first blog will focus more on the twenty thousand foot view of things. Part two will focus more on the specifics of how we equip people here at Harvest.
Counseling as Discipleship
If the church in the western world is really going to move away from the over-professionalized, hyper-therapeutic view of counseling, we need to see counseling more as part of the discipleship continuum rather than placing it on a separate plane altogether. Because the war against our enemies (the flesh, Satan, and the world) is mostly fought at the street level, biblical counseling belongs in our homes, in our small group meetings, and in our friendships.
While training our people is crucial, there is a bigger issue to tackle first. Are we missing the boat by building “emergency rooms” at the bottom off the cliff while neglecting prevention by ignoring the need for guardrails at the top of the cliff? In other words, do we see the value in training not just formal counselors at the corrective level of care (intensive discipleship), but also informal counselors at the directive level of care (intentional discipleship)?
Getting Boots on the Ground
The first step in gaining ground is not being afraid to ask our people to get involved in each other’s lives more intimately. It is the model of the early church (Act 2:42-47; Romans 15:14). We need to train everyone, from the janitor to the senior pastor, how to speak the truth in love privately, prayerfully, and powerfully. Twenty percent of the people doing eighty percent of the work is not a biblical model that matures the saints (Ephesians 4:11-16). Wars are generally won on the ground. While calling in aerial support or other forces is needed at times, without ground troops there is certain defeat.
The same is true for discipleship and counseling; there can be an exaggerated distinction between the two, yet they are utterly dependant on one another. The discipleship continuum should include intentional discipleship on one end and intensive discipleship on the other. Counseling at its core is discipleship—and discipleship that fosters growth and transformation includes biblical counsel. The world says we must have special knowledge or degrees to counsel someone. While training and experience are important, familiarity with the Word of God and godly character are the basic requisites of a good biblical counselor. So, let’s start by deploying passionate troops into the front lines in all circles of influence.
A Church OF Biblical Counselors
Consider also that winning the war requires changing our paradigm. Seminaries and churches have taught for too long that we need “professionals,” “experts,” and “degrees” to help our people. While training and degrees aren’t wrong, not everyone is called to vocational counseling and the church today needs more than a few highly equipped people to address the multiple and varied problems that arise.
Furthermore, we need to redeem the word counsel. We all provide counsel to someone. Think about your marriage, parenting, and friendships. More than that, how do you speak to yourself? The question isn’t, “How many degrees or certifications do I have?” It is, “How biblical is my counsel? Do I blend truth and grace? Do I consider the Bible both authoritative and sufficient for life? Do I come humbly, pray earnestly, and search the Scriptures for hope and answers?”
While more seasoned counselors with significant training and years of experience are worth their weight in gold, we have found it is often those walking alongside counselees who can really make the long-term difference. We call these people “advocates” and our model “counseling in community.” Advocates are like accountability partners should be, they know you well and love you anyway. Weekend sermons or a formal counseling sessions are no doubt important, but the real work is applying God’s Word as we do life with friends and family.
If most biblical counsel can and should be shared in friendships and small groups, what are we doing to create the expectation that everyone in the church should be equipped to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15)? How are we building a church OF biblical counselors?
Let’s not forget however that before becoming counselors, some will need to receive soul care first. That’s why Paul Tripp says in the title of his book, Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands, that we are “people in need of change helping people in need of change.”
Training the Officers
While the ground troops are very important to win the war, they need people to help them make decisions. That’s why we have spent two years teaching our small group leaders to do what we call “directive soul care.” Specifically, we trained our “informal counselors” like deacons, elders, small group leaders, and mentors (we consider them all “officers to the ground troops) to provide biblical counsel more intentionally and skillfully. We taught them how to connect, draw out the heart, respond with truth and grace, and encourage long-term growth through a solid connection to community. Once we had this down, we captured it in a DVD series called Uncommon Community: Soul Care for Small Groups.
We were astounded by the results in our main campuses. Six months after we trained over 600 small group leaders and their coaches, we saw the number of referrals to formal counseling decrease by over 50%. First, we praise God for that because it shows that “ground troops and trained officers” make a HUGE difference for prevention. We are also very proud of our ministry leaders and pastoral staff (higher level officers) who also preemptively leaned into intentional discipleship and early counseling opportunities.
Overall then, this has been very exciting as we have seen the ground troops mobilize for the sake of love for brothers and sisters who are hurting and above all for the sake of Gospel. Galatians 6:1-2 has become even more of a reality in our small group culture. Additionally, since then, we have seen this resource transform the culture of care and discipleship at churches around the country.
Five Benefits to Equipping the Ground Troops
If we don’t train up “informal counselors,” we create a gap of services and care. The temptation then is to refer up or out. This means many who could have worked through an issue with their friend, small group leader, or in a mutual accountability team will now end up in the pastor or counselor’s office. There are several huge benefits to spending time on the preventative side of care and I would like to list just a few.
- Helps Mature the Saint: We see a theme of perfection, maturity, and progressive sanctification throughout Scripture. This is true both for the one giving counsel (learn as you teach) and the one receiving counsel (learn as you listen). Passages like 2 Timothy 2:2, Ephesians 4, and Colossians 1 talk about the idea of growing up into Christ and passing on what we have learned to others.
- Helps Prevent Pastor/Counselor Overload: While every pastor should be counseling two-to-three hours a week, they are often more likely counseling ten-to-twenty hours a week. Many are exhausted or overwhelmed with the problems coming into the office every week. Scripture reminds us in Exodus 18:13-27 that having tiers of leadership for handling issues of varying complexity or difficulty is very wise.
- Helps Small Group Transparency: Small groups can easily become just a “snack and yak opportunity” or a “stale Bible study.” Problem is, people don’t generally want to get real and share private issues in small group (Proverbs 18:1). However, unless small group leaders pave the way in becoming more transparent and equipped to help guide their people through tough times, nothing will change. Passages such as James 5:16; Hebrews 3:12-13; Hebrews 10:24-25; and 1 Thessalonians 5:14, are just a few Scriptures that support “counseling in community.”
- Helps to Build Confidence in God’s Word: Even great Bible-teaching churches somehow get the idea that the Bible is sufficient in the pulpit, but then teach (implicitly or sometimes explicitly) that the private ministry of the Word is not enough. “We need experts” is being taught in most seminaries around the country. In contrast, we have found that a few well-qualified formal counselors can supervise and consult with a number of gifted small group leaders and do ten times more good for the body than one pastor or formal counselor could do on their own. Again, at the end of the day, we’re all called to counsel in Christ (Galatians 6:1-2) and His Word never returns void (Isaiah 55:11).
- Helps Share Spiritual Lessons Learned with Community of Believers: When people come for formal counseling, having a bridge back into community by including laity in the counseling process allows for an accommodation of biblical lessons that is unprecedented. Furthermore, you increase both accountability and intercession by allowing the community of believers to discreetly and personally rise up to love and care for hurting brothers or sisters. Hebrews 3:13, 2 Corinthians 5:20, and 2 Corinthians 1:4, among other passages, are instructive on this point.
We live in exciting times regarding discipleship and counseling in the church. There are more resources available and more training opportunities for formal counselors than any of us could ever keep up with. With all those resources, biblical counseling is becoming more nuanced and effective regarding even the toughest mental health issues.
While we can applaud this progress, let’s remember that two places where immense growth is still needed if we are to win the war: 1) motivate and equip the ground troops, 2) encourage the experienced and well-equipped counselors not to see themselves as counselors first, but instead as EQUIPPERS who counsel.
We are on a journey to becoming a church not just with a great counseling department but a church OF biblical counselors. We hope to see more and more churches join us as we equip and motivate the ground troops to win the battle for the glory of God.