3 Ways to Establish a Culture of Counseling in Your Church

One of the most helpful first steps toward making the most of biblical counseling in a church plant is cultivating a culture of change. In this, a church plant seems to have a certain advantage. Unlike with an established church, that may already have a certain ministry DNA, the shepherds of a new church enjoy the advantage of establishing ministry DNA from the beginning. Giving such early attention to church culture has proven especially helpful to cultivate an appreciation and practice of mutual ministry within the congregation. Members living in a community that values mutual ministry of the word provide the necessary infrastructure for a growing biblical counseling ministry.[1] When thinking of a culture in the local church, many useful terms come to mind. One might think of other, related concepts like attitude, focus, value, and tradition. The concept of culture is preferable because of the way it communicates a way of life. A church’s culture certainly does include the attitudes, foci, values, and traditions of the people. But culture contains all of this and more. Applying a simple definition of church culture may also help the church that aims to exercise a pervasive, counseling-minded ministry. Culture might be defined like this: The comprehensive identity of a specific local church, cultivated by the beliefs, goals, and efforts that characterize it. Culture is of paramount concern. But an even more important question remains – what kind of culture must we have? Throughout the Pillar Network, it is our presupposition that a healthy church plant is characterized by a specific culture—a culture of change.

With a clearer picture of culture and change in mind, one may merge the two concepts into one unified and insightful concept called a culture of change. A culture of change refers to the comprehensive identity of a specific local church; cultivated by the beliefs, goals, and efforts and characteristic of the church’s loving commitment to lasting biblical change in the lives of her members.

As a growing generation of church planters shepherd God’s flock—even a small and newly formed flock—a counseling-minded strategy will envision a process of lasting and biblical change, as is only possible through the loving, sovereign care of the Good Shepherd. Research shows cultivating a culture of change in the church planting milieu is of paramount importance, leading to many benefits. Here are four:

Benefit 1: It promotes a love for the Gospel in the church. Benefit 2: It sets the church on a course toward maturity. Benefit 3: It restores the privilege and responsibility to care for souls to the church. Benefit 4: It enriches the church with resources for fulfilling the Great Commission.

A culture of change within the church will propel Christians toward sowing a more articulate announcement of Good News throughout the surrounding community—an announcement of Good News to real people who have real problems. With a thorough understanding of lasting biblical change, believers will be better equipped to tell the whole truth of God’s promise to redeem, as well as sanctify (change) a people for Himself.

On this important topic, we envision a pervading culture of change and the various dynamics contributing to the culture of change. Just as the culture of the church influences the various ministry dynamics of the church, these dynamics also play a fundamental role in maintaining the healthy church culture. And it is at this point that we may consider three local church dynamics which are instrumental in cultivating a culture of change: preaching, small group ministry, and pastoral counseling. 

  1. Preaching with a Counseling Mindset One of our first tasks to consider, one particularly aimed at cultivating a culture of change, is gaining and exercising a counseling mindset for preaching. The first century church singled out ministry of the word as a primary concern within the fellowship of believers.[2] They were not willing to allow the work of serving tables to crowd out the clear teaching of the Scriptures. Scriptural teaching was the central method by which they sought to grow and deepen the Church.[3] Central to this approach to spiritual growth was the preaching moment. Tim Lane writes, “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.”[4] Without honest and consistent teaching from the Scriptures, a culture of mutual ministry of the word cannot be expected. A preaching strategy clearly exalting the sufficiency of Christ, the profitability of the Scriptures, the biblical design for community, and the responsibility to fulfill the Great Commission is necessary for developing this biblical counseling culture in a church plant.

    In the book of Acts, the early Christians were characterized by a commitment to the Apostles’ teaching. Throughout every church age, the teachings of the church at a particular time served a purpose to either facilitate or impede her progress. For this reason, Paul exhorted Timothy to maintain the Apostles’ teaching. Paul wrote, “In pointing out these things to the brethren, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, constantly nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound doctrine which you have been following. But have nothing to do with worldly fables fit only for old women.”[5] In Timothy’s day, as well as today, the living and active truth of Scripture was in rivalry with worldly fables. In every church, there is the question of what to preach—what doctrines will help the church find her way? Within a strategy to cultivate a culture of change within the DNA of a church plant, we might note four driving doctrines which are most central to our efforts.

    When referring to a driving doctrine, we simply mean to address key doctrines that lay especially close to the center of biblical counseling philosophy and practice. The four driving doctrines are The Great Commission, Biblical Anthropology, Sufficiency of Scripture, and the doctrine of Progressive Sanctification. This is not to say these four doctrines/themes are the only doctrines intimately involved in biblical counseling. Nevertheless, every church plant would do well to emphasize these four doctrines as part of a robust strategy to cultivate a culture of change (and of biblical counseling) in a new church. These doctrines may be emphasized in the course of preaching texts which contain these themes/doctrines, during one-on-one discipleship, and in the normal day to day communication with the church plant congregation. Research of such past efforts have showed the more these driving doctrines are sown in the theology and life of the congregation, the more efficiently biblical counseling might take root.

  2. Small Group Ministry with a Counseling Mindset Beyond preaching with a counseling mindset, the second task within our strategy is to develop small group ministry that amounts to a community of biblical counsel. While corporate worship and preaching comprised a primary avenue for developing a culture of change, small group ministry is essential as well. Therefore, a clear and strategic plan for small group life, prior and through the process of planting, is necessary.

    Small group ministry is instrumental to the cultivation of biblical counseling culture by promoting biblical fellowship through intimate community life. From Romans to Third John, we find over sixty “one-another” statements in which Christians are commanded to love, admonish, encourage, pray for, reprove, rebuke, correct, and care for one another in many other ways. Romans 10:12–13 is one such passage: “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality.” Regardless of church size, Christians are to live in community, fostering biblical love for each other. The natural result of this biblical response to the gospel is another benefit of biblical counseling, which is edification.

    As a reflection of the Trinity and the larger church context, small group ministry provided an avenue by which believers may join together patiently to admonish the unruly, help the weak, and encourage the fainthearted.[6] Such community is one of God’s ordained means by which believers may confess their sins to one another, pray fervently for one another, and be helped in all matters of life.[7] For these reasons, small group ministry must play an important role in our efforts to incorporate a change culture in the church planting context.

    Today a variety of materials are available to help church planters, laypeople, and other leaders in the local church, especially small group leaders. These materials further unpack the philosophy of small groups, organization and leadership of small groups, and materials for the content of small groups in the local church.

  3. Pastoral Counseling and a Culture of Change A third step we must take toward our goal is to establish a growing practice of pastoral counseling. In order for biblical counseling to take root in the DNA and life of a church plant, there was perhaps nothing more important than a commitment to biblical counseling among the pastors. Without an over-arching vision and commitment—from the very top of the leadership structure—to the principles and practice of biblical counseling, there was little expectation of the congregation enjoying the rich benefits of gospel-centered counseling in the local church. The most effective approach to planting a church that embraces biblical counseling, therefore, is to begin with an articulate agreement among the pastors to the purpose, place, and plan for biblical counseling aimed at lasting change.

    The gap between the biblical counseling and church planting movements has created a lack of church planters who are well-equipped to maximize the potential for biblical counseling within their ministry visions. Furthermore, it is simply not enough to appoint one elder from a church planting team who understands biblical counseling, while the other pastors lack the necessary commitment. Instead, all of the initial pastors and leaders within the church plant must hold a mutual commitment to biblical counseling in the church, beginning with a commitment to the priority of pastoral counseling.

    Therefore we suggest the priority of pastoral counseling can propel the church plant in a number of gospel-centered ways. One key way a commitment to pastoral counseling will benefit a church plant is by equipping others. Deepak Reju writes,

    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.[8]

The more counseling is portrayed, promoted, and practiced by the pastors of the church, the greater advantage is given to the members for eagerly joining the additional efforts toward establishing a culture of counseling and change in a church plant.

[1] Powlison, Speaking Truth in Love: Counsel in Community, 103–09.

[2] Acts 6:4

[3] Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary: Acts to Revelation (London, UK: Hodder and Stoughton, 1989), Acts 6:4.

[4] Tim Lane, “Cultivating a Culture of Counseling and Discipleship,” 9Marks eJournal 5, no. 6 (November/December 2008): 22–26, http://www.9marks.org/files/ejournal200856novdec.pdf (accessed February 3, 2013).

[5] 1 Timothy 4:6–7 (NASB).

[6] 1 Thess 5:14 (NASB).

[7] James 5:16 (NASB).

[8] Deepak Reju, “Counseling and Discipleship,” 9Marks eJournal 5, no. 6 (November/December 2008): 10–11, http://www.9marks.org/files/ejournal200856novdec.pdf (accessed February 3, 2013).

 

CounselingRush Witt