With the therapy business booming and the importance of sensitive, competent Christian counselling now widely accepted, are we beginning to suffocate under the weight of people’s problems? Is there a danger in giving counselling and problem-solving too high a priority? The Briefing examines some of the issues for us and our churches.
The basis of Christian fellowship is the gospel of Jesus Christ. We are united through our common faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus on our behalf and through the one Spirit who has been poured into our hearts. Often, however, other criteria for fellowship sneak unnoticed onto our agenda. It may be a common ethnic tradition, or a social network of friends. One false basis of Christian fellowship is problems.
First, we should recognise that the gospel addresses people’s problems. Any gospel ministry will unearth the deepfelt cares and difficulties of humankind, and indeed, because the gospel softens people’s hearts, Christians tend to be caring of other people who have problems.
However, problems can be a distraction to gospel-centred ministry and to church fellowship. Our real problem in life is the sin which separates us from God, and this the gospel rectifies. Many of our consequent problems—such as sickness, economic deprivation, anti-social behaviour, drug dependence, emotional hurts and so on, may be unearthed by the gospel message, but find no resolution until the Lord Jesus returns. Although a genuinely Christian ministry cannot be concerned only with sin and not with its consequent pain and suffering, it is too easy to be swallowed up by these problems. The result is a ministry that spends most of its time putting bandaids on the symptoms of sin, rather than treating the real disease with the balm of the gospel.
The pressure on Jesus to stay and heal the multitude rather than to go on into the villages to preach the gospel must have been intense (Mark 1:35-39). Jesus was a man full of compassion who was moved by the needs of people. Yet he was never deflected from his overarching purpose—to go to Jerusalem to be killed—even though this meant turning his back upon the sick and the suffering, the hungry and the oppressed. This tension is felt by all who are involved in a godly ministry, whether those who are professionally employed in the ministry of the word and sacraments, or those who lead a Bible study group, a youth fellowship, or a Sunday school class, or those who are seeking to share the gospel with their non-Christian friends.
When ‘problem-centredness’ takes hold of gospel preaching, the emphasis moves from God to man. Eventually the appeal to become a Christian is based upon the need to solve your problems, rather than on the truth that Jesus is Lord.
When a pastoral ministry is dominated by problems, the whole nature of congregational life can be distorted. More and more problems are attracted and problem-solving becomes the basis of fellowship. One curate recently confessed at a ministers’ meeting that when he met with people who did not have problems he had nothing to share with them, nothing to say. For many people in full-time ministry, talking to people about their problems becomes a way of life. Ultimately, having a problem becomes the way to get attention within the church. “I cannot talk to my minister because I have not got a problem to take to him.” This is a dreadful distortion of human relationships.
It is easy to be seduced into this mode of ministry. It is flattering to have people confide in you and express their confidence that you could be able to help them. Whenever you are able to help, you feel that your existence is justified; there is a great sense of satisfaction. Yet the more successful you are, the more people will come to depend upon you. And as the number of people who rely on you grows, you start to resent the weight that is laid on your shoulders. Even worse, the more who depend on you, the fewer who ultimately depend on God.
Eventually the size of a persons ministry will be limited by the number of problems that can be cared for at any particular time. There are just so many deep and meaningful conversations one can engage in. The emotional wear and tear of bearing other peoples burdens will ensure that the congregation or youth group never grows beyond a certain stage.
Furthermore, when strangers come to churches that are based on solving problems, they are struck by the number of ‘problem people’ in the congregation. At one level this may be a great testimony to the love and kindness of the congregation. At another, it says to the outsider that Christians are weirdos! Even when you are not a weirdo, it would seem that you have to become one to hang around with this group. It vindicates the old argument that religion is really just a crutch for psychological cripples. It portrays a negative view of life which has none of the joy of living in it, but only desperate attempts to cope with existence.
Just as the outsider is not helped by a church built upon problems, so the faithful receive no ministry either. Many of our congregation members attend regularly, weekly, diligently and loyally, but will receive no personal encouragement or assistance in growth because they never present a problem. They do not get visited, taught or trained, because they do not have a problem that depends upon the minister.
This problem-centredness also distorts our view of humanity. We no longer see people as sinful—we view them psychologically, sociologically, economically and politically. The difficulties of life are no longer seen as the consequence of our rebellion against God, and the outworking of the fallenness of our world. They are merely a function of our environment, or upbringing, or economic circumstances.
There is a great place for Christian counselling, or Christian social work, but we must remember that fundamentally, the gospel has to do with salvation from the wrath of God upon sin. It is about eternity, not just this life.
Getting out of the Spiral
It is better never to get oneself into this dizzying spiral than to have to get oneself out of it. A youth group that has been built on helping troubled kids or a home group that is centred on people sharing their problems, is very hard to change in direction. A pastoral ministry that has been built on the pastor’s capacity to care for the tangle of people’s personal problems is very difficult to unwind.
However, even if it has already started, all is not lost. The key lies in taking control of our diaries. We must plan to fill our life and our ministry, our work and our groups, with positive, gospel-centred work. Plan to meet with other men and women of the congregation or youth group, not on the basis of their problems, or in response to their difficulties, but in order to pursue growth with them. Aim at positive spiritual ministry—reading the Scriptures together, praying together, labouring together in evangelism, growing in knowledge and understanding, and pacing each other in obedience to the teachings of the word of God.
Seek to train people who can minister to others. As we build a team of co-workers who can work alongside us, we will be able to cope with more problems. Changing the priorities of our ministry can give our congregations greater resources for caring for people and their problems. The minister who can share the load of the congregational griefs will be able to minister to a large congregation. Maybe we need to take a leaf out of Moses’ book and appoint elders to share the responsibility or serving Gods people.
We must base our congregational relationships on the gospel if we want a truly Christian ministry and congregational life. The basis of our fellowship must be the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Good as it may be to help people with their problems, it is not the best. In the end, it is but one more distraction to the work of salvation.