Can local churches become a natural home for counseling ministry? Often the limitations or failures of the church get cited first, making it seem that church is at best an adjunct to “the real work of counseling.” But in principle, the local church is the natural home for face-to-face ministry. Counseling can and should thrive in local churches. Here are five of the numerous advantages to counseling being localized in the church.

First, a wise pastor (or friend, elder, small group leader, mentor, etc.) has many advantages over the secular paradigm of the office-bound counselor. In your own church, you know people. You have seen them in action. Perhaps you know their parents and friends. You see how they treat their kids. You know how they handle themselves in a group. You have “backstory,” and you aren’t limited to hearing only one side of the story. You know what kind of Christian nurture they are receiving week to week—and counseling can build on that. In addition to a wider knowledge base, you relate at multiple levels. You can invite people to your home, and you can invite yourself into their home. You can initiate the relationship, and you express your concern. In contrast, office-bound counseling is structurally passive, always only on the receiving end of inquiry or referral. There is an active, outreaching quality to counseling ministry when we conceptualize it in the church.

Here is a second advantage. It is a premise of biblical counseling that people are not just “problems.” They are not defined by a “diagnosis.” People come with gifts and callings—from God himself. They have a new identity—in Christ. All of us are given a role to play in the greater whole: regardless of physical or mental abilities, or education, or age, or any of the other human differences. Most people have helping gifts. The call to serve others brings dignity, purpose, belonging, identity, and participation. A woman coming out of drug addiction and poverty was moved to tears of gladness by the simple fact that she was personally invited to help another family in need. She contributed five meaningful dollars and a Saturday morning to helping them. Instead of being seen just as a “needy, troubled” person, she too could give, and it meant the world to her.

Here is a third advantage. Anyone can help anyone else. God delights in apparent role-reversals. Counseling in a church context is far richer than “designated expert” meets with “needy client.” I’ll never forget a story that my former pastor, Jack Miller, told about his sister-in-law. She was mentally disabled and lived with him and Rosemary, his wife. As a result, “Aunt Barbara” was a natural part of the church body. One day on the way to church, Jack was grumbling about the rainy weather. Aunt Barbara, in her simple five-year-old way, said to him, “But Jack, the sun is always shining. It’s just behind the clouds.” God used that like a lightning bolt. God is always shining, no matter what his providence displays on the surface. Out of the mouth of a woman with a child’s mental life came words of faith that blessed the pastor of a church of 800 people. That’s the body of Christ!

Here is a fourth advantage. You have freedom to be completely open about the life-rearranging significance of God’s gift of himself, and you can participate together in his gifts of Scripture, worship, prayer, sacraments, and bearing one another’s burdens. The means of grace come naturally in a church context. It comes naturally to talk about knowing the only true God and Jesus Christ whom he has sent—which is the hope of life in a world of death. The counseling implications could not be deeper.

Here is a fifth advantage. It is natural to talk about the Big Questions, as well as the practicalities of problem-solving or the process of coming to truer self-understanding. You can ask pointed existential questions: “What are you living for?” “Where are you placing the weight of your identity?” “How do you deal with your inner contradictions—the tension between the good and the bad in each of us?” You can help a person face mortality, and the reality that so many things let us down in the end. “Are you spending your life longing for things that will finally end up disappointing you, that will leave you with nothing but regrets and losses?" The church is uniquely equipped to ask, to talk about, and to offer real answers to the biggest questions.

Local churches flourish as they become places where counseling flourishes.

And the five advantages I’ve mentioned are only a start. For further reading, you might appreciate an article that appeared in the Journal of Biblical Counseling last year: “The Pastor as Counselor.”

Postscript. By the way, these wonderful advantages to local church counseling do not mean that “para-church” ministries are per se unhelpful or wrong. God blesses the counseling that occurs through educational institutions, campus ministries, military chaplaincies, publishing houses, crisis pregnancy centers, mission agencies, and many other para-church Christian works. CCEF is a para-church ministry, and I happily work here, as well as participating in my local church. But there are pitfalls that any para-church ministry must avoid. We must guard against generating an autonomous existence. We must genuinely serve the church. There are particular things that a counseling ministry like CCEF does— distance education, seminary teaching, counseling training, and publishing—that a local church would have a hard time replicating. But that said, our work serves a high view of the centrality of the local church. Local expressions of the body of Christ are God’s primary point of interest and activity.

Thank you to Paul Tautges who interviewed me in December 2012. This blog represents a further development of the ideas we talked about.