In the fall of 2011, I made a strategic decision to replace the word “counsel” with “care” within our church culture. I didn’t send out a memo or make campaign signs. Rather, I began using the terms “care/caring” everywhere I would have used the words “counsel/counseling” in my conversations with others and in training material developed to help ministry leaders shepherd those under their care at each of our campuses.
Let me assure you, I know that “counsel” is a biblical term so I am not trying to ban it. The scriptures are clear that God “counsels” us with his word (Psalms 16:7; 73:24) and Jesus is referred to as the Wonderful Counselor (Isaiah 9:6). We have worked hard at Sojourn to “re-church” our members to help them see how God’s word addresses the mess of life. By God’s grace, our members are experiencing the power and beauty of the gospel through the ministry of the word (preached, sung, read, and experienced through gospel relationships) as it changes and conforms them more and more to be like Jesus.
However, in spite of our best efforts to help our people see biblical counseling as the ministry of the word, we still faced a number of real issues.
These issues may seem more practical in nature but they reflect a misunderstanding of God’s design.
Expecting More and Less.
Members and regular attenders seeking help with life struggles had to fill out a “Counseling Request.” One woman who filled out the request demanded to see a trained counselor since she filled out a “Counseling Request.” We explained to her we had women at Sojourn who could care for her with the gospel and journey with her but they were not formally trained counselors per se. Because she expected more (from trained counselors) and less (from older godly women), we had to explain why she would receive wonderful care through the church even without a “formally trained counselor.” As a result, we changed the name of the form to “Care Request.”
Reducing and Referring Ministry.
Not only did those requesting help need to understand the breadth and depth of gospel ministry, so did our leaders. A prime example of this reality emerged in a discussion with a leader who was being sent out as a church planter. He asked when he should start training up counselors. Instead of answering, I rephrased his question, “When should you start training your people to care for one another with the gospel?” He sat back with a smile and replied, “Right away.” It’s easy for us to reduce gospel ministry into separate categories of function. Additionally, when I listen to ministry leaders and pastors, they often talk about counseling as something for which they are not gifted or something they refer out to the “counselors” in the church. However, I praise God as I listen to how these same leaders care for those in need.
Confusing Identity and Calling.
When I ask couples if they have a desire to minister to other married couples, they will either say they never thought they could do such ministry or that they are not marriage counselors. When I take the time to explain that God has called each of us to be ministers of reconciliation and ambassadors for Christ as we love one another and bear one another’s burdens (2 Corinthians 5:17-20; John 13:34-35; Galatians 6:2), they begin to see more clearly their God-given identity and calling.
Please know that my shift in language from “counseling” to “care” is not a knee-jerk reaction nor does it stem from an “axe to grind.” Rather, I saw the need to expand and clarify God’s vision for the church and sought to remove any stumbling blocks that might hinder us from stepping into our real mission—to glorify God by worshiping him with our whole life, as we love one another in the church and world so that we would trust and obey God by his grace. Knowing we still struggle with sin, God calls us to “encourage one another daily ... so that none of [us] may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness” (Hebrews 3:13).
By God’s grace, we are equipping our people to expect more, not less from Jesus our Redeemer. Our members are in the trenches doing difficult ministry as they lovingly and boldly step into one another’s lives with the gospel in the midst of suffering and sin.
By God’s grace, our leaders are not only learning how to care for one another with the gospel, but they are equipping others. Since the change in emphasis, God has raised up over 30 leaders from every ministry area and from each of our four campuses, a larger and more diverse team than ever. As a result, almost 150 leaders and members have experienced how to care for others with the gospel in less than a year.
By God’s grace, we are hearing testimonies from men and women who are learning how to care for one another with the gospel. They are sharing how their marriages are growing more intimate as a result of listening to and exploring each other’s hearts while bringing their issues back to Jesus and his finished work on the cross. Accountability groups are engaging in deeper ways. Parents are sharing how they are shepherding their children’s hearts. Men and women are telling us how they have been able to engage their co-workers as they listen and ask questions that lead to gospel conversations.
Thankfully, God’s redemptive work in our midst is not dependent upon our semantics. The take away lesson we learned is that once God’s people understand their calling to love and care for one another with the gospel, they step out by faith and obedience. May God continue to build up his church in love and advance his kingdom in this world as we join him in his mission.
This post was written by Pastor Robert K. Cheong and was first published for the Biblical Counseling Coalition Pastor Blog in November 2012.