So you’re looking for Christian counseling. You’ve searched the internet for “Christian counseling near me” and you don’t know what to make of the mixed results. I get the confusion. When I look at search results just for Lake Forest, where I am, it’s hard to understand what it all means. The information overload only gets worse with a broader search for Orange County. Search results for Christian counseling will bring up results for psychologists, marriage and family therapists, peer counseling programs at churches, spiritual directors and all kinds of others offering what looks like the same service. While they do all have their place and value, they are not all the same. So how do you decide where to find the best help for what you need? If you know the answer to the following three questions, you’re already good to go:
If you don’t have a clear answer to the questions above, you’re not alone. Read on and I’ll help you answer them so that you can get connected with Christian counseling that’s going to be just what you need.
Christian counseling or a Christian counselor?
In 1999, a weather satellite sent to Mars instantly crashed after arriving to orbit the planet. This multi-million dollar failure was traced back to a simple faulty assumption; part of the computer programming that controlled the satellite was working on metric measurements and another part was using imperial measurements. Each group of engineers assumed the other had converted the numbers being shared. A very costly mistake.
In a similar way, it may sound obvious but it’s really important to first be clear about what YOU mean when you’re asking for Christian counseling. Assumptions can lead to crashing satelites and Christian counseling that fails to work. Believe it or not, your definition may not be the same as what others, including therapists, mean by the same term. When you do have a clear picture of what you mean, find out what a therapist means when THEY are offering Christian counseling. Here are the two most common meanings for the term, “Christian counseling.”
One meaning for Christian counseling best lines up with other terms like “Biblical counseling.” This is a very specific type of treatment and approach that involves primarily studying the Bible and prayer. It is often associated with people such as Jay Adams or John MacArther, though there are many others. This definition of Christian counseling views the practice of psychology with great skepticism at best, and sees traditional therapy as fundamentally flawed and humanistic. This narrower definition of Christian counseling views psychology as incompatible with theology in any way, like oil and water. Often these types of Christian counselors have developed their own specific protocol for helping others and reject ideas or concepts that may be connected with mainstream psychology. You’re going to typically get a counselor who has read books and training manuals associated with a particular person’s protocol or training for their approach to helping people. There may be some certification, but training is usually limited and the counselors are rarely licensed as professionals. I personally believe this limits the help a person can receive because it misses the focus on human relationships and generally misses the natural (and scriptural) process of growing and healing in the context of a human relationship.
The second definition of Christian counseling, which is more common, is psychological services that are in harmony with the principles and teachings of the Bible. This is what I provide to my clients. While the request may be for Christian counseling, what a person is often looking for is a Christian, who is also a counselor, that will provide therapy in alignment with a Christian world view. Therapy is a very vulnerable process and if a person is looking for guidance and help, it makes perfect sense to want to know whether the therapist is working from a similar world view regarding what creates a healthy and happy life.
Assumptions can lead to crashing satellites and Christian counseling that fails to work.
The truth is that counseling is never value free. A therapist, like any human, will have a guiding set of beliefs about what brings value, healing and meaning in life, whether connected with a spiritual belief system or not. So, even though you can look for a therapist on Psychology Today and filter the results by religion, for example, don’t assume that a faith label will give you a belief system similar to yours. You have to ask more questions like, “What does healthy, balanced living involve,” or “How do people grow or change,” and “Tell me about your spiritual practices and beliefs.” The American Psychological Association (APA) has finally realized the importance of integrating a persons spiritual beliefs into the therapy process, so please feel free to ask your potential therapist about what they mean when they say they offer Christian counseling.
Who provides Christian counseling?
One place for Christian counseling is at the local church. The counselors are members of the church who want to care for other hurting people, and the level of preparation and training can vary greatly, from reading a book or taking an online course, to ongoing in-person consultation and supervision from a licensed professionals like myself. I’ve been involved with some excellent programs at Saddleback Church and even helped write counselor training manuals at Mariners church and supervised their peer counselors. The training and integration of solid psychological practices with spiritual beliefs is getting so much better in these peer counseling programs, and they are a great help for people who need someone to listen and provide emotional support. It’s usually time limited, free, and a place to get some basic life guidance, just as the Saddleback Church counseling ministry describes their service as, “…a place where the hurting, the depressed, the frustrated, and the confused can find love, acceptance, help, hope, forgiveness, guidance and encouragement.” This is helpful counsel and comfort, not therapy (more on this in a minute).
There’s another side category of Christian counseling that may be located in or out of the church called Spiritual Direction. Unlike Christian counseling programs in the church, a Spiritual Director focuses almost exclusively on a person’s spiritual practices and little on interpersonal relationships. While it may go under the banner of Christian counseling, Spiritual Direction is more about helping develop a person’s relationship with God.
The second, and more common, place you’re going to find Christian counseling is with a licensed therapist in your area. These are therapists who understand and use a psychological approach that aligns with a Christian world view of health and contentment. It may have been part of their training program, like the additional year added in my graduate psychology program, or something they have worked through on their own. This gives you the best of both worlds: a professional who can use their psychological expertise within a Christian belief system for growth and healing. I’ve seen twisted psychology and I’ve seen distorted theology, so once again I recommend you take the time to talk with a therapist you are considering seeing and find out more about them, their approach to therapy, and their beliefs. While both can miss the mark or contradict each other, but then both can also operate in harmony as well.
…the best of both worlds: a professional who can use their psychological expertise within a Christian belief system for growth and healing.
If you decide that you want to work with a licensed therapist, there are a variety of different license and training levels to choose from. If you don’t know the difference between a psychologist, psychiatrist, marriage and family therapist or the other different mental health professional credentials, do a little research by reading another article I wrote called, “The best psychologist in Orange County? How to find yours.” It’s going to serve you well to understand the different levels of training, experience and limitations you get with each so that you can get the help you need.
Does a Christian counselor only work with Christians?
I hope that others would answer like me, which is that I’m happy to be able to help people who don’t hold to the same spiritual beliefs that I do. The general basis of what I believe to be true for healthy living holds true regardless of my client’s belief system. You don’t have to understand electricity, or even believe in it, to turn on a light bulb, and you don’t have to adhere to a Christian world view in order to experience and agree with its general truths about life and relationships. When something works, it just works.
Christian counseling or Christian therapy?
Also important to consider when you are looking for help, is whether you are needing Christian counseling or Christian therapy. At risk of over-simplifying it, I would describe Christian counseling as advice and input about areas of life and living where you need guidance. Sometimes there’s a knowledge gap holding you back, and anyone from a licensed professional to a peer counselor at a church can fill in the missing information.
Other times, it’s not a matter of a lack of information or a desire to make changes: something is getting in the way of doing what you already know. This is where Christian therapy can make the difference. Christian therapy is not something your going to get from a church Christian counseling program. As I said earlier, even the Saddleback Church counseling ministry makes it clear they are providing support and instruction, not therapy. While their peer counselors are trained better than most, even good tools in the hands of a well meaning, but a less trained person, just won’t get you the results you want. This is where a skilled, licensed therapist can make all the difference. Years of training and experience are what allow a licensed Christian counselor to provide therapy that gets you past the sticking point and on to make changes.
So I hope this has article given you a clearer picture about Christian counseling and equips you to choose what you need for yourself. If you decide you’re wanting a psychologist who also has extensive theological training and time spent integrating psychology with theology, then we might be a great team. I’d be happy to connect with you and talk about working together.