07/9/14

Preaching and Counseling Are Complementary

John Wesley

image credit: iStock

Carl Trueman wrote a helpful article for Reformation 21 that discussed why much of modern Protestant preaching was so poor. But in his third point, he said something that I found troubling since I am a counselor by profession and calling. Dr. Trueman said in our culture, there was a “relativizing of the preached word and the growth of emphasis on one-to-one counseling.” He quickly acknowledged the usefulness of one-to-one counseling. But then commented how he thought most of the problems people experienced could be adequately dealt with from the pulpit.

What Dr. Trueman said next seems to be why he sees counseling and preaching at odds with one another in our culture. The world tells us we are unique, with unique problems. “Talk of our uniqueness is greatly exaggerated. We need to create a church culture where uniqueness is relativized and where people come to church expecting that the preached word will meet their particular problem.” True, but oftentimes this may not be enough.

In The Reformed Pastor, Richard Baxter noted how he met with people who had sat under his preaching for eight or ten years and yet did not know whether Christ was God or man. Even when an individual knew the gospel, they often had an ungrounded trust in Christ. They hoped He would pardon, justify and save them; but the world had their hearts.

Dr. Trueman is correct. There is individualism and self-centeredness in American culture and in counseling. In Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship, Paul Vitz called it selfism. He described Americans as having a Burger King mentality: Have it your way!

Counseling that panders to selfism is theologically wrong and spiritually damaging. Preaching that panders to selfism is also theologically wrong and spiritually damaging. But counseling and preaching can and should be co-laborers in the ministry of the gospel. They don’t have to be opposed to one another. Again, Richard Baxter spoke to this concern.

Baxter said preaching the gospel publicly is the preferred means, because we can speak to many people at once. “But it is usually far more effectual to preach it privately to a particular sinner.” Public sermons are long and can over-run a person’s understanding and memory. People may become confused and therefore are not able to follow the preacher. So then they do not understand what was said, regardless of how effectual the preaching was to others.

“But in private we can take our work gradatim, [step by step] and take our hearers along with us.” By the questions we ask and their answers, we can see how far they understand us. Publicly, we lose their attention through the length of what is said and the lack of an opportunity to respond to what was said. Privately, we can easily cause them to pay attention. And we can more effectively engage them and answer their questions. Baxter urged that his fellow ministers would see preaching and personal instruction (counseling) as complementary:

I conclude, therefore, that public preaching will not be sufficient: for though it may be an effectual means to convert many, yet not so many, as experience, and God’s appointment of further means, may assure us. Long may you study and preach to little purpose if you neglect this duty.

Counseling that is biblically-based complements preaching. In the Introduction to Competent to Counsel, Jay Adams said: “It is amazing to discover how much the Bible has to say about counseling, and how fresh the biblical approach is.”

Do you think that public preaching is adequate for people to address most of their problems? 

Also read, Restoring the Ancient Ministerial Work.