As a biblical counselor for over 20 years, and author/editor of counseling resources, I have the privilege to attend quite a few counseling conferences. As I reflect on a number of them over the past few years there are some heartfelt concerns that have developed in my mind. In light of these, please permit me to speak to those of you who are chiefly responsible for planning counseling conferences. I will summarize my thoughts into a 5-fold plea.
1. Please remember the aim of biblical counseling is to be biblical and, therefore, the biblical revelation, i.e. the Bible, should occupy a central place throughout the conference, or we should—God forbid—drop the use of the term “biblical.” Perhaps I’m just old-fashioned or extreme in my view, but it disturbs me when I leave a counseling conference having not been given sufficient reason to open my Bible. And, frankly, this has happened more often than I care to admit. If attendees leave a conference wondering why they brought their Bible along in the first place (except for their own personal reading in their hotel room) then we have a problem. Admittedly, those of us who are committed to biblical counseling are often quick to criticize the psychological integrationist for his limited use of Scripture, or perceived use of the Bible as an “afterthought,” but could the same critique be rightfully launched at some of us and our own conferences? Do we really believe that God’s primary instrument of sanctification is the Word of God (Jn 17:17)? Or is our confidence shifting to our counseling approaches, choosing instead to emphasize the methods that seem to “work” for us? Is it possible that some of what we call biblical counseling is becoming more pragmatic than we realize?
2. Please invite keynote speakers based on their ability to passionately open the Word of God and preach to His people rather than their popularity as a communicator of Christianized truth or the number of books they’ve authored. This second plea is tied to the first. Sometimes the reason the Bible is de-emphasized, or used simply as the launching pad for a space-shuttle load of moralistic teaching, is that conference speakers are chosen because they are excellent communicators, not necessarily faithful preachers. There is a difference. A good communicator can engage an audience and stir emotions with many stories, but still leave his listeners hungering for a soul-satisfying word from God. The true test of a preacher is whether or not he gets out of God’s way by reverently placing himself under the Word of God, not alongside it. If we are not humbled before God then we have not heard from God. If we fail to keep biblical preaching central at our counseling conferences, thus hearing from God, are we not merely one small step away from tickling the ears of those who may buy our books (2 Tim 4:3-4), or sprinkling Bible verses on a corporate self-improvement seminar taught by big shots?
3. Please encourage workshop speakers to use the Scriptures in their teaching and avoid simple “how to” instructions that draw more attention to a person’s own wisdom or counseling methods rather than the power of God to transform hearts and lives by His grace. Yes, this is a bit redundant of the first and second pleas, but it bears repeating. This is a plea for consistent Word-saturated teaching. If Bibles remain unopened in the main, plenary sessions of a conference then it is no surprise at all that the conference notebook is all that you really need to bring to the workshops as well. Are our workshop speakers (men and women) teaching principles to help people change without showing obvious confidence in the Holy Spirit’s choice to transform people from the inside out through beholding the glory of Christ as in a mirror (2 Cor 3:18; James 1:23)? Are we attempting to be practical without first being theological? Are we heaping up a pile of moralistic imperatives without generously dishing out biblical, empowering grace from the words of God himself?
4. Please keep Christ, his finished work, and ongoing work of intercession central and, when preaching the cross, please don’t forget the resurrection without which we have no gospel. We biblical counselors relentlessly claim that we are gospel-centered and gospel-driven, but is the Christ of that gospel exalted at our conferences? Do conference attendees leave the sessions convinced of the speaker’s confidence in the Word of God and the Holy Spirit, having recognized that he or she has “been with Jesus” the Living Word (Acts 4:13)? Or might our conference attendees leave asking, “Where was Jesus in that presentation?” Make no bones about it. Christianized moralism needs no Savior. It’s time to bravely ask ourselves, “Do we—when the conference is over—leave more confident in our own competence to counsel or more deeply humbled by our own desperate, daily need of the risen Savior?”
5. Please explore possibilities for, and confront logistical challenges to, seasons of corporate and/or small-group prayer. The discipline of prayer is irrefutable proof of God-dependency and yet we don’t usually pray together at counseling (or pastors’) conferences. We talk a lot about God, but we don’t ever seem to talk to Him. Personally, I can count on three fingers the times that prayer has been incorporated into a conference schedule (my strongest memories being from some early years at the Bethlehem Conference for Pastors almost two decades ago). If we as biblical counselors maintain prayer as a high priority in the “counseling room” (as I assume we do) then perhaps it is time we think about making this an element of our conference life as well. How many of God’s servants arrive at conferences weary and worn and ready to quit? How many are “carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus” (2 Cor 4:10) and honestly don’t know where they will find strength to return to their ministry? Let me say, from one fellow struggler to another, what an encouragement it would be for us to cast all our anxieties on Him together, while we together recognize how much He cares for us (1 Pet 5:7)! If we desire God’s power upon our ministries, but we do not make plans for prayer then we hold to an empty hope.
As a fellow lover of Jesus and biblical counseling I hope these words are received not as an attack, but as a helpful critique from one who spends a fair amount of time on the inside, looking in…and longing…longing for more of Christ and His grace.