by Terry Johnson

Since the publication of Jay Adam’s Competent to Counsel in the 1970’s, a revolution in counseling has occurred among American evangelicals. So has a revolution in worship.

Do counseling and what we have come to call one’s “style” of worship have anything to do with each other? Are there ways of worship that are more congenial to the aims of biblical counseling than others? “Of course,” experienced counselors might say. “We pay close attention to the ministry of the word and understand that it is vital for equipping both counselors and counselees” (seeJournal of Biblical Counseling, Winter 2003). “We strongly urge our counselees to attend Bible-teaching and preaching evangelical churches.” This answer, which I assume most biblical counselors would give, is a proper answer, as far as it goes. The question is, does it go far enough? Is enough attention being paid to what is happening in the rest of the worship service at those churches? Does it matter if substantial portions of the Bible are being read? Or if biblical and theologically rich songs are being sung? Or if significant time is being given to biblical prayer? Or if the sacraments are being regularly and biblically administered? There is, after all, more to the “means of grace” than preaching.

Let’s imagine Counselor Bob and his Counselee Billy concluding their sixth and final counseling session together. Bob asks Billy about his church. It turns out that Billy attends a local evangelical church. Five years ago this church adopted an exciting worship format complete with a worship team and praise band. Services there start with a 20 minute song set which begins very loud and hard driving, gradually becomes softer and more contemplative. The tone of the service is casual, upbeat, and positive. The worship leader is gregarious and winsome. The preacher is relevant, has a wonderful sense of humor, and is practical. The service is fast paced and seeker-aware. The church has experienced dramatic growth. However little time is given to prayer or Scripture reading in deference to the seekers. The music is mostly performed by professionals. The songs the congregation does sing have irregular rhythms, seem to be designed for soloists, and offer only a couple of lines of content. The sacraments are administered periodically on Wednesday nights. Sermons are topical.

Should Counselor Bob have an opinion about Counselee Billy’s choice of churches? Here are several observations which we might see as vital for our consideration.

Three observations

First, the Bible is the manual for all counseling and discipleship. It provides both the methods and contents by which believers are guided and nourished. By the “living and abiding” word of God believers are born again (1 Peter 1:23-25). By the “word of Christ” believers come to faith (Romans 10:17). By the “pure milk of the word” believers grow (1 Peter 2:2). By the word of Truth believers are sanctified (John 17:17). By the Scripture believers are “equipped for every good work” (1 Timothy 3:16). I say nothing new here. The Christian Counseling & Education Foundation (CCEF) and the National Association of Nouthetic Counseling (NANC) both have affirmed from the beginning the irreplaceable role of Scripture in Christian counseling and discipleship. .

Second, once outside of the counseling room exposure to the Bible for most believers takes place primarily in public worship services. The recent revelations at Willow Creek (“Reveal: Where Are You”) shouldn’t shock any experienced pastor. Despite all the effort put into small groups, discipleship, quiet times, and personal Bible study over the last 25 years, most Christians are not “self-feeders,” as the Willow Creekers call it. Excepting a small minority, most of those attending Sunday services don’t read their Bibles between services or participate in discipleship or Bible study groups. They don’t and they won’t. Yet they need to feed on the Scriptures if they are to grow. When will they? How? Counselors:the word of God either reaches your counselees in the church’s public worship services or, by and large, it doesn’t reach them at all. No amount of inspiring and motivating, of begging and pleading, of technological creativity and programmatic excitement is going to change that reality by more than a handful of percentage points. Non-seeker churches need not gloat over the travails of the seeker churches. To a greater or lesser degree, we all live with this stubborn fact.

Third, realistic ministries will take into consideration observation #1, that we grow by the word of God,  and #2, that exposure to the word of God for most people occurs primarily in public worship services. Realistic ministries (and counselors) will refuse to bury their heads in the sand, or to confuse hopes with facts or wishes with data; they will adjust their expectations about the levels at which Christian people can be expected to engage in disciplined Bible study. Similarly, realistic churches will determine to reach their congregations with the word of Christ in the public services lest they fail to reach them at all. Let’s put this observation positively: they will realize that they must reach the people with the word of God in the public services because in most cases there is unlikely to be another venue in which to do so. Consequently biblical counselors should be intensely concerned about the “style” of worship in the churches their counselees attend. Why? Because, on the one hand, they counsel with the conviction that Scripture is the key to their counselees’ growth. On the other hand, they are (or should be) realists who are aware that the primary source of scriptural nourishment for most counselees will be the public worship services of their churches.

Worship content

Observations 1-3 lead inexorably to our next question. Given our passion for restorative counseling and spiritual wholeness, how can we avoid discussing, caring about, or even advocacy respecting what goes on in worship services beyond preaching? In other words, how can we, as counselors, avoid the worship wars? Trace the trajectory of biblical content in evangelical worship services over the last 100 years, and especially the last 25 years. R. Kent Hughes, former pastor of College Church in Wheaton, claims that we are witnessing today a “debiblicizing of corporate worship.”[1] The undeniable (though anecdotal) facts are that less Scripture is read, less is sung, less is preached, and less is prayed. If observation #1 is true, if indeed we are born again, grow, and are sanctified by God’s word, this development is an unmitigated disaster, the church deliberately having made the astonishing determination to deprive itself of Christ’s appointed source of life and growth. This is not the time to probe too deeply into why this is being done but that it is with stunning universality is a fact not to be denied.

Readers of the Journal of Biblical Counseling and similar publications will gain invaluable wisdom by studying its articles each quarter. As they apply in counseling what they learn, they may see significant results in their counselees in the short term.However, unless their counselees are attending churches which are determined to read, preach, sing, and pray God’s word, and administer the “visible word,” the sacraments, morning and evening, fifty-two weeks a year, year in and year out, their efforts are likely to be blunted.

This brings us to our main point. Historic Protestant worship features what the years and locusts have eroded. It offers substantial Bible reading when few churches are reading Scripture beyond the couple of verses upon which the sermon is based; expository (even sequential) preaching in an era of topical and therapeutic sermons; extensive biblical prayer even as public prayer is vanishing; and Bible-rich songs (classic hymnody and metrical psalmody) rather than the subjective and repetitious genre that dominates the church landscape today; and it offers the regular administration of the sacraments. It calls the people to worship with Scripture, collects tithes with Scripture, and pronounces the benediction with Scripture. It begins with Scripture, ends with Scripture, and its elements are saturated with Scripture. Worship is so much more than “style” preferences. Our Protestant forefathers were convinced that the word of God was “living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword,” the “sword of the Spirit” and the “power of God” (Hebrews 4:12; Ephesians 6:17; Romans 1:16). Through the word of God, they believed, the people of God would be converted, transformed, and fed. Their worship reflected that conviction, not just in preaching, but in reading, singing, and praying Scripture as well. So should ours. So should be the worship of the churches we commend to our counselees.

Christian counselors: is it not the case that our counselees will only be sustained in good spiritual health by a steady diet of God’s word? Is it not also the case that they are only likely to receive this diet at churches that order their public worship services along the lines of classical Protestantism?


Terry Johnson is a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America and serves as Senior Pastor of the Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, Ga. This article first appeared on the Aquilla Report. 



[1] R. Kent Hughes, “Free Church Worship” in D.A. Carson,Worship by the Book, p. 45.