Worship as source of hope and healing in pastoral care

August 23rd, 2021

The time is right. For something. God knows both the when and the what. That’s a central conviction of Kairos Care. God’s activity is steady and it is also specific. The church’s leaders, including pastors, are those in the church who discern and point to what God is up to and when God is working—when the timing is right and what it’s right for. It is true not only in large, cultural ways, but also in specific, personal ways. In the counselor role, the pastor is often helping people to work out what God is up to in these charged moments. I think the timing is right for a renewal of pastoral counseling as the outflow of Christ’s work in the church gathered in worship.

Wait, what? Gathered worship? The time is right for that?

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Of course, since March 2020, churches and pastors have faced incessant questions and squabbles and downright fights about gathering. Who could gather, and where they could gather, and what could happen in the gathering, what needed to be worn in gathering? If the first-century Christian was concerned about propriety, including kinds of covering in worship, no less is the twenty-first-century church! For some, the ability to worship without gathering signalled an end of the worship gathering, at least in its current form.

Not only did COVID challenge the ability of the church to gather, but it also challenged our ability to tell time. Sure, we measure time by clocks and calendars; through hours and days, time marches on. But during lockdowns, days of the week lost their uniqueness and days as a whole lost their rhythm. I have heard more than once that the last 18 months have felt like a time warp. 

We didn’t lose the ability to measure, but perhaps we lost the ability to keep time. As a Canadian, time-keeping mattered a lot to me when Canadian Andre De Grasse edged South African sprinter Akani Simbine by four one-hundredths of a second to win the Bronze Medal in the Men’s 100-metre race at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. We record how long and how fast and when and so on. But COVID has also adjusted how we keep time by our faith. Worship “gatherings” now happen at personal times and start when a button is clicked. To point out an irony, you might say that when we don’t have religion to help us keep time, rather that we will keep time religiously using other things! If measuring and keeping time is only or even mainly done for cultural accommodation and athletic competition, then we will lose not only our ability to tell the time by our faith, but we will lose the ability to recognize timing. Gathering helps us to keep time and to recognize God’s timing.

So, how does this connect to pastoral counseling?

Another way we tell time is by ages. Joseph Bottum calls it an anxious age, as the religious heart of the West is replaced by something else. Social foundations that attempted to mirror the foundations of reality are upended when the foundations of reality are being reconsidered. And almost sixty years ago, sociologist Philip Rieff prophesied the therapeutic age, when individual persons would be tasked with finding their own wellbeing—designing, achieving, and living their best life with the help of some friends—and perhaps a professional or two. I think both of them are right: It is an anxious age and it is a therapeutic age. 

This unique age pressures the church and the pastor. First, the church is pressured to become radically convenient. Consumers don’t have time for church, so the church must be open at all times. The church is encouraged to become the 7-11 of the religious market in order not to compete with youth hockey, IKEA, family, the lake, and all the other things that compete for people’s time. Second, the pastor is pressured to become a religious coach. The pastor is not a mental health professional, but there is pressure to apply knowledge of Scripture and the care of souls to give advice on marriage, employment, and so on to help others take their lives to the next level. In an anxious and therapeutic age, the church is pressured to become convenient, staffed by those who can provide religious coaching for people whose best lives involve a bit of spirituality.

Now, church should be convenient inasmuch as convenience means removing unnecessary barriers for those whom Jesus is beckoning, and the pastor should be a coach inasmuch as they guide people to and through spiritual disciplines in pursuit of Christ by the power of the Spirit. But convenience and coaching can also be detrimental to the ministry that is needed in an anxious and therapeutic age. In an anxious age, the church must present hope. And in a therapeutic age, the church must present healing. Hope and healing are about neither convenience nor coaching. Hope and healing are about the presence of Jesus Christ in the body and the pace of Jesus Christ for the body (including individual bodies). Christ is present and his pace practiced in the community of the church, especially as the church gathers in worship. As head of a gathered worshiping community, Christ is present to lead in worship, to reveal God, to hear and guide our prayers, and to nourish by the bread and cup. Christ is present to offer hope and to give healing to his body. The gathered church is the beginning context of pastoral counseling and congregational care through these grace-filled practices where the pastor stands in, a reminder of the One leading and serving and feeding. The pastor is not present because Christ is absent; the pastor shows up in faith that Christ is present.

As a gathering, the church is about time: First, the gathered church is about time-keeping, a rhythm that orients the rest of time. And the gathered church is about timing, sensing the unique and charged time of Christ’s presence. Yet Christ is present not just to the body but to all God's people. What Christ does for the body, he works into the lives of God's people personally in just the right time. The time is right, in an anxious and therapeutic age, for a renewed commitment and practice of pastoral counseling. The time is right for the pastor to sharpen skills, seek opportunities, and step into the role of pastoral counselor to be present with Christ in working hope and healing into the personal lives of God’s people. 

To that end, I offer three words:

 

  1. Chasten: Pastoral counseling can be intimidating. Pastors are rightly reminded that we are not mental health professionals and that not all pastors are professional and licensed pastoral counselors. But pastors do offer counsel, which some call wisdom. It’s non-negotiable. Having a chastened view of pastoral counseling is both necessary and freeing. In an anxious and therapeutic age, where the pastor is given to the church to help work out hope and healing, be mindful, vigilant, and humble that gathered worship is the initial location of pastoral wisdom and congregational care. Gathered worship helps us to tell time so that we do not lose hope and gathered worship helps us to keep time so that Christ’s rhythms are healing. If a pastor finds their counseling to be extended in a way that seems to require something more than the elements initiated in gathered worship, then referral to a professional is required. Pastoral counseling is not a substitute for congregational worship, but to work its implications out personally.

  2. Challenge: Couched in a chastened view of pastoral counseling is a challenge. Don’t neglect this work and opportunity! In an anxious and therapeutic age, the pastor is given to the church to help work out the community’s hope and healing in personal lives. The pastor is not a coach overseeing convenient worship gatherings. The pastor is a pointer, a reminder of the Good Shepherd, the Great Shepherd, who is the source of hope and healing; who is the one who came seeking the lost. One way we can step into this role is by the marks of the pastor. Depending on local and denominational tradition, the marks might be physical, like a collar, but the marks might also be a Christian symbol that is displayed during moments of counsel or visit. I was given a hand-crafted cross that I would carry during pastoral visitation, a reminder that Christ was visiting in this moment. In addition to physical marks, pastors are challenged to order life according to the time and rhythm of Christ. Pastoral counseling is different from professional counseling in that the pastor is not only permitted but required to initiate counsel and to encourage sanctification; the pastor is required to be attuned to the timing of God’s work in the lives of those under the pastor’s care. Keeping-time helps the pastor to tell the time. 

  3. Cheer: In an anxious and therapeutic age, where the pastor is given to the church to help work out hope and healing, don’t be discouraged when it seems the pastor’s role is less esteemed and that church, perhaps especially in its gathered forms, is less valued. Be reminded that God has called you at such a time as this. Be encouraged that your ministry of pastoral counseling is already grounded on the accomplished work of Christ. Seeing the image of Christ worked into your people is a foregone conclusion for those who are in Christ! It is the will of God and it will come to be. When one is interested in seeing the truth of the Word worked more deeply into their lives, rejoice that hope and healing are taking root in his or her life! Rejoice that the time is right for God to work in this person’s life. You likely have relevant and culturally sensitive skills to deploy in pastoral counseling that you may not yet realize. God has been preparing shepherds for such a time as this.

It’s an anxious age. And it’s a therapeutic age. And in the sovereignty of God, the timing is just right for hope, and the time is right for healing. Pastor, as you oversee the church gathered, leading the meaningful and challenging work of worship, Christ is addressing our anxious age with hope and our therapeutic age with healing. And through and alongside this work, as you work to help your people keep time and to tell time, reclaim the role of counselor to see hope and healing worked into lives personally.

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