A More Holistic View of Worship in Counseling

This article is by Winston Smith and published by CCEF


Worship in counseling? Yes, let me explain.

I recently met with a counselee who was struggling with some very powerful and painful emotions. As is almost always the case, those emotions reflected deeply held beliefs. The beliefs plaguing him and the feelings of rejection they evoked aren’t unusual but something new I asked him to try in the session was unusual – at least for me.

Let’s step back for a minute. How does a biblical counselor usually help such a person? Perhaps two or three passages of scripture leap to mind, verses that might direct this man’s thinking away from the unreliable affections of people to the unchanging, perfect, and infinite love of Christ. Here’s the problem: my counselee already knows most of those passages. We’ve read and discussed many of them together. So, where to now? I know, you’ll remind me that I should press on, remembering that change is a process and often a slow one at that. But I want to share with you something different that I tried that was a game changer and I believe reflects on the ways we need to think more broadly about worship in the counseling process.

I turned to a Psalm that focuses on God’s love that we had recently discussed and I asked my counselee to stand and read it aloud and to read it aloud with me. He seemed surprised but reluctantly did as I asked. When we finished and sat back down I asked him how he felt.

“I don’t know. I feel kind of funny. I don’t think I liked it,” he said. “I feel weird like I want to leave the room.”

“What do you think that feeling is?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he answered, “but I really don’t like it.”

“I think we just did something intimate and maybe it’s making you feel vulnerable, and maybe unsafe.” He needed more time to process the experience but he nodded in agreement.

Would you agree? What’s intimate about what we did and how does it reflect what the Bible tells us about worship? Recently, I began attending a church with a liturgical style of worship. Responsive readings, reciting the Apostle’s Creed and the Lord’s Prayer out loud, etc. Having never participated in liturgical worship I couldn’t have guessed how it would affect me. I’ve felt more engaged in worship. It has sharpened my focus on what we’re reading and saying as a congregation. And I’ve felt more connected in worship to those around me. It’s gotten me thinking a lot more about worship and about its relationship to counseling.

I think that counseling can tempt us into thinking of worship too narrowly. We want to help people to live their lives before the face of God but we tend to do it one way. Helping our counselees to worship, in effect, often isn’t much more than asking them to think differently. We point out where there are discrepancies or contradictions in their thinking and especially where it doesn’t square with God’s truth. Doing things differently is usually left up to them to try outside of the room. Obviously, what we think is a function of worship. We are called to be “transformed by the renewing of [our] mind[s]” as we offer ourselves to God in worship (Rom.12:2). But there’s so much more to it than that.

Here are just a couple of critical ingredients that I think came into play with my counselee and which have continued to help me think more carefully about worship and counseling:

  • Worship is a corporate as well as individual action. When we worship together we aren’t just connecting to God but to one another as members of one body. To truly open our hearts before God in one another’s company is intimate. It is stating publicly those things most near and dear to our hearts as God does the same through preaching and reading of the Word. That’s an entirely healthy and appropriate way for us to be shaped by and influence one another. When I stand next to my brothers and sisters announcing my own heartache (which the Psalms often help us to do) as well as faith in God, I am not only affirmed by God but by those in agreement around me. Know any counselees that need to have their struggles as well as God’s love affirmed?
  • Worship is holistic. The passage from Romans actually tells us to “offer [our] bodies as living sacrifices” not just our minds. In other words, God wants all of me. Yes, my thoughts, but also my entire being, physical actions and five senses included. When I stand to worship, drink the wine and taste the bread of communion, say aloud what I choose to believe, hear my own words ringing in my ears, it is easier for me to be fully engaged in worship. Many times I’ve worked with counselees that simply don’t learn easily by being asked to meditate on concepts. Some people learn better through action and experience. Are there ways that we can help counselees “do” worship in the counseling office and in their relationships? Know any counselees who need to experience God’s truth by acting on it?

I certainly am not prescribing a formula for worship in counseling. Worship shouldn’t be reduced to thinking, nor should it be reduced to a formula. Neither am I claiming that liturgical styles of worship are superior to others. Any style of worship can become rote and empty when our hearts aren’t engaged. But I am asking you to consider how you may be asking your counselees to change by only opening one door to communing with God when there are other doors that may be more natural for them.

A few weeks later my counselee and I reviewed his week. He shared a passage that he had been reflecting on. Without missing a beat he added, “Yeah, and I stood up and read it out loud” with a big grin on his face. It’s led to great discussions about worship and intimacy – and to other opportunities to worship together.

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