Wineskins Archive

February 6, 2014

Psychological Musings About the Church of Christ (Jan-Feb 2001)

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by Richard Beck
January – February, 2001

I am a psychologist and a member of the churches of Christ. Consequently, I have had many conversations with concerned individuals regarding how I integrate those two facets of my life. I believe much of the concern expressed by others is due to a suspciousness churches of Christ have toward the mental health profession. This stems largely, I believe, from a turf war over who wields the ultimate authority over saying what is “good,” “healthy,” or “natural” regarding people’s behavior. Psychologists, wielding the authority of science, often offer directives for how people should behave based upon the criteria of how certain bahaviors are believed to influence one’s mental health. Church-going folk often find this threatening, viewing the Bible as the only standard for directing behavior.

However, I want to deal, not so much on how churches of Christ view pyschology and its professionals, but how I, as a psychologist, currently view the churches of Christ. I don’t intend to put the churches of Christ “on the couch” but rather to make a few losely related observations about trends I have seen in the church and the potential challenges those trends may pose to our development and growth as a community of faith. At each point I will draw a parallel between lessons learned in the discipline of psychology and how those lessons might illuminate church-related phenomena.

The “Psychologizing” of Our Brokenness
My family and I have been blessed over the years to be members of congregations with first-rate preaching and Bible teachers. Over those years, while listening to the preaching and teaching in the churches of Christ, I have observed a trend in how we describe our “brokenness,” the condition of our being in a fallen state in a fallen world. In short, my sense is that the language we use for describing what it means to be a broken person in need of God’s salvation has moved from moral/ethical language to the language of mental dysfunction. Tht’s stating it strongly, but I think it’s a defensible observation. Specifically, more and more often I hear us describe the broken lives we bring to God as lives marred by low self-esteem, guilt, addiction, stress, loneliness, dysfunctional families, abuse and a variety of related complaints. First, let me stress that I do believe that God cares about and is active in our lives to alleviate our pain, whatever its source. However, the issues that are becoming more commonly used to describe our brokenness are distinctly psychological complaints and I wonder if anyone has thought through the implications of this change in our language.

As a Christian psychologist I have a few concerns with this trend in how we describe our brokenness. First, this psychological emphasis, like most psychological foci, can be excessively introspective and self-centered. One of the “dark sides” of psychotherapy is that it often makes people preoccupied with their inner life. Clients can often become obsessed with figuring out what is going on “inside” themselves. This can be to their detriment. James Hillman, a Jungian psychotherapist and author, in an interview titled “Is Therapy Turning Us Into Children?” concludes that, yes, the introspective nature of psychotherapy can lead to self-absorption and introspective preoccupation. Hillman argues that the introspective focus of psychotherapy often interferes with peole becoming active agents in overcoming social ills. Our problems, so the theme of therapy goes, are always on the “inside.”

Consequently, we go to therapy rather than involve ourselves with social activism. In a similar way, by focusing on our psychological lives, churches can unwittingly create the impression that spiritual healing is primarily therapeutic and psychological in nature, that the Christian walk involves a life free from guilt, depression, loneliness, or any kind of psychological dysfunction. Yes, these things are often (but not always) by-products of the Christian life. Yet, my concern is the self-absorption our language of brokenness can create. All therapists are familiar with that moment in therapy when you say (in so many words), “It is time to stop talking about yourself. You must start doing something, start making some changes.” Many clients rebel at this point. They may respond (again, in so many words), “Hey, you’re my therapist. You’re supposed to support me, listen to me, nurture me. What are you pushing me for?” And yet, for psychological healing to occur cognitive introspection must give way to changes in behavior. I feel that our churches are beginning to face similar challenges. By focusing on our psychological brokenness church leaders may have a difficult time getting people to move from a state of excessive self-focus and psychological rumination to a state of active discipleship.

So, what do I see as a solution? In my personal study I think that the Bible primarily conceptualizes our brokenness as ethical and moral in nature. Repentance is not about getting over the scars of a dysfuntional family but getting my moral life in order. Don’t mistake this as a disguised legalistic argument. We won’t be able, by our own efforts, to get morally “right.” God’s grace justifies us. However, the Bible is clear that discipleship involves the ongoing perfection of our character. I am oversimplifying here a bit but, in my view, we are “broken” because we fail to help the poor in our communities, not because we have low self-esteem. At some point in therapy, and at some point in our spiritual development, the shift from introspection to behavior change has to occur. I fear that the psychologizing of our brokenness will, overtime, make it difficult for church leaders to help their flock make this transition.

One reason it is difficult for our leaders to keep us ethically sharp and socially active is that we must endure a certain degree of ethical critique from our pulpits. However, guilt is often the emotional response of the listener upon hearing that ethical critique. Since guilt is such a bad word in our churches (baggage, I assume, of a legalistic past) and in pop psychology (remember: I’m okay and you’re okay) we avoid pushing each other on to good works. The subtle feel I get from the pews is, “Hey Mr. Preacher, don’t make me feel guilty. I’m too broken to handle that. You are supposed to nurture me, not make me feel bad about myself.” Consequently, we become paralyzed by our excessive psychological focus. Christianity becomes a feel good exercise.

My second observation is that the psychologizing of our brokenness affects our view of Scripture. Over the years, in numerous Bible classes and in the books and study Bibles stocking Christian bookstore shelves, I have observed how more and more we are delving into the Bible for helpful tidbits on how to parent our families, be successful business leaders, lose weight, overcome depression, increase our motivation, manage our money, and even have great marital sex (Song of Solomon!). Again, don’t misunderstand. I do believe that the Bible has an enormous amount to say about these things. My concern is one of an unbalanced emphasis. We are increasingly reading the Bible for psychological advice. Rather than viewing the Bible as God’s story, we adopt this pragmatic, “What’s in it for me?” attitude toward Bible study. For example, my impression is that many of our Bible teachers feel a compulsion to end their lessons with some kind of “application.” Often these “applications” have little to do with discipleship issues and more to do with helpful, often psychological, advice for use in our daily lives. An effective class seems to be defined by some people as the amount of pragmatic advice that is passed on to the listeners. Bible class has to be “useful.” Again, the focus is upon me and my needs, not upon my calling to follow after Jesus’ counter cultural lifestyle. The proper “application” of the Parable of the Good Samaritan is an increased commitment to the poor in our community, not the observation that the Priest and Levite were probably “too busy” to help, providing an illustration about the need for effective time management. I have actually sat through a Bible class where the book of Nehemiah was used to illustrate the “habits of highly effective people.”

My third observation along these lines is that it seems, because of the psychologizing of our brokenness, that people are primarily being attracted to church life for its role in psychological healing. I do believe that the church community is a wonderfully supportive and nurturing place to work through psychological issues. In fact, I believe, although many of my colleagues would disagree, that church may be the best place for woring through psychological problems. I think it is good that peple view church life as a therapeutic milieu. However, it’s the lack of balance that concerns me. A therapeutic environment is a warm, nurturing, safe place. Consequently, it is extremely comfortable. And in that comfort lies the danger. Therapists have the same problem to overcome. Basically, many peole like to stay in therapy. It is a safe, nurturing place. But, in order for healing to progress, one must, so to speak, “leave the nest.” By calling broken people to our assemblies we may grow in size, but we must make clear to them that the transition to discipleship should be made. The calling of the church is to be an active example of Christ’s love in this world. We are to be salt and light. To accomplish this we must leave the therapeutic comfort of our church life and make a difference in our communities. The therapeutic focus of many of our churches, although at times appropriate and necessary, can be dangerously one-sided and self-absorbed.

Therapeutic Catharsis and Worship Reform
In a different vein, I want to make some observations about worship reform in the churches of Christ. First, however, I want to discuss a mistake young therapists often make. This mistake, as I see it, has some relevance to trends in our worship practices I have observed over the years.

Young therapists are often focused on what we call “catharsis” or what non-psychologists would call an “emotional breakthrough.” In short, inexperienced therapists often believe that intensely emotional experiences are therapeutic in their own right. This is not true. Although expressing, let’s say, deeply-repressed feelings about some traumatic event can forever change a person, experienced therapists know that there is a lot of work “post-catharsis.” This intensively emotional experience needs to be cognitively assimilated by the person and, as always, be translated into a new way of behaving. Just because someone has an intensely emotional experience in therapy doesn’t imply that anything will substantively change in his or her life. Behavior change must follow. However, many clients become “addicted” to the catharsis, seeking therapy situations where they can achieve emotional release. Often, however, despite all the emotional energy released, little change occurs and the person does not move in any tangible way toward greater wholeness.

My wife and I have been deeply blessed by some of the changes in worship style in the churches of Christ that some have called “worship reform.” Through emotionally powerful singing and creative uses of Scripture reading, prayer, drama, and multimedia worship has become increasingly powerful and emotional. Churches of Christ, so cerebral in the past, have slowly been allowing themselves to feel and experience the love of God.

However, I see some dangers, or rather some challenges, for worship reform. Basically, it is the simple equation, so often unstated, that emotional rapture is equal to God’s working. So many times I have heard students of mine declare a church they visited as “spiritually dead.” When I ask why they have made this assessment the basic observation is that the worship service lacked emotional intensity. I agree that a lack of emotion may be a symptom of spiritual stagnation, but the simplistic view that emotion is the sign of the Holy Spirit’s presence worries me.

It worries me because I see close parallels with the mistakes of naive therapists, the view that emotionality will, necessarily, lead to change. I understand that the point of worship is not for us, but rather to glorify God. In this sense, the more emotion we experience, the better. The more in awe and enraptured by God’s glory I become, well, that seems to me to be a good thing. However, worship should be transformative as well. Emotions, as psychologists see them, are the primary source of our motivational energy. Emotions exist to give us the motivational energy to accomplish some task. Consequently, the emotion of worship should be harnessed into acts of service for our communities. However, I don’t think this transition is given much attention. Too many of us seek out and crave intense worship experiences, like the psychotherapy client in search of a catharsis, with little thought as to what I should do with those experiences. Specifically, how can that energy be focused toward service to the poor and acts of justice in our community? Like the catharsis of therapy, an intense worship experience needs to be translated into behavior change. Although worship is a large part of the Christian life, I don’t think I am going too far out on a limb to say that for every passage where the Bible puts worship in a positive light there is a passage warning of the temptations of being caught up in worship while ignoring the injustices in our communities. In fact, Jesus spent more time in the Gospels warning of public worship than extolling it. In short, although I am excited about worship reform in the churches of Christ, I wonder, as this reform has been occurring, if the churches of Christ have become in equal measure more focused on the plight of the poor and the victims of injustice within our communities. If not, then to my mind something is amiss; God demands mercy rather than (to paraphrase slightly) worship.

I admit that much of what I have said is very subjective and probably reveals more about my own biases than anything else. I am sure many thoughtful readers will beg to differ with my various assessments of the church. In fact, many of my psychological colleagues would probably disagree with some of my characterizations of psychotherapy. Mainly, I am concerned that my opinions will be misunderstood. So, for the record, let me conclude by stating that I believe that God cares about and can heal our brokenness, psychological and moral. I believe that the Bible is the source of divine wisdom touching on all facets of our human experience. I believe our churches should be places of healing, even of the therapeutic sort. And finally, I believe that worship reform is one the right track by allowing us to express our love to God freely and unabashedly.

Overall, then, my observations are primarily conerned with balance and awareness. Some of the trends I have commented on are, at their root, positive and good. However, done to extremes problems can arise. By overemphasizing our psychological brokenness we can lose our ethical sharpness, fail to transition from broken seekers to active disciples, treat the Bible as a self-help manual, and grow too comfortable in the nurturing arms of the church family. In regards to worship reform, we must be concerned with worship that, no matter how emotionally intense, fails to translate into or parallel concrete action. By drawing our attention to these issues I wanted to increase our awareness of what is happening among us. Like any good psychologist, I prize self-awareness, but, as has been the theme throughout this discourse, only if the awareness translates into our doing something about it.Wineskins Magazine

Richard Beck

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