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Cultivating an Atmosphere of Soul Care in Your Church

Truth in Love 323

A formal counseling setting comes out of the overflow of what's happening already among God's people in the church.

Aug 9, 2021

Dale Johnson: Today on the podcast, if you’ve been listening for very long, you’ve heard my dear friend, Scott Mehl. Scott is a pastor out at Cornerstone Church in West LA. He’s been a pastor there for 15 years and married to his wife Laura, and they have four children. He’s an ACBC member, and he’s one of my favorite people. Right now, he’s pursuing to become a Fellow at ACBC, which we’re so grateful and as our organization grows, we need the strength of Fellows and Scott is one of those guys that in the future, if you’re pursuing certification that you could walk through certification with the supervision portion. I’m so grateful for those guys who engage in that ministry, lifelong friendships are born, and the quality of counseling care that we want to produce at ACBC depends a lot upon guys like Scott who will walk you through the supervision portion of ACBC certification.

But today, we want to talk about how to cultivate this atmosphere. This seems to be sort of an enigma. Something we desire and want but almost as if it’s sort of elusive to some degree, right? We want this idea, we sort of know what we’re after, but sometimes it seems hard to grasp. I want to discuss this today. I mean, you’ve seen this in your context Scott. Let’s talk first: Why would we even want to desire some sort of atmosphere like this? Why soul care ministry is an important part of the work of the local church?

Scott Mehl: I guess it’s a good question, Dale, for all of us today to ask, right? What is it that the local church should be about, and what should it be known for? And I think there’s a lot of things that it’s about, right? It’s about reaching the lost. That’s why it exists. It’s about defending the truth, but it’s also fundamentally about caring for one another and caring for the souls in the community, in the church. And because of that, we need to not just have a side soul care ministry, right? This little thing that cares for people’s souls. I think soul care ought to be a part of the woven culture of the life of the church. Part of this is because that’s what the elders have been given explicit responsibility to watch over and care for the people’s souls. I think of Jesus’ exhortation to Peter. It just echoes in my mind and he was calling Peter but through Peter all of us as leaders and one another at church, when he wanted to feed my lambs repeatedly, to tend my sheep, to feed my sheep. Then we see that throughout the New Testament explained as us, both as pastors and as one anothers, being the hands and feet and the mouth of Jesus in the lives of one another. Because the reality is nothing in the world provides hope in the midst of suffering and sin like the gospel. 

Dale Johnson: That’s right. 

Scott Mehl: The gospel and the delivery of the gospel and the reminders, the renewing of the mind with the gospel, that’s the local churches responsibility, right? That’s what we exist to do in one another’s lives. And so this is why I think soul care, counseling, discipleship, caring for one another has to be more than just a ministry within the church, right? But part of the lifeblood of the life of the church. 

Dale Johnson: That’s right. I mean so many people get caught up in the idea that what’s being promoted is some sort of professional standalone ministry that exists sort of separate from the life of the church. In my view, as you’re articulating, I mean nothing could be further from the truth. Part of what Jesus made wonderful declaration about is that people outside would know that we are His people by the way in which we love one another, and you see what happens, that begins to flip the narrative of the way often lost people see our churches. Some lost people in our culture see our churches as just needy places that want things from them, and that sort of stuff. When we love well, and when we care well in the ways that you’re describing, that flips the narrative where we say, “No, we’re here to serve you, we’re here to take care of you. We want to sacrifice ourselves and give for your good.” That’s a desirous thing. Something that, throughout the whole of the life of the body, everything the church is called to do is about caring for the souls of people through the Word by the structure which God has given.

Let’s talk about this professional distinction here because a lot of people get this confused in thinking that you know what we should be pursuing to make our church a soul care ministry is produce some sort of professional setting or formal setting, maybe is a better term. The way I would describe this is a formal setting of counseling actually comes out of the overflow of what’s happening already among God’s people in the church, and that helps us to arrive at maybe my next question for you, which is, who should engage in soul care in the church? And the reason that’s an important question is in our culture right now we think “Well, it’s only the expert. It’s only the guy who has a doctoral degree behind his name. He’s had years and years and years of extensive training and that sort of thing,” and I’m not minimizing training, but we say that’s sort of an exclusive group. You go to him for shepherding even, that’s the idea, and we want to distinguish that so talk through that, who should engage in this soul care in the church?

Scott Mehl: Oh yeah. I think it’s so important because that’s just not the model we see in the New Testament. In the New Testament over and over we see that the short answer is everyone, every Christian, this is 1 Corinthians 12. If one member suffers all suffer together. It doesn’t say if one member suffers, his counselor suffers with him. Everyone suffers together. When somebody rejoices all rejoice together. Galatians 6 when it talks about restoring someone in sin, it says, if anyone is caught in any transgression. Look at those words: any. This is for everyone. Anyone is caught in any transgression, he says, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Well, the one who is spiritual isn’t the super-spiritual Christian. That’s not the second layer Christian. Galatians 6 comes right after the end of Galatians 5, which talks about the fruit of the spirit. He’s basically saying if you’re a Christian and you’re bearing any fruit in your life, then you are the ones who are called to restore one another in a spirit of gentleness. Or Ephesians 4 when Paul writes to the Ephesians that the body gets built up as all the different parts speak the truth in love to one another. As they work together that’s what builds up the body. That’s how we become more and more like Christ.

Ultimately the answer is that everyone should be involved in the caring of souls for those around them. Whoever the Lord has placed around you in your local church, in your small group, when they’re struggling with sin, when they’re struggling with suffering, God placed you in their life for a reason, maybe not to singularly be the only input in their life. But to be a significant input of truth and compassion and at the same time while the answer is everyone, there are also those who are particularly gifted. Who do go deeper, who do provide a service to the church, who use their gifts and get equipped in their gifts to provide even more expansive ministry in the life of the church. Ultimately if it’s everyone, that also means that doesn’t just include pastors, that path is led by pastors. Pastors are meant to not just teach, not just study, although teaching and studying are incredibly important. I dedicate all sorts of time to it in my life. But also soul care, caring for individuals compassionately, carefully, patiently is also a call of pastors and their shepherding as well.

Again, that takes different forms in different roles and different ways, but when we understand the life of the church and God’s design for the church that way, it produces not just specific ministries that provide soul care in the life of the church, but it provides a vision for the body, a vision for the church family as a whole that produces a culture, an atmosphere of soul care, which is what God has designed for all of us because we all desperately need that. I mean, even as a pastor, I need that. I need to live in a community that has a culture of caring for souls when I’m hurting, when I’m struggling. That’s the means God’s provided for us.

Dale Johnson: Yes, you’re right. I mean, there are a couple of pitfalls, even as you’re describing that I want to highlight for the listeners. Certainly when we answer this question about who should be engaged in this, we want to disavow or move away from the idea that this has to be some sort of professionalized approach, right? That some sort of expert is the only one who can engage in this ministry. The other thing that you mentioned, I think it’s important, is sometimes pastors when they hear us talking about biblical counseling and they hear the weight that Scripture presses upon them of shepherding, they sort of get this mentality that it only has to be them, right? And now they’re thinking, “Man, I study so much to prepare a wonderful meal on Sunday, to preach it to people so that they can feed upon the Word. How in the world am I going to have time to do that?” That’s not what we’re suggesting. What we are suggesting is that you lead and model this and that the beauty of the New Testament is it doesn’t deduce this down to you. You have a primary responsibility but it also exposes the whole of the church, every believer, to engage in this type of ministry. This is the evidence of the gospel working in us—that as we love God, naturally, what begins to happen in our social context is we begin to love those other people that were around. The ministry multiplies as it’s led and modeled by the elders, but then it’s also effectively done by those in the church. That creates sort of this atmospheres you’re describing or this culture that people want. We want to be cared well for, and when that’s a part of the culture and it’s a normative, it’s something that people want, they want to be a part of that type of true, legitimate New Testament fellowship.

As we progress this idea and we think about this idea of soul care being in the church and we sort of suggested that the answer is not just “Hey, let’s turn the lights on in some building and start this professional counseling ministry,” but we need to flesh that out a little bit more. We sort of suggested that. Why is the culture of soul care a necessary, and I like that idea, a necessary component of soul care ministry?

Scott Mehl: I think that we see this all across ACBC, right? Soul care ministries, particularly gifted and trained and equipped counselors or pastors that are doing counseling, are a huge blessing and a necessary component to the life of the church where people that are particularly gifted. But one of the realities is, and every counselor, every ACBC member, every pastor knows by experience that there are more issues in the church, there are more hurts in the church than their counseling ministry, than their pastoral team will ever be able to address themselves. There are always more needs, there are always more struggles and things to address, and I think this is why even in doing soul care, in doing counseling, in doing biblical counseling, so many pastors and even ACBC members probably feel overwhelmed at times, right? The needs are too great. That’s one of the reasons why I think God’s created not just a select few to do soul care, but He’s called and created a body, a whole family to do this so that the vast majority of those struggles, vast majority of those hurts ought to be addressed not necessarily directly by the pastor, not directly by the biblical counselor, but by just the other Christians around them in their life. Also then when a particularly difficult or complicated situation arises and the pastor, the biblical counselor, helps walk someone through a season, they have somewhere to send them to for the ongoing discipleship, for the ongoing walk with Christ, for the living out of that journey of struggle against sin, for the living out of that journey of redemption through suffering, which can’t all be housed in a pastor or a pastoral team even or even a team of biblical counselors. The needs, the discipleship demands of the church, are far too big for that, so that’s why God has designed the local church as the context for personal ministry as a whole. This is why we need a culture of soul care, not just particular soul care practitioners but something where everyone is recognizing their part in God’s design for caring for those around them. 

Dale Johnson: That’s right, and that’s part of why we get in trouble when we dismiss the work of the church as even a method of soul care in everything that the church does from preaching, from engaging in the one anothers, discipleship. I mean, all of that is a process of caring for the souls of people. Now as we try to land this plane, there’s a couple of things that we want to sort of bring into focus. I want to get to talking about some resources at the very end. But first, I want to just give you an opportunity to talk about some very practical ways to cultivate soul care in the church. 

Scott Mehl: Yeah, as a member, if you want to help cultivate a culture of soul care in the church, I think you do that most powerfully simply by loving those around you, by engaging in it yourself, and caring compassionately for the hurts of those around you. Stepping into issues and messes around you, not avoiding them, but engaging with people. But then, as a leader in the church, as a pastor, as an elder, as another leader in the church, there are all sorts of practical steps you can take. One is teaching about it, just making sure that we’re putting before people and reminding them of their call to be engaged in one another’s lives. Even as pastors, just preaching sermons that always have very practical, direct, and insightful application. We talked about here landing the plane all the way down onto the ground—not ending the sermon where you’re just kind of hovering with ideas about how this applies to life but getting really practical, I think the more practical we get in our preaching, the more people see how the truth of the Word of God applies to their lives. It engenders this expectation that we should be engaging with one another about these deepest hurts of our souls with one another in the context of the church. And like we’ve talked about, leaders set an example. I think, as pastors, the greatest way to help facilitate a culture of soul care is to engage in soul care ourselves. Not because we’re going to be able to do it with everyone, but just because we lead by example.

One of the biggest components for us in our local church has been the conviction that we ought to be equipping everyone, not just counselors. For us, this started with our small group leaders. Every small group leader ought to be equipped in the basics of biblical counseling, the basics of transformation and change, not just those who raise their hand and say, “I want to be a counselor.” But everyone, and as we equip everyone, they see that, “Oh, wait, I have something to offer.” Then, I think too, practically just talking openly and honestly about the struggles people have, not avoiding things because they’re a hot-button issue or because we’re afraid it might you know, bring messes to the surface. We ought to be interested in bringing their messy situations to the surface. Talking openly and honestly about the struggles people have both publicly and privately, I think it facilitates that as well. And finally, just teaching about suffering, helping people have a theology of suffering, and thinking well about suffering is another practical thing that helps to create that culture as well. 

Dale Johnson: That’s great. One final thing, I’m going to mention your book Loving Messy People, which I think is very helpful, particularly in relation to this topic. I think it will sort of, you know, foster with elders and pastors a desire to see this type of ministry in their church and not be afraid to deal with the messiness of the lives of people. I want you to give maybe one or two resources that sort of have helped you to think well in these areas before we close. 

Scott Mehl: Yeah, absolutely. I think for pastors, one of the books I found really helpful is The Pastor and Counseling by Jeremy Pierre and Deepak Reju. I think even for pastors that are thinking, “How am I supposed to engage in this? What’s my role?” I think it could be a helpful resource as well. One of the books that have been one of the most consistent parts of the equipping in our church family over the years has been Counsel from The Cross by Elyse M. Fitzpatrick, which again just helps people see how the realities of the gospel open the doors to our deepest struggles and pains and meet us with hope. It also shows how equipped all of us are to do that ministry with one another. Also just a plug for, and there’s so many different ACBC members and Fellows that have written all sorts of those small, little, practical kind of booklets, and they’re produced by a number of different publishers, but the more we can get practical truths into people’s hands, if you have a collection of those and just hand them out, that’s a great resource that helps people see how the truth of God applies to even sometimes what they feel like are non-spiritual issues, things that don’t have to do with their relationship with God. Those have been huge practical help in our context as well. 

Dale Johnson: Scott, that’s so helpful. We want to encourage—I think you’ve done that today—pastors and elders to think through these things and even to exhort them to move in this direction to help them to think well about equipping their people and engaging in soul care themselves. What a beautiful thing. Thanks for spending time and giving us some helpful insight on these subjects. 

Recommended Resources

The Pastor and Counseling
Loving Messy People
Competent to Counsel