Dale Johnson: This week on the podcast, I have with me a dear brother, so much fun to be around. I appreciate him in relationship, but also in his teaching and today we get to talk about one of those teachings. Brad Bigney he’s a pastor with the Evangelical Free Church of America. He has an MD from Columbia Biblical Seminary, he’s a certified ACBC counselor, he’s a conference speaker, and he’s the lead pastor of Grace Fellowship since 1996. He’s the author of Gospel Treason, a book that I think all of you should probably get and read if you have not done so already. He and his wife, Vickie have been married for 36 years, they have five adult children. Brad, I’m so grateful that you’re here again on the podcast to talk about counseling in the local church.
Brad Bigney: Yeah, thank you, Dale. It’s a passion.
Dale Johnson: Yeah, amen. And listen, I had to say that people out there may not know this, but what you guys do at Grace Fellowship, I think is just absolutely tremendous. You’ve built even the book that I wrote, The Church as a Culture of Care. You guys have built what I’m trying to describe, and the way you guys do things, I just, I’m so encouraged when I see the things that you all are doing in the ways in which you’re just being creative and how you minister to people and the haven that your church is for so many who are broken and hurting. So, I want to start into this by talking about counseling ministry in the local church, what got you thinking about how to grow counseling in the local church?
Brad Bigney: Well, I’ll spare the initial story of how I got excited about biblical counseling for the sake of time. It was getting biblical counseling myself, but shortly thereafter probably within two years, I finished my M.Div and thought, you know what, I think I want to plant a church. Because it’s so hard to take an existing church and turn it. So actually, my hats off to any guy who turns an existing church; I think that’s harder. So we, you know, we had a hard, the offices in my basement were meeting in schools. I’m breaking down cafeteria chairs, but guess what? No one can say we’ve never done it that way, but when I went, I had more in mind than just the gospel and a good kids program. I thought, I want us to do that thing that I just became aware of that. I didn’t learn in seminary, not a word, not a whisper about this biblical counseling. And I said I wanted it to be at the heart of the church. That we don’t just preach a big God, but Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, if you have a problem, we’ll sit down with you in the trenches.
So, I just started wording it, wouldn’t you like to know how to help a real person with a real problem using your Bible? I just said it over and over, and I made it clear to everybody if you got a friend, bring them. But here’s what I did, I said sure, I’ll meet with your friend, your hairdresser, your mechanic, your coworker, but you got to come with them because I wanted my people to see what I was doing. And so we started with 35 adults, but it just started trying to get my elders in my leaders to buy into this. Let’s be a church that biblical counseling is not this thing attached to the side. I see it as the hub and every spoke, student ministry, children’s ministry, women’s ministry, and everything else flows from that in some form.
Dale Johnson: I love it because it’s about discipleship. That’s certainly true. You know, I want to take a second, not gloss over this. There are so many pastors I would guarantee listening right now, who are hearing, they’re going to hear what you’re going to say about your church, in the things, and they want that. They have never been introduced to biblical counseling, but you said that you went through biblical counseling, and it began to change your life. And I’ll just say, you know, we’ve talked about the pandemic and how difficult things are for pastors. Some of you guys, I think it would be a good opportunity for you to meet with someone, to be able to talk through some of the issues that you’re wrestling with, you’re not encouraged enough. That’s certainly true. I’m sure you’ve made some mistakes. There’s no question about it, but being engaged with somebody who can just help you walk through, you know, encourage you about how God thinks biblically, how you can correct the things that may need to be corrected in you, how you can be encouraged to continue leading the church that you’re in, and you may be introduced to biblical counseling in such a way that turns the lights on for you, relative to how the church can become involved and become that culture of care. Brad that you’re going to describe here. Obviously, there are challenges we’re dealing with people. We are part of that challenge as well. What were some of the biggest challenges that you guys faced along the way as you tried to get this whole ministry going?
Brad Bigney: The two biggest challenges that I ran into immediately, and it didn’t startle me, I knew I was going to face it, and so it’s okay is we have a culture that sees counseling as an area of specialty. When you say the word expert, people think that’s counseling you might mess somebody up. So two things I faced is having people actually get their heads around. Do you mean a pastor is qualified to help me? On the other side, you know, to get other people to even think that they could do it was it was a real challenge, but I just gave it time and I just kept talking this way because the proof is in the pudding. You know, when people are hurting enough usually they’d already played out the other kind of counseling, ran out of their insurance, and they come and the biggest brochure was not a glossy brochure. I put together it was a changed life that person starts talking. You can’t get them to stop talking and people just start coming and say, hey my friend told me that it. But getting over the hurdle of in your own mind thinking, can I do this? Will I harm people? What if I don’t know? And I think something I want people to understand is it is okay. I still do it to say, I don’t know, but I’ll try to find out; I don’t know, but here’s what. I do know; I could always bring it back to what I did know. I did never faced a situation where I said I don’t know anything at all about what I think I should say to you. Once they were okay with thinking, you mean your pastor could do this?
My second hurdle was but only he can do this. So people would grab me on a Sunday and say, oh my goodness, I feel like I can relate to you; I hear you preach. You’re so honest; we’ll meet with you. Well, after a while, I was not a full-time counselor. I was the pastor. It was a church plant, I was playing my guitar, answering the phone, I was leading the small groups, training leaders and so, I’ve got some other people I’m raising up. It was very hard. You know, there’s kind of a pecking order. I barely think I can go to you, pastor, but I’m you mean, I’m going to go to this guy that runs a trucking industry and during the week, and he’s going to counsel me. But the same thing, Dale, the biggest promo is two or three times a year, we do testimony services. Just put microphones in the aisle and say go. I know it’s a risk, but in twenty-seven years, I’ve had three stupid things happen, so it’s worth it because so much good happens. Who do you think has the microphone? People whose lives have been changed. And it was so powerful when they’re in the middle of saying, here’s what we were going through, and I’m leading the service, and everybody expects them to say. And so we met with Brad, and they turn around and point to a couple sitting there and saying we met with Bill and Carol, and you could feel it. Do you mean Bill and Carol in our church? And it just starts to get traction.
Dale Johnson: That’s so encouraging to me. And you know, you’re facing so many challenges. One of those, as you mentioned, this sort of that professional mentality, and some people may have this idea that you know, when you start counseling ministry, that’s going to be sort of a leech on the church, and it’s going to be something that, you know, may grow itself, but how is it going to really impact the church? Because I see it in my mind as being separate, and that’s not what we’re talking about at all. I want you to describe a little bit of how you have seen the existence of this vibrant counseling ministry really impact the ministry of your church.
Brad Bigney: Oh my goodness, Dale. I could talk for hours on that alone. Guys don’t realize if you are a church leader and you’re listening; it informs your preaching. So, as you start to sit in the trenches instead of just in your office with your amazing books, I love preparing sermons too, but people say to me all the time it’s like you are in my home this week. Well, A, there’s a holy spirit. B, if you’re counseling, then you know all my goodness, people struggle with identity. Oh my goodness, people struggle to understand what grace really is. Oh my goodness, people struggle with bitterness and forgiveness. You really don’t have an awareness of where your people are, if you aren’t counseling. And as you do, you’re preaching sounds different. You start to really break it down. And one of the questions I always have is, I’m preaching is, but how, but how would I live that out? When you counsel, you realize I’ve gotta break it down. How? And so that was tremendous.
And then, guess what? People come to faith in Christ through counseling. We have never done a big fall festival, throw a bean bag in Jonah’s whale’s mouth or given away a TV. People would say, how have you grown? And we went from 35 adults to just like, boom, boom, boom, boom. And it is God. He is Sovereign, but I do believe biblical counseling has been a part of that that people have been saved, and people have been grounded more. And when you understand the power of the Gospel, not to just save you, but to change you, and they begin to reach out to other people. It’s just contagious. So this is so not a drain on the church. This has been a huge piece of why we grew, why lives were changed. And why the community began to say who is this church? Because like you indicated already biblical counseling to me is intense discipleship. So we’ve got our normal discipleship, groups in homes. But when someone goes off the rails and is stuck, they can kill a group. So we just spin them off. And it’s one-on-one discipleship. And so, they can get back into a normal river of discipline, but it’s just discipleship.
Dale Johnson: And you see, you talk about people coming to faith, but you talked about you’re modeling part of this ministry, but you’re also encouraging other people to engage in this type of ministry, and you think about the growth that they have in their ministry and making more mature people as they then disciple others, what an impact it has. Now, pastors are out there. I’m sure they’re listening, and they’re hearing the excitement here. They probably heard a story maybe similar, and they’re looking for things like this, biblically. How do we, how do we impact the church? What do you say to the pastor who would love to see something like this developing his church?
Brad Bigney: You gotta, and Dale’s not paying me to say this, but you gotta hitch your wagon to somebody who’s going to help you. So when I say people turned and pointed to a couple, it’s not like oh, I met with that couple twice and said, go do it. You gotta hitch your wagon to where can I get my people trained? And I think ACBC’s the best; there’s CCEF, there’s IBCD, there’s 100 different acrostics, but I think ACBC does the best job of breaking it down. 30 hours of the fundamentals. How do you give hope? How do you build involvement? And so I started by the grace of God. In Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky and I learned in Lafayette, Indiana was a huge church, doing a February training. So figure out what’s close to you and the beauty of COVID is we all learned online. So, like right now, ACBC’s doing a bunch of online stuff, you may be in Podunk, Wyoming, but if you and three elders from your church and two deacons want to make the time for it, you can find online training to get through the 30 hours of fundamentals. You’ve got to have a foundation, but once someone had that, then I take them and say alright, observe, observe. So I am always counseling with someone observing who’s already been through the training, and then they see from beginning to end, and I chat with them a little before and after, and then we start them. But even when we were just 100 people, I want this pastor to hear whoever’s listening. I got three people to go with me when you’re, but I beat the bushes, I begged and pleaded, and I got a copy repairman, a single mom, and somebody else, and they came back so excited, saying this is the best stuff I’ve ever heard. So the next year, I had 8 and then 15 and 23. So figure out where you’re going to get the training, then you start doing it, pastor. So, I know it’s scary, but you can do it. So I went from my leaders first. Elders, deacons, godly women, student ministry volunteers that run a co-grow, a little group of students, you know, who is impacting people. And sometimes there’s someone in your church that doesn’t have a title, but they are a mover shaker. You know who they are. If you can get them on board, and I’ve never had someone come back from any of this kind of training saying, yeah, eh, they say, wow, where has this been? And when you get the right people in your church saying, wow. You start to get traction.
Dale Johnson: And let me just say this, I see this across the board, Brad. And you being, you know, a pastor, one of the pastors there, and your excitement about it makes your church excited about it. But then we also have, you know, lay people who are trained, they understand biblical counseling. They’re excited about things that they’re learning. What do you say to the laypeople who are excited? Would love to see this happening in their own church, and you’re a pastor. How do they help get something like this going?
Brad Bigney: Now, here’s a very different approach. So, if you’re a leader, you’re an elder, you’re a pastor, you’re an associate pastor, then what Dale touched on, oh, if you can champion it, huge traction. If you’re a layperson, here’s what I want you to hear. Don’t lose your excitement, but just recognize the best thing you can do is just start doing it. And I don’t know of any leaders that aren’t interested in changing lives. When they see, they’ll come and ask you. But here’s what I want you to not do, do not scoop up a bunch of books, DVDs, and stuff and run to your pastor and telling he’s missing it; you’ve got to do this because listen to me, I’ve been a pastor 36 years. I’ve got a stack on my desk, and it’s something about Israel and is something about creationism, and this is something, everybody has their issue, and that’s how he hears it. This is one more issue, and I’m missing it, and they’re not going to read your book. They’re not going to look at it. It’s offensive. That’s not how to do it. So don’t pummel your pastor with, you got to do this; you’re missing it.
Now, if you have a relationship and can have a conversation, be very gracious and go slow. I like to say to church planters and laypeople, people overestimate what can happen in a year. They go back in there like we got to gets up and running in here and underestimate what God could do in three to five; I know that might have just taken the wind out of your sails, but three to five, I was talking to someone in the airport last night who’s here with her husband. He’s only been at the church three years, and they’re just not trying to get it going, and she said, and she’s wise, she said, I know this may take ten years, I said you’re right, but they brought ten people to a conference to hear this like I was saying to go back excited. Here’s how I’d say it to you don’t stay excited alone. So even if you’re a layperson, you may have influence, even if the pastor doesn’t want to hear about it, the elders. Is there someone else that would say, oh wow, what are you doing? Just begin to do what you’re doing and talk to people that are interested, but do not go after your pastor. They’ll just hear it as white noise.
Dale Johnson: Yeah, you’re right because they’re pulled in a thousand directions. Brad, listen, this has been so helpful to think about the local church and what God can do in the local church, and we’re not. We’re not creating anything innovative. What we’re saying is just biblically, how do we minister well to people, how do we, as a body, do this type of work, and then the results that you see are tremendous in the way the church is impacted, and you’re reproducing disciples who want them to disciple others and care for others well.
Praise the Lord for what’s happening at Grace Fellowship. Thank the Lord for you and your work there for so many years, and the testimony the Lord has given you is wonderful.
You can find the ACBC training centers here.