In this age of experts people look to “specialists” for quick and easy answers.

For many years, magazine writers, newspaper columnists, sales managers, preachers, and others have tried to apply the conclusions of psychology to a variety of human problems.

Perhaps millions of people follow the teachings of these “popularizers” and uncritically accept their conclusions on how to rear children, have a better marriage, cope with depression, mature spiritually, get along with people, succeed at work, or have a more satisfying sex life. Many others attend self-help groups to help one another stop drinking, lose weight, adjust to widowhood, prepare for surgery, or cope with cancer. Most people fail to realize that the advice they receive often deviates considerably from the established findings of scientific psychology.

Professional counselors often marvel at these popular approaches to problem solving. Sometimes they criticize or dismiss them as simplistic, potentially harmful, and unimportant. Yet scientific evidence shows these movements, including Christian nonprofessional approaches, are exploding in number, variety, and acceptance. Popular psychologies can be divided into three categories: self-help groups, popular writings, and popular speakers. We will examine the common elements, appeal, and message of these systems.

The Popular Self-Help Groups

The term “self-help group” is widely used but somewhat misleading because these groups really consist of people who meet for “mutual aid.” Such groups are characterized by compassion, an attitude of acceptance, common needs and experiences, self-reliance, informality, similar beliefs, hope, and a desire to help others. Frequently, the participants resist what they view as the cold, ineffective, and expensive influence of professional counselors. In short, these groups embody a basic principle for meeting stresses: people must help one another in times of need.

Although the secular world widely accepts the self-help, mutual aid group, several writers have argued that the movement began in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The New Testament repeatedly instructs us to encourage, support, pray for, teach, comfort, care for, and otherwise help one another. Early Wesleyans met in small, mutual-support groups, and the controversial Oxford Movement of the last century clearly was a religious phenomenon. The Oxford Movement probably led to one of the most effective and best known of the self-help groups, Alcoholics Anonymous, which still has strong religious overtones. More overtly Christian groups such as Bible study, prayer, and sharing groups have grown up in neighborhoods, schools, business offices, and churches throughout North America.

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Professional counselors, including Christians, have not always accepted these groups with enthusiasm. While the groups can be beneficial, they may discourage or prevent people from getting needed professional help. They also may encourage unhealthy dependence on other group members, fragment the society as each group “does its own thing,” or pressure people who fail to improve in spite of their involvement in the group. Of more serious concern, Christians should consider whether these groups (including some Christian groups) foster a self-centered philosophy that looks to the human resources of a group, rather than Christ, to meet all of one’s needs.

In spite of these criticisms, however, the groups continue to spread. Time will tell whether they are a passing fad, or a return to the old attitude of people helping people.

The Popular Self-Help Writings

Many people look to books and magazines to help them cope with the stresses of life. Bestseller lists often include books that offer easy answers and “never-fail” formulas for asserting oneself, building a better marriage, succeeding in life, losing weight, finding lasting happiness, and solving a variety of problems. The catchy titles sometimes blatantly promise immediate success.

In a survey of 70 of these books, one psychologist concluded recently that self-help authors frequently lead readers to expect that change is possible and likely to occur, imply that every problem has a solution, help readers identify and elaborate problems, reassure readers that their problems are common and not abnormal, provide easy approaches to problem solving, and provide a new language for organizing and explaining behavior. Words such as “pathological” or “abnormal” are eliminated and replaced with less threatening concepts such as “games people play,” “biorhythms,” and “erroneous zones.”

Self-help books and articles especially appear to reassure and help those well-adjusted readers who can analyze their problems somewhat objectively, and who can personally commit and discipline themselves to apply self-help principles.

Unfortunately, not all consumers of self-help advice fit this description. Those who don’t are probably confused rather than helped. For at least four reasons, self-help books can be dangerous:

Simplistic Assumptions. Life is complicated and human problems rarely have simple solutions, but self-help writers seldom say so. Many imply that solutions to life problems can come quickly and easily by following a simple recipe. In a widely read Christian book on depression, for example, the author writes, “of one thing I am confident, you do not have to be depressed.… I am convinced that by using the formula in this book, you can avoid ever being depressed again.” Such promises are misleading, grossly simplistic, and potentially harmful. They discourage people from seeking needed counseling help and arouse guilt, discouragement, and bewilderment when the formulas do not bring the promised prolonged relief.

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Unrealistic Expectations. Many of the books and articles create unrealistic expectations about how people should feel, what life should be like, and how problems should be solved. In contrast to biblical teachings, these writings imply that problems will disappear if people “pray hard enough,” “trust enough,” or “believe enough.” When the problems persist, many people try harder, afraid to admit that the self-help formula may be wrong or that the expectations may be unrealistic.

Self-Condemnation. Self-help formulas often imply that problems are self-caused and self-cured. This assumption leads people to be overly self-critical, since they cannot identify influences beyond their control and hesitate to seek competent outside help. While the self-help emphasis on personal responsibility is admirable, the implied intolerance of personal failure can be destructive.

Egocentric Emphasis. Within recent years, one of the most widely purchased self-help books has instructed readers how to “look out for Number 1.” Another tells people how to “win through intimidation”; others advise people on how to “get to the top” in their businesses and careers.

These books illustrate what may be the most dangerous and erroneous aspect of self-help writings—the assumption that happiness and success come when people focus their attention and energies on themselves and their own achievements. Our society widely accepts this narcissistic, self-centered viewpoint. It emphasizes hedonistic pleasure, immediate gratification, and self-fulfillment in place of concern for others, duty, self-denial, responsibility, and commitment to God. This philosophy shines through the pages of Christian as well as secular books and articles. It tells us to “think positively, trust ourselves and do our own thing,” but it fails to realize that true happiness comes only when we have meaningful relationships with God and with other humans.

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Today, when life is stressful and printed materials are both inexpensive and readily available, self-help books and articles can offer help to those in need. They can enlighten and provide meaningful insight when they are consistent with biblical teaching, psychologically sound, and free of unrealistic promises or simplistic formulas. They can be a useful adjunct to counseling and at times can make counseling unnecessary. But many books, including some by Christian authors, can also harm readers. Christians must be cautious in applying what the self-help books and articles proclaim.

The Popular Self-Help Speakers

For centuries, speakers (including teachers and preachers) have tried to help people by giving instruction, guidance, and advice from the public platform. Radio and television have increased the influence of the spoken word. Within the past decade, the popularity of seminars and the widespread availability and use of cassette tapes have further extended this verbal influence.

Although there are exceptions, these cassette or seminar speakers (many of whom are writers as well) have several common characteristics:

Relevance. Popular speakers focus on meaningful issues such as marriage, loneliness, failure, phoniness, child rearing, and sex. Case histories or personal illustrations stimulate interest and make it easy for the listener to identify with the topic being discussed.

Simplicity. Both the explanations for the causes of human problems and the proposed solutions tend to be concise and simple, if not simplistic. One popular speaker, for example, lists only two causes of human problems: sin and organic malfunctioning.

Practicality. The popularizers frequently give specific advice and tell people precisely what to do in order to cope with a problem. Success stories lead people to expect that the formulas work for anyone.

Avoidance of the academic. Technical terms, research, theology, and scholarly literature are deemphasized in favor of a person emphasis, which is more appealing to audiences.

Communication Skills. All of the popularizers are good communicators. Using simple, understandable language, they present clear and explicit messages.

Personal Appeal. Popularizers possess attractive personalities. Of course they differ in many ways and therefore do not all attract the same followers. Nevertheless, each speaker appeals to a certain following, centering on the speaker’s personality.

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Biblical Orientation. Christian popularizers base their ideas on the Bible and attempt to apply Christianity to life in a practical way. An acknowledgment of the Bible’s importance undoubtedly attracts people who fear or otherwise avoid a strictly secular psychology.

Reactionary Nature. Popularizers generally are dissatisfied with something. For example, Paul Tournier began his writing career by opposing a form of medicine that ignores the spiritual and psychological nature of human beings, while Norman Vincent Peale has resisted “negative thinking” and an attitude that says “I can’t.” Opposition to some injustice or faulty thinking attracts followers who are equally dissatisfied and willing to join with a leader in seeking to bring change for the better.

Uniqueness. Each of the popularizers has something unique—a fresh new writing style, a new message, a new way of presenting an idea. Many of the principles for living are not new, but they are presented in a uniquely creative way.

The Appeal of the Popularizers

Many of these popular leaders have little or no training in psychology and some are untrained theologically. Nevertheless they attract great numbers of followers who are looking for practical advice about psychological and spiritual problems. Why are these popular secular and Christian psychologies flourishing today?

Perhaps a part of the answer lies in the current state of the society. The turmoil of the 1960s created a widespread discouragement and insecurity. The political corruption, ecological crisis, and economic problems of the 1970s have further shaken our faith in the future and made people especially receptive to anyone who brings hope and confidence.

This is precisely what the popular psychologies have promised as we move into the 1980s: hope for the future, answers to life’s problems, and success in coping with stress. They present this message clearly, often by appealing to Scripture, and support it with numerous selected case histories and testimonies to show that the popular psychologies do, in fact, “work.”

The leaders couple this message of hope with a formula for action. They urge people to apply principles in a practical way—to take action when doing nothing would be painful and depressing. They imply that their solution brings better results than previous techniques and that thousands have jumped on the “winning bandwagon.”

The enthusiasm of these followers also contributes to the leaders’ popularity. Many popularizers do not attempt to attract disciples, but each has a band of enthusiastic disciples whose devotion helps to create further interest in the leader. By word of mouth their popularity spreads.

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The Popularizers’ Message

Perhaps we can dismiss the popular movements as fads that will fade as quickly as they arose. But even fads must arise for some reason. By their prevalence and wide acceptance, the popular movements have shown that certain human needs are not being met elsewhere. People who join self-help groups, flock to seminars, or read self-help books must have questions their churches or schools are not answering. People in the pews want help with their marriages, child rearing, spiritual growth, or interpersonal relations, and they are turning to the popularizers for answers.

The clearest message that comes from the Christian popularizers is that the local church has failed to show people how to apply their faith to the practical problems of life. It is difficult to place the blame for this failure. Maybe we should blame the seminaries for teaching a dead orthodoxy that leaves the graduate proficient in Greek and Hebrew but profoundly ignorant of basic human needs and interpersonal skills. We could possibly fault church leaders for ignoring how Scripture speaks to individual needs. Individual Christians may be guilty for taking their faith too lightly. Many, like the believers in Corinth, have remained spiritual babies and followed after “experts” who spoon-feed them with predigested answers that need not be chewed.

More feasibly, we can conclude that this is an age of experts, and people have learned to look to specialists in human behavior for quick and easy answers to the problems of daily living.

Why, however, are many of the specialists untrained in psychology? Are the professionals partially at fault for leaving the popular field to amateurs? They have avoided the needy area of helping Christians and others to cope with the stresses of the twentieth century and to live abundant and balanced lives. The popular Christian psychologies, therefore, challenge both the church and the professional counselor to be more effective. If we disagree with the popularizers, we should rise up and provide better alternatives rather than criticize.

Evaluating the Popular Approaches

The ever-increasing number of theories, opinions, books, articles, speakers, and advocates of self-help groups can easily confuse and perplex us. How can we evaluate the popular approaches and use them to maximize help and minimize harm? Here are several suggestions:

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1. Compare the conclusions with the Scriptures. Is the Bible an authority or merely a springboard for the popularizer’s own ideas? Does the writer-speaker use good hermeneutics or snatch verses out of context to prove a point?

2. Test the conclusions against the findings of psychological and related research. This is difficult for the lay person, but the professional can keep abreast of scholarly trends and help untrained persons to evaluate the popularizers psychologically.

3. Examine the qualifications and characteristics of the popularizers. Are they trained or experienced in the areas they speak or write about? Of course, God does not always work through highly skilled or educated people, but a responsible writer or speaker on personal topics must present ideas that are consistent with Scripture and sensitive to the findings of careful scholarship.

4. Summarize the major tenets and basic assumptions of the system (about the nature of persons, the nature of the universe, the existence of God, the authority of the Bible, the nature of right and wrong, for example). These assumptions are not always stated clearly, but they influence the advice and formulas the speaker gives.

5. Try to determine if the system is internally consistent or if it is weakened by contradictions and logical inaccuracies.

6. Examine how case histories are used. Do they merely illustrate, or does the popularizer use them as major support for his or her conclusions? Remember, one can find a case history, personal experience, or biblical example to support almost any conclusion.

7. Be slow to attack personalities. Evaluate and criticize ideas rather than attack people whose life work is being scrutinized.

8. Remember that a popular approach can be partially correct as well as partially wrong. Ask if the system really works as well as its advocates claim. If not, is there anything of value in the approach? No one is perfect or correct all the time, but even the poorest popular approach may in some way help the Christian who is coping with the stresses of modern living.

Carl F. H. Henry, first editor of Christianity Today, is lecturer at large for World Vision International. An author of many books, he lives in Arlington, Virginia.

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