One hundred years ago or more, if you had problems in your marriage or suffered from depression, you might turn to your pastor. In response, he’d address your problems in explicitly Christian terms.
“The problem was sin, and the solution was salvation,” writes John Bernau, a sociologist at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University.
Christian clergy held the clear monopoly on helping people attend to their problems for centuries. But during the early 20th century, religion and medicine were engaged in a dialogue on emerging psychological care.
Offering a slice of that discussion, a February article in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion documents trends in the way pastors wrote about their role as counselors as it became commonplace for people to turn to psychologists rather than spiritual leaders with their problems.
Using computational text analysis, Bernau read through over 70 years of articles in the Journal of Pastoral Care and Counseling, an interdisciplinary journal including both spiritual care and psychotherapy.
The sociologist found the words God, Christian, Jesus, Christ, and church were used in about 5 percent of the article content in the early 1950s, dropping to about 1 percent today. Now, the word God is used alongside other words like love, heart, life, and care.
He suggests the religious language is replaced with individualistic language, favoring the kind of personal narrative and experience that came to be the norm in therapy by mental health professionals.
He noted that since the 1960s, pastors’ language lost its denominational specificity in favor of a more ecumenical and open approach, deferring to meeting on believers’ terms.
“(A person’s) stories, experience, and narrative construction are welcomed by an occupation whose professional identity is increasingly focused on listening, reflection, and conversation,” wrote Bernau.
By focusing on the terms used in the journal, the study can track a shift in how pastors portray their counseling work, but not necessarily whether the terminology they used with congregants changed as well. Bernau clarified that the analysis can offer researchers the ability “to map the broad currents of the profession but is not meant to replace close historical analysis.”
In another trend, pastors also became more likely to use psychological terms in their writing but less likely to discuss the related professions of psychology, psychoanalysis, and psychiatry.
Bernau wrote, “this decline may signal a solidification of jurisdictional boundaries” after the lively debate arising in the 1960s, which has resulted in a menu of spiritual and mental care options, from therapists—both secular and Christian—to nouthetic or biblical counselors to pastors. As CT reported, some pastors today have continued to view psychological counseling with suspicion, while others see differences in approach as “jurisdictions,” requiring pastors to partner with other mental health professionals to provide holistic care.
As more people stopped trusting pastors as an authority on mental health, the chaplaincy—religious positions within secular institutions like hospitals or the military—rose as a reaction, a way to offer faith-based guidance from within more trusted spaces. Since the 1980s, raw word counts of chaplain, clergy, pastor, and priest illustrate how chaplaincy has come to dominate the journal.
Bernau offers two takeaways. First, don’t be afraid to offer a distinct message. In fact, Christian counselors can be clearer about what their tradition offers over secular guidance. “If you believe the message of Christ has meaning in today’s world, don’t be afraid to communicate that message in clear and explicit language,” he said.
Secondly, he suggested that Christian theology can be reinterpreted for contemporary pastoral care. “Instead of the aggressive, proscriptive counseling of the past, Christian theology might be called to provide a gentler, more subtle message” vis-à-vis St. Francis of Assisi, who believed the gospel wasn’t communicated only through words—listening belongs in pastoral care, too.
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