Is International Biblical Counseling Training “Imperialistic”?

October 20, 2015

Wayne Vanderwier

More From

Wayne Vanderwier

“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works…” (Hebrews 10:24).

The concept of “cultural imperialism” has been the subject of innumerable books and journal articles in the Christian missions community (and the missions communities of other religions) for many decades. There is general agreement on the basics: The Word of God is eternal, the gospel is unchanging, and believers of every culture are sanctified through the same biblically-prescribed disciplines of faith. Therefore, the discussion on this topic focuses on the application of those principles. And, throughout the history of missions the pendulum has swung from one extreme (obliterate every vestige of cultural expression to make the evangelized group “Christian”) to the other (allow even unbiblical practices and perspectives to remain in the evangelized group to avoid an “imperialistic” impression).

Biblical counseling continues to gain traction in the nations of the world. (Overseas Instruction in Counseling—OIC alone has been involved in training in more than 20 nations in our first 9 years and we are encouraged by the growing list of nations from whom we’ve received inquiries.) So we must recognize that, as a part of God’s worldwide concern for the nations, biblical counselors face the same questions as our church-planting and church-strengthening missionary brethren.

The first two questions vivify Paul’s instruction in 1 Timothy 4:16.

What is your motivation, i.e., what drives your heart?

The easy part for biblical counselors is responding to the invitations that come to you through nationals who have heard of the modern biblical counseling movement through contact with American missionaries or through the websites of biblical counseling ministries. An American pastor with some biblical counseling training and whose church supports missionaries (or an American professor) may be asked to make a “missions trip” to conduct a weekend conference on a biblical counseling-related topic – marriage and family issues, emotional issues, addictions. This is a good thing. Your teaching will be helpful. But why should you go?

There can be only one correct answer: To glorify God be being of service to others. Any hint of superiority, any sense of swagger, any evidence of self-serving desires and your ministry opportunity is lost.

This question requires you to examine yourself.

What is your message, i.e., how are you doing it?

This article is being written in the days following our return from three weeks in Ukraine. The 30 graduate students in our Master of Arts in Biblical Counseling degree program (done in cooperation with the Kyiv Theological Seminary) and those we served in the places around the country we were privileged to visit on the weekends between classes continue to give us insight into their perspective on our presence. What do we hear? “Americans usually teach only foundational truths. They must think we don’t know anything!” This evidences that the foreign guests have both a cultural naiveté and a profound ethnocentricity. Worse, the perceived arrogance of this approach is both off-putting and disheartening for the nationals. We also hear, “Their jokes don’t work, their idioms don’t make sense, and their illustrations do not reflect our experience.”

This question requires us to examine our teaching.

What is your goal, i.e., what is your strategic objective?

One of the challenges of doing biblical counseling training in the nations is to identify the long-range goal of that activity. International trips require too much energy and too much expense to fail at this point.

Is the goal to simply expose national pastors to the concept of biblical sufficiency-based soul care? (I’ve described this activity in other places as “talking about” biblical counseling.) That’s a valuable objective. But what happens when those in your national audience ask for more information and/or training?

Is the goal to train some biblical counselors in that nation? Both those that are trained and those they serve will be helped. But what happens when others ask them for training?

Is the goal to train biblical counseling trainers? That is a commendable example of 2 Timothy 2:2 in action! But what accountability—and to whom—remains when you’ve finished the project?

OIC continues to press toward the goal of assisting nationals in the initial creation and/or continuing development their own culturally-sensitive and culturally-specific biblical counseling training and certifying organizations.

This question requires us to examine our long-range plan.

The Final Question: Should They Imitate Us?

And what should these “national organizations” look like? In my opinion the answer is this:

Whatever their own national leaders determine is culturally appropriate!

The organizing group of trained biblical counseling leaders should name the organization, create its documents, and establish its certification elements. All of these should be a reflection of their own culture.

To be clear, I have the highest regard—deep appreciation and admiration, even—for the founders and current leaders of the various biblical counseling organizations in America. These ministries are continuing to mature in the clarity of their vision as evidenced in the recent structural changes that have been made in them. But as far as I know—and I’m open to being corrected on this point—none of them have even one foreign national on their leadership team. While foreign nationals they’ve trained may hold their credentials, they are structurally and culturally American organizations.

So, if we impose our structures and practices on fledgling ministries in other nations, are we practicing a kind of cultural imperialism? Are we communicating that they must do it like we do it—that our training and certification criteria are right for them? Our precious friends in other nations would be excused if that is the way they interpret our actions.

This article, then, is an appeal, a “provocation” (see Hebrews 10:24, above), to encourage biblical counseling training in the nations of the world that results in thoroughly indigenous biblical counseling organizations. Let’s go to the nations, transfer the tool—the ministry skill—of biblical sufficiency-based soul care from our ministry toolbox to theirs, assist them in establishing their own biblical counseling training and certifying organization, and leave them to this good work.

Is this difficult? Yes. Does this require a significant investment of resources over an extended period of time? Yes.

But this approach extirpates our tendency toward imperialistic attitudes. Besides, they can do it better than we can in their nation!

Join the Conversation

How would you answer the title question?

What other specific steps could be taken to avoid this potential problem?