Mark Shaw

Punting on First Down

June 14, 2017

Mark Shaw

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Mark Shaw

“Touchdown!” is a football fan’s favorite expression when watching his team play. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a fan laments when his team must punt the ball to the other team as a result of failure to make enough yards. For those who are unfamiliar with football rules, to punt means the offensive team is relinquishing their offensive possession of the football and their best chance to score a touchdown.[1]

Biblical Counseling in the Local Church

So what does punting in football have to do with the local church? Before I answer that question, I want to share a portion of my background. I grew up in a local church that referred out its members for all types of counseling. Counseling was not offered by my childhood church, so I mistakenly believed the local church could not counsel. Therefore, I began to pursue a degree in secular counseling. I was not interested in being a preacher but desired to be a shepherd, and I thought the only option for me was to pursue a degree in the realm of secular counseling, hoping I could work in a counseling capacity as a Christian within a godly agency.

After working in the secular field of counseling for several years, I was introduced to biblical counseling and soon pursued a seminary degree, hoping I could work for a local church as a pastor who counsels God’s flock. That is what eventually happened. Now, my desire is to encourage other local churches to care for their flock by utilizing trained church leaders (including lay persons) to offer biblical soul care and disciple-making ministries. I have even seen biblical counseling utilized as an excellent way to reach the community through evangelism.

The local church is the greatest place to offer counseling and is the place where God’s Word is studied and stewarded. In biblical counseling, the counsel does not come from one’s own opinions and best ideas, but from the Word of God. The counselor must trust the Holy Spirit to work in the heart of the counselee to bring transformation, as Hebrews 4:12 teaches, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” We should expect the local church to offer God’s wisdom for everyday problems, conflicts, communication issues, marital disagreements, parenting advice, understanding the purpose of suffering, and other serious issues, such as addiction.

One of my passions now is to exhort and train the local church to offer counseling to those struggling with all types of addictions because it is the local church’s responsibility to care for souls and to point them to Christ. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:15-16). The souls of those enslaved to an addiction need care too, and the body of Christ is the only entity that offers hope through the gospel message, offering truth and grace.

Punting Too Soon

What saddens me is that the local church often punts on 1st down in the arena of biblical counseling. When someone from the church asks for help with what seems like serious issues, some churches punt on 1st down by immediately sending the person to an outside agency for counseling (often secular counseling). Let’s not give up the ball when we have an opportunity to impact the game! A better solution is to train qualified lay persons in the local church to serve those with serious issues through biblical counseling. The person in need can meet with a counselor (or two counselors at the same time for very serious issues) to begin pin-pointed disciple-making in an attempt to resolve the problem (if possible) in a way that honors God.

There is a good time to punt in football and in biblical counseling. A football coach will choose to punt, usually on 4th down, because it is too risky to attempt to advance the ball to reach a first down. If the team chooses not to punt but to go for a first down and fails, they lose possession of the football in an area of the field that makes it much easier for the opponent to score their own touchdown. So punting it away to the opposing team pushes them back to an area of the field that makes it more difficult for them to score a touchdown.

In biblical counseling at a local church, if after many attempts to counsel there is no significant progress or a regression then, and only then, would it be time for the local church to punt on 4th down and send the counselee elsewhere for help (one example might be a suicidal case where 24-hour supervision is required). But I believe the local church is punting too soon in a majority of cases sent out to secular counselors who may truly be wolves in sheep’s clothing. A secular counselor will not point the counselee to the Bible, prayer, fellowship of the local church, and the other resources of great value to Christ-followers.

Think about it this way: if a punt is giving possession of the ball to the other team, then the church might be giving away care of the soul to the world and to Satan when the church sends a church member away to secular counseling. That is a strong statement but I believe it is true. Imagine if a head coach of your favorite football team decided he would punt on 1st down every time his team got the ball against his archrival. That scenario would be so ludicrous in football that the coach might be fired before the game ended!


Local churches who offer general biblical counseling care to hurting members garner shouts of victory from me and many others who are passionate about the care of souls. The leaders of these local churches care enough about the person/family seeking help to do the extra hard work of helping them through their tough situations. The study of the soul belongs to the local church, not the psychologists (psychology literally means “study of the soul”).

If you really want to see a biblical counselor get excited like a football fan shouting “Touchdown!” then show me a local church who is offering hope and help to those thought to have little to no chance of survival, like an addict in active addiction. Again, there is a time to “punt” to other professionals – perhaps when the person demonstrates a lack of serious commitment or inability to stay sober without residential care. But God is pleased with the attempt of the local church to care for His created beings by at least giving it a try with the first few downs. I believe God is a “fan” of that because He wants souls to be directed to Him!

Questions for Reflection

How are you encouraging your church not to punt on first down in the arena of caring for hurting souls? What can you do in your local church to help equip the saints for the work of ministry in the arena of pin-pointed disciple-making (biblical counseling)? Training in genuine biblical counseling is available through many organizations and local churches. How could you involve some of your key church leaders in that type of training?

[1] The offensive team has 4 downs to advance the ball 10 yards and if they do so successfully, the team receives 4 new downs to advance the ball 10 more yards. Theoretically, this cycle continues until the team scores a touchdown (100 yards is a football field’s length) or chooses to voluntarily give up the ball, usually through punting or kicking the ball away to the opponent, giving them possession and an opportunity to score.