Christian counseling is a broad category of emotional and relationship support that draws on the principles of Christianity to help clients cope with challenges. Because religious faith can play a significant role in an individual’s life, many prospective therapy clients who identify as Christian feel more comfortable seeing a counselor who shares their beliefs or who is at least prepared to discuss their faith openly and without judgment.
Not all Christian counselors are licensed therapists, however, and while some incorporate evidence-based psychological principles into their practice, others do not. Research on Christian counseling is sparse; however, some studies have suggested that therapeutic approaches that deliberately incorporate religious and spiritual elements can be helpful in the treatment of common mental health challenges, though not necessarily more helpful than secular approaches.
The term “Christian counseling” can be used to refer to a number of approaches. According to an explanatory paper published in the journal Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, these may include:
- Biblical counseling: Biblical counselors rely exclusively (or nearly so) on the teachings of the Bible, rather than on researched psychological principles; some may view modern psychology as corrupting or dangerous. Very few credentialed psychologists identify as biblical counselors.
- Pastoral counseling: Pastoral counseling typically refers to a priest or other church leader offering advice and guidance to members of their parish. While some pastoral counselors exclusively hold theological credentials, many also have degrees in mental health fields and may be likely to incorporate evidence-based psychology into their practice.
- Christian psychology: Many professional psychologists who identify as Christian choose to bring their faith into their work, along with evidence-based psychological practices. These practitioners, many of whom also see clients who are not Christian, are sometimes referred to as integrationists. When working with Christian clients, they may discuss the applicability of biblical principles or how a client’s religious values can guide them through challenges.
Like other clients, individuals who identify as Christian may seek help for a range of challenges—including mental health conditions like depression and anxiety, relationship problems or marital discord, or non-clinical issues such as grief or anger. Christian counselors, like other practitioners, may treat both children and adults.
Christian psychologists—that is, licensed clinicians who integrate their Christianity into their practice—will typically also make use of other therapeutic modalities, such as CBT, psychodynamic therapy, or trauma-informed therapy. While employing cognitive-behavioral techniques, for example, a Christian therapist may also encourage discussion of Christian values and the role they might play in addressing the client’s challenges, work through any questions or contradictions the client sees in their faith, or help them uncover strategies to better express their faith or integrate it into their daily life.
In some cases, therapist and client may directly discuss biblical verses or parables, or other aspects of Christian teachings. Clients who begin therapy with specific problems they hope to solve—such as a marital dispute or a parenting challenge—might receive guidance or advice that is based specifically on the teachings of the Bible. Client and therapist may not share the same denomination; however, any ethical therapist will respect the client’s religious beliefs without trying to change them (excluding beliefs that are harmful to the self or others). Similarly, ethical Christian psychologists will not attempt to proselytize or convince non-Christian clients to conform to their beliefs, although they may choose to mention their faith if it is relevant to a discussion.
Other kinds of Christian counseling, particularly those in which the practitioner is not a licensed therapist, may not follow a traditional therapeutic structure. Biblical counselors, in particular, are less likely to rely on evidence-based psychological techniques. Instead, they may encourage prayer, the reading or memorization of Bible verses, or other exclusively faith-based approaches to help clients resolve issues. Some biblical counselors believe that mental health or interpersonal problems are rooted in sin, and may approach a client’s challenges from that angle.
Integrating religion and spirituality with evidence-based therapeutic approaches is often thought to be beneficial for the client, as it allows them to bring their “whole self” into the therapy room and develop coping strategies that make sense for their personal beliefs. However, the efficacy of other kinds of Christian counseling can vary widely. While anecdotal evidence suggests that some people who seek biblical or pastoral counseling find the practice beneficial for their emotional and spiritual well-being, others report it to be less so. In some cases, clients who have bad experiences may become disillusioned with their faith.
Many people identify as somewhat or strongly religious. Thus, someone's emotional or psychological well-being can be closely intertwined with their faith. Religion can have a positive effect on individuals’ lives, offering a source of meaning, creating a sense of community, or encouraging values like forgiveness and compassion. Effective Christian psychologists can draw on these principles over the course of psychotherapy, using them to help clients identify the values that are most important to them and use their faith to bolster their well-being. On the other hand, many religious people struggle with their faith and may even come to feel that this struggle is contributing to their emotional or interpersonal challenges; an effective Christian counselor can help them navigate these questions and better understand the place religion has in their life.
As with other kinds of therapy, a strong therapeutic alliance between client and counselor is a key component of success. Thus, asking questions about the counselor’s training and experience, their preferred therapeutic modalities, and their strategies for integrating religion into therapy can help prospective clients identify counselors with whom they can work most effectively. Christian individuals who attend church may find it helpful to ask clergy members for a recommendation, as they may be familiar with licensed therapists in the area who work with Christian clients.
Although some people find biblical or pastoral counselors to be a helpful resource, it’s important to keep in mind that they may not be formally trained in psychology. Clients who are seeking help for a specific mental health challenge, in particular, will likely wish to ensure that their counselor is a licensed clinician. Some Christian counselors, especially those who identify as biblical counselors, may not be supportive of homosexuality, transgender or nonbinary identities, or other forms of sexual or gender expression, so clients who identify as LGBTQ+ should take steps to ensure a counselor will be accepting of their sexual orientation or gender identity.