From June 13 to 23 I was in South Asia training national pastors in counseling. As I expected going into the trip, this was an experience from which I am sure I learned more than those whom I taught. It was my first experience working with first generation church planters in a region where Christians comprised less than 1% of the population.

I was immediately struck by how committed they are to their faith. Many traveled by train between 12-24 hours to be at our events. Several were divorced because their wife left them after they became Christians and have not been able to see their children since.

In spite of these conditions, intense heat, and poor sanitation they are a joyous people. They enjoyed singing and breaks were filled with conversations; although, due to language differences, it was often hard for me to follow along as much as I would have liked.

Counseling was a new concept to most of them. Their culture does not have “professional counselors.” There are no abuse shelters for battered women or residential facilities for those with addictions. While they are a very warm people, they are very private. It is very counter-cultural to talk about personal or family struggles because of a strong shame stigma.

Here was our basic training outline:

  • Examining the differences between justification and sanctification with an emphasis on why understanding both is important for counseling.
  • Examining the call to live in open relationships so that all pastoral counseling is not crisis counseling – hidden lives wait until things become “that bad” before they reach out for help.
  • Teaching the skill of listening as the foundational skill of counseling interaction.
  • Teaching a process for how the gospel speaks to sin-based struggles.
  • Teaching a process for how the gospel speaks to suffering-based struggles.
  • Overviewing the job description of a Christian husband and wife.
  • Overviewing a spectrum of biblical options for how to address conflict.

However, as we presented the biblical concept of living in open relationships, they were receptive to the idea. I was encouraged to hear them share their fears about it; this represented their first step in living out what they were learning.

Here are some of my takeaways from the trip. Some are questions/observations from how the teaching was received. Some are questions/reflections on the culture and implications for counseling as it develops there.

  • When should counseling be inserted into the training of first generation church plants in an unreached context? As new believers are being taught the gospel, how to administrate the sacraments, how to plant churches across their country, etc… when and how do you introduce lessons on counseling / one-another care? How do you balance the call to reach those who are rapidly perishing with the call to care well for those who have already been reached?
  • How do you care for the plight of women and children in these contexts? Domestic abuse was obvious throughout these areas. It is well known for being a leading area for sex trafficking. But there is little political will to stand against the atrocities. There were many signs the younger generation was burdened by these problems. But where there is the absence of laws, legal enforcement, and abuse shelters, how do you effectively care in situations that can become very dangerous to engage without legal support / protection?
  • How should counseling look in a context where the average church size is 10 members (i.e., house church), most members have been believers for less than 3 years, and they come from a culture steeped in superstitions that are still strong in the minds of many believers? There is an unmistakable beauty in these rapidly reproducing house churches, but there are also challenges to thinking through pastoral care with limited people-experience resources.
  • First-world conflict and third-world conflict, while often about different things, look remarkably similar. Our selfishness can attach to different things, but James 4 still captures the human experience regardless of socio-economic differences.
  • Pastors struggle to prioritize their families in every culture. Whatever our context it is easy to think we’ll make it up to our family later while we invest time God intended for our family into ministry. The result is that Satan takes a short-term loss for a long-term gain.

This was an experience I am sure I will continue to learn from as I reflect further. I hope to experience comparable opportunities in the future. I invite you to reflect on and pray over these matters. The questions that confuse me do not alarm Him.

God is doing great things all over the world. Getting to see it and participate in it outside an American context was very beneficial for my realization of this; not that I would have denied it, but I could not fully appreciate it (and appropriately pray for it) until I had seen it. If you have not taken the opportunity to be a part of an experience like this, I would highly encourage you to talk to your pastors and pursue an upcoming opportunity.