In 2004 I went to a workshop as part of my continuing education requirement as a counselor. The man who led the training was a researcher who studied the factors in counseling which predict positive outcomes. He boiled down the top four factors in descending order of influence:
Extra-Therapeutic and Client Factors (40%): These are the strengths,supports, and past successes of the client. These factors exist independently of the counseling process,and the counselor’s job is to help the client see and utilize them. People who come for counseling have solved problems in the past, but for some reason get stuck in a place where they are unable to bring their resources to bear on the present situation.
The Therapy Relationship (30%): Even though the percentage is lower for this one it is the factor counselors have the most control over. People who make progress in counseling are those who feel safe to talk about their thoughts and feelings without being judged, advised, or shamed by the counselor. If you think about it this principle holds true in most relationships. If you want to have a positive impact in the life of another person you must make a healthy connection with them, whether you are a parent, school-teacher, coach, or friend. In the context of a good relationship you can work with others to see their strengths, supports, and successes and help them brainstorm problem-solving strategies.
Therapeutic Technique (15%): Research shows that cognitive vs. behavioral vs. psychoanalytic vs. family systems is beside the point. Nor is the level of education or license of critical importance. Diagnosis doesn’t amount to much in most cases either. It is true that good counselors are skilled, but the most important skills are personal and relational rather than technical and professional: listening and empathizing rather than evaluating and pathologizing.
Expectancy, Hope, and Placebo (15%): We all know this. If a person sees light at the end of the tunnel they will move toward it. Foster hope in a friend and he will become intrinsically motivated to action.
I have framed my thinking as a counselor to see the personal connection or relationship as the hub of a wheel and the other factors as spokes connecting to the outer rim where the rubber meets the road. Build that positive connection and the person being helped will become hopeful, will see their strengths, and your skills will be more effective in that context. So the bottom line is that it’s all about connection.
My counseling practice was revolutionized when I applied this approach. I made it my primary mission to connect with my clients, to build the kind of relationship where they knew I was glad to see them and positive about the future of our work together. My primary goal in the first session was to put them at ease and make sure they would want to come back again. Listen with a low level of judgment and try to hear their stories as though I had crawled into their skin. Allow them to talk about whatever was on their mind, without coaxing or cajoling them to talk about anything until they were ready and willing.
Here is what happened. People went away and by the time they returned for the first real therapy session they had already started working on their problems and making progress. I kid you not. They were hopeful and hence more motivated. I had moms of recalcitrant teenage boys tell me it was the first time their kid had reminded them of the counseling appointment. When I pause and reflect on those persons in my youth who impacted me, I realize it was those who had made the same kind of connection with me.
Now as many of you know I am a thick-skulled Norwegian, and sometimes it takes awhile for things to sink in. I have struggled over the past two years after leaving “the ministry” to re-discover a sense of mission in my life. Recently I read a book on missional spirituality; and while I did have a few criticisms of the book, the Lord used that reading to help me connect a few dots.
First, God is a relational being existing as three distinct co-equal persons with distinct roles and functions. God created humans in His image, and it was not too long after the creation of the man that he placed the woman by his side and instituted the family. From that time onward people have existed as families, extended families, clans, tribes, etc. Sin has marred our relationships, so that they do not function ideally; and yet no man can live as an island in this world and be happy. Show me a depressed person and I will start looking for broken relationships behind the sadness. Just look at all the artificial cyber-connection people seek through the social networking sites.
One thing Jesus did was connect with ordinary people. He was the sinless holy and righteous Son of God, but sinners did not mind being around Him. The religious leaders hated Him because rather than build healthy connections with others they repelled people with their judgmental arrogance. From all I have just written I can boil it down to this axiom: The first step in having a positive influence on others is making a good connection. You can’t help another person if you are not connected to them.
Does this mean I have changed my theology? Not really. I still believe God is completely sovereign over the salvation of sinners. I still believe what Jesus said in John 6:44: No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him. But God uses secondary means in the drawing process, such as prayer and daily circumstances. He also uses relationships. So now I am seeing my daily mission in terms of connecting with people in positive ways to whatever degree possible. Here are a few examples:
Talking to a young man who was raised in a physically and sexually abusive home. Hearing his story and understanding that he wonders why it had to be him and not someone else. Delving from this into questions about the meaning of existence, how we know what we know, and what happens after death. I was able to share with this young man that his metaphysical inquiries point to the fact that he is a unique bearer of the divine image and that as a fellow image bearer I will be delighted to pray for him and talk to him again about such questions over a soda. He remarked that he had never met a pastor before who did not meet his questions with a canned “gospel” presentation, tract, or trite platitude. Or an exhortation to suck it up and deal with it.
Breakfast with a man who says he feels inexplicably angry and impulsively punches walls. Says he feels a rage that is only relieved by destruction of physical objects. I remember feeling like this as a young man. This guy was curious how one can know for sure Jesus is real–what is the evidence. I was able to share my own story about how I wrestled with this same question right after the death of my friend Lance. I further shared my belief that the Jesus of the Bible is alive and that we must seek Him with a no-holds-barred openness to however He chooses to disclose Himself to us.
Today at the supermarket. A lady who is usually a checker is stocking shelves, and I ask if she likes that better. She says no, she does not like it, but the economy is tight and downsizing has forced those with lower seniority to be bumped to less than full time doing the more menial work. All I can do is listen and empathize.
Do I still believe people are lost sinners who will spend eternity in a really bad place if they do not know Christ? Yes. But I am starting to see myself as an agent of blessing in making simple connections where God will use me in the drawing process according to His good pleasure. Again: The first step in having a positive influence on others is making a good connection. You can’t help another person if you are not connected to them.
People are starved for connection, and they will gobble up all of this you can give them. I pray God will open doors and hearts. I pray His Spirit will convict unbelievers of sin, righteousness, and judgment. I pray that there will be opportunities to share the gospel. I believe no less than ever that people are lost and headed for a very bad eternity without Jesus Christ. But I also know that to hit today’s secularized sinner with a quick Romans Road or Four Spiritual Laws presentation will likely repel him before I even get a hearing. Taking him to your run-of-the-mill church service will not be any more helpful. It’s about connection first and foremost. God is sovereign and all I can do is be sensitive to Him.
Does this sound like friendship with an ulterior motive? Good. It is. If you knew someone was asleep in a burning house the most loving thing you could do is warn him. What could be more loving than to build a positive connection with an unbeliever with a view to his salvation? What if he rejects Christ? Then what? Stay connected and keep praying. Let your love for the sinner be unconditional.
Anyway, my mission is a mission of connection, and I hope for you readers who love the Lord it will be too. Every connection is a divine appointment. Where it leads is up to God; I will do what I can do. I can also tell you I am chomping at the bit to preach and teach the Word. But one thing I dread is getting a group of believers together and organizing it into a “church” because somehow that’s where things always seem to turn south. Still waiting on wisdom from the Lord on that one.