If you run in any of the circles I do, you may have noticed an elephant in the room. Generally speaking, mental health professionals avoid talking about the church, and the church avoids talking about mental health issues. In context, this makes sense. Historically speaking, the field of psychology was once closely tied to the fields of theology and moral philosophy. But as the field of psychology began to evolve into a scientific discipline and a field of inquiry, it attempted to distinguish and distance itself from these roots in order to operate more similarly to the other natural sciences (Plante, 2012). Thus began the growing divide and skepticism between the church and psychology. However, unlike other natural sciences, the field of psychology deals with both the fullness and nuance of what it means to be human. Simply put, understanding mental health through a more holistic lens requires acknowledging that the health of every life domain matters - your emotional health, physical health, relational health, financial health (to name a few), as well as your spiritual health.
In the field of counseling and psychology, the Christian Integration approach seeks to rebuild the bridge between science and faith. It values what each perspective adds to our profession and seeks to integrate the unique qualities of each so that they both play a part in the mental health conversation. For example, in my day-to-day therapy practice, neuroscience helps me understand what changes have taken place in my client’s brain after a difficult experience, and good research in my field helps me to anticipate what intervention could be most effective in treating their condition. However, good theology also guides me to cultivate deeper levels of healing, hope, and resilience with my client as they work through that difficult experience and possibly seek to understand it through a Christian framework.
It’s worth pausing here for a moment to note that Christian Integration is not Biblical Counseling. If you can imagine a spectrum with me, it would start with Traditional Therapy (science only) on one end, Christian Integration in the middle (science and faith), and Biblical Counseling (faith only) on the other end. In my opinion, there is a place for each of these approaches (for example, receiving counseling services through your church vs. a licensed mental health professional). There’s more that could be said on this, but for the purpose of this article, it’s simply important to note that there is a difference and clients should know which approach they’re signing up for. Having appropriate expectations is very helpful in protecting against confusion and potential hurt.
What does Christian Integration look like in Therapy?
With that in mind, here’s a closer look at what Christian Integration might look like in a therapy session:
According to research from the American Psychological Association (APA) mindfulness meditation has shown us its wealth of benefits. These include a reduction in rumination, stress, and emotional reactivity, as well as an increase in focus, cognitive flexibility, working memory, and relational satisfaction (Davis & Hayes, 2012). Research also suggests that mindfulness meditation has numerous physical health benefits, including an increase in immune functioning, improvement to well-being, and reduction in psychological distress (Davis & Hayes, 2012).
When working towards treatment goals, this is the type of information we start with: evidence-based, research-backed interventions that have been shown to be effective. However, when working with a Christian client, instead of choosing a meditation that focuses on the imagery of a large mountain and feeling a sense of groundedness in the grandeur of what that image might mean to my client, we might choose instead to meditate on the character of God, his heart towards my client, his promises for them, and focus on the sense of groundedness that this imagery brings to my client.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a well-known and widely used treatment model in our field. When practicing CBT, the focus is to identify faulty thoughts that may be contributing to feelings of anxiety or depression (for example, “nobody likes me” “I’m such a failure” “I’m never going to get a promotion” etc.) and replace them with thoughts that are based in truth. Overall, we have seen that CBT is very helpful in alleviating depressed or anxious moods. With a Christian Integration approach, we may use a traditional CBT approach to work through any faulty and self-defeating thoughts, but the words of scripture might also be used to identify, challenge, and replace such thoughts with what scripture says is true.
Offering a faith-based orientation means there is one more tool available in our toolbox, and with that, more opportunity to offer hope and healing to clients. Just with every therapeutic intervention, Christian Integration is definitely not for everyone, but it’s very effective for many. My hope is that combining the strengths of both psychology and faith into my therapeutic approach may just make all the difference in someone’s healing journey – and that someone may be you. Please reach out if you have any questions or would like to schedule an appointment.
Davis, D. M., & Hayes, J. A. (2012). What are the benefits of mindfulness? Monitor on Psychology. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/07-08/ce-corner.
Plante, T. G. (2012). Religion, spirituality, and positive psychology: Understanding the psychological fruits of faith. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.