Gospel Conversations: How to Care Like Christ
By Bob Kellemen
Publisher’s Price: $18.99
Review by Marie Notcheva
“Gospel Conversations” is the second in Zondervan’s Equipping Biblical Counselors Series, following “Gospel-Centered Counseling” (which I reviewed here). This project came out of a seminar author Bob Kellemen gave for decades in local churches, “What to Do After the Hug”. Kellemen noted that attendees certainly didn’t lack a heart to care for the hurting, but that “they often feel ill equipped to know how to care in a Christ-like way”.
Kellemen caught my attention in the Introduction: “Through [Gospel Conversations] you will develop twenty-one biblical counseling relational skills so you can care like Christ.” Terrific! I like to give hugs. I often feel inept to help my friends in their struggles; let alone formulate an agenda for a formal counseling session. So reading not only about our end goal (helping counselees apply the whole Gospel narrative to their whole lives) but also organized, nuts-and-bolts advice on relational skills promised to make me a better counselor.
In all of his writing, Kellemen’s emphasis on personal involvement and caring for the counselee comes through, and “Gospel Conversations” is no exception. We are not, as he says, like the “UPS deliveryman”, simply delivering the hope of the Gospel and leaving fellow believers there. Detachment is not a biblical principle – like the author of Hebrews, we exhort, encourage and point one another back to Christ with our whole lives. Each chapter is concluded with probing questions for counselors in training, designed for use in a small-group setting. Kellemen also includes his trademark “Tweet-sized summaries” of each chapter’s main theme.
To Give Biblical Answers, We Must Ask Biblical Questions
In the earlier book, “Gospel-Centered Counseling”, Kellemen outlines eight questions to answer the biblical counselor’s foundational question: “What would a model of biblical counseling and discipleship look like that was built solely upon Christ’s gospel of grace?” The starting point is, of course, the Word of God – the end goal, progressive sanctification. Sandwiched between these “bookends”, we need to examine our view of the Triune God; who we are in the grand narrative of Scripture; the root source of our sin problem; how redemption changes us; the role of the Church community; and how our future hope of glory changes how we struggle with suffering and sin.
Once we have the foundational questions in mind and understand that our role is to be “dispensers of Christ’s grace”, we can turn our attention to developing “Biblical Counseling Relational Competencies”.
“Relational competence is our ability – given by grace and cultivated by our dependence on the Spirit – to express the character of Christ in our relationships with people so they experience our love as a small taste of Christ’s grace and are changed by His grace.”(p. 129).
Kellemen then devotes a full section to each of the following: sustaining, healing, reconciling, and guiding.
“Competent to begin counseling, we now have someone sitting in front of us whose world has caved in on them. In their suffering, how do we help? What do we do after the hug? How do we care like Christ?” (p. 120).
Sustaining – Meeting Counselees on Their Road to Retreat
Counsel that is biblical sustains people by encouraging them to face suffering face to face with Christ and His Body. It doesn’t deny doubts (about God’s personal interest; His goodness) but rather “climbs into the casket” with the counselee and confronts their doubts. It embraces the sufferer and reminds them of God’s ever-present care, even in the midst of their fears. To help counselors sustain their fellow believers, Kellemen uses the acronym “GRACE”. Over the course of two chapters, he lays out the importance of Grace Connecting; Rich Soul Empathizing; Attuned Gospel Listening; Comforting Spiritual Conversations, and Empathetic Scriptural Explorations. Listening well to both Scripture and our counselee’s story enables the heart attitude that sustaining another’s face demands. As Kellemen explains, connecting with our counselees graciously is not a counseling intervention; it is a mind-set of personal involvement with deep commitment to their maturity.
Healing – Where is Jesus in Our Faith Story?
In several of his books, Kellemen discusses the need to “crop Christ back into the picture” of a counselee’s devastated life. In “Gospel Conversations”, he explores ways to help believers find Christ’s healing hope: Redemptive, Relational Mind and Soul Renewal; Encouraging Communication; Scriptural Treatment Planning; Theo-Dramatic Spiritual Conversations (how we interact in the “drama of redemption”); and Stretching Scriptural Explorations (RESTS). Spiritual healing “involves journeying with people back to the heart of God”, and enabling them to understand anew, through the Gospel narrative, that His heart is good.
“Rather than going astray, and thus moving far from God and becoming less like Christ, Christ’s prayer for us in our suffering is that we would conform to His image. As His suffering in the garden led Him to cling to His Father, so our suffering can lead us to abide in Christ. Our suffering can bring us to the humble realization that without Christ we can do nothing (15:5). As we abide in Christ, we become like Christ, and we produce much fruit through Christ for the glory of the Father.
Jesus models in His life and ministry that suffering well involves honestly facing, and deeply feeling the pain of life in a fallen world, which drives us to cling desperately to the Father of all compassion and the God of all comfort…” (pp. 186-7).
In this section, Kellemen effectively paints a portrait of the God Who truly understands, is ever-present, and fully empathizes with us in our sufferings. As in his previous books, we come to see the God of All Comfort so intimately that we want to make others know His healing love as well. (True story: while reading this chapter, I typed several pages-worth of his discussion of John 10, and sent it to a struggling friend through Facebook Messenger.) His reflections are just that moving.
Reconciling: Facing Sin Head-on; Being Changed by Grace
As we move forward through the counseling process, sin is exposed. Repentance and the familiar “put off/put on” practical exhortation of Ephesians 4 becomes part of the counselees’ homework. The need for grace becomes apparent, and we counselors, as Kellemen writes, have the privilege of being “dispensers of grace”. True to form, he gives us a helpful acronym to outline the relational competencies needed for reconciling: Probing Theologically; Exposing Heart Sins; Applying Truth Relationally; Calming the Conscience with Grace; Enlightening Spiritual Conversations; Empowering Scriptural Explorations (PEACEE).
Correct theology is crucial to understanding the heart-motives behind our behavior, and every social or relational problem ultimately points back to our relationship with God (p. 247). Before we diagnose or correct issues that arise, we need to probe the root cause of “spiritual adultery”. There are a number of reasons one may be “drinking from broken cisterns” to replace fellowship with God, and these are the points Kellemen explores – with the end goal of reconciliation between Christ and counselee.
A very important point is that repentance is between the counselee and God – “our job is to care-front” (p. 261). This is a crucial distinction in understanding biblical confrontation correctly, and Kellemen spends several pages on the goal and spirit in addressing sin in another. Our role is to assist the counselee to put on the armor of God and attack Satan him or herself; not to attack the counselee. We are not able or called to “play Holy Spirit” to another; but rather, as Kellemen points out, to “leave the conviction to God”. In this way, our counselees can ultimately receive the message that they are forgiven, welcomed home, renewed and empowered to live holy lives.
Guidance that Fans Struggling Faith into Flame
In the final section, Kellemen cautions counselors against seeing reconciliation (dispensing grace; seeing change) as the end of counseling, or viewing counseling itself as a “problem-centered reactive response to trouble”. He characterizes biblical counseling as a form of discipleship, which I thoroughly agree with. Therefore, ongoing discipleship which focuses on progressive sanctification (guidance) is the ideal model for the local church. His acronym for guidance entails: Fanning into Flame the Gift of God; Authoring Empowering Narratives; Insight-Based Action Plans; Target-Focused Spiritual Conversations; and Heroic Scriptural Explorations (FAITH). This is not “Take-Two-Scriptures-and-Call-Me-In-the-Morning” biblical counseling; it is shepherding a fellow sojourner on to vibrant, life-long, Christ-following.
“To grow in Christ, we must understand and apply who we are in Christ,” Kellemen states at the outset. Underlying any real soul-transformation is a deep recognition of our identity and position in Christ, whether the struggle is adultery, social anxiety, or addiction. Remembering who we are (and Whose we are) is the cornerstone of ongoing guidance. Kellemen also cites the distinction between Christians’ “universal” identity in Christ, and their “unique identity in Christ. A large part of offering guidance – the “one-anothering” work of discipleship – is affirming both types of biblical identity.
Throughout Gospel Conversations, Kellemen focuses on maturing as counselors before and while providing Christlike soul-care to fellow believers. Far from listing a litany of “principles and practices”, he skillfully demonstrates, through historical anecdotes and case studies, how to expose the heart issues present in different scenarios, and how to empathize fully and presently. Knowing how to listen well; see how the whole Gospel narrative relates to the counselee’s whole life, and ‘crop Christ back into the picture’ lays the groundwork for ongoing discipleship that is truly biblical.
By working the “relational competencies” Kellemen discusses into all encounters, biblical counselors will be more effective ministers of the Gospel in all of their relationships – both inside the counseling office and out. Gospel Conversations is a comprehensive and much-needed book that addresses the whole person – empathetically; compassionately; and perceptively – just as Christ would.