Hi Jack,I am sensing a ...

Lacy asked:

Hi Jack,I am sensing a call that involves both psychology and missions. I am currently praying about whether I am to go on to grad school to study in a psych. program, or if I am simply to work in the realm of emotional and spiritual health on the missions field. Right now I currently hold a BA degree in 'Outreach' (missions). My passions involve prayer, seeing others grow and learn and overcome, and church planting.My question for you is this: Do you know of any resources (books, people, stories) on the wedding of psychology and missions in the context of living among an unreached people group? Have you encountered others sensing a similar calling? It seems that there are other disciplines and callings within missions that are really on the radar right now, such as business as missions, and combating sex trafficking, but I'm at a loss trying to find information about psychology and mission.Thanks for any help!Lacy

Jack Answered:

Hi, Lacy:

To answer your question, I have asked for help from my friend, Carolyn Kerr, who earned her PhD at Fuller Theological Seminary in the School of Psychology. She has been a fruitful professional evangelical missionary for many, many years both in Costa Rica and Spain.

I trust that her answer will be helpful to you, including the bibliography


Hi, Jack,

Psychology is most used in missions for member care, that is, keeping the missionaries functioning. The essential orientation book for this very important task is edited by psychologist Kelly O’Donnell, Missionary Care (William Carey Library, 1992). Here it is assumed that the counselor and the counselee come from similar cultural backgrounds.

The basic reason for this lack of application to national peoples is that psychology doesn’t cross cultures very well. Almost all of the research has been done on North American and European populations. It has been shown that there are even some serious problems in applying conclusions based on North American populations to Hispanic, Black, and Asian people born and raised in the United States! The cultural differences are strong enough that one needs to have studied the culture of the client extensively before attempting psychological counseling. Now there is a lot of questioning about whether research done with male subjects (most of the research) is at all applicable to women,(who make up most of the counselees). A good reference on this is Donald Sue’s book Counseling the Culturally Different. Even after the nine years we spent in Costa Rica, when we arrived in Spain I refrained from practicing counseling with Spaniards for nearly three years to be sure I wasn’t reading my own culture into what I was seeing.

Trying to apply U. S.- researched psychology to unreached peoples would be highly irresponsible. Although people in all cultures experience the same basic emotions and have the same basic family connections, and the same needs for interpersonal relationships, all of this is experienced through different expectations, conditions, and assumptions. To give an idea of some of the traps waiting to spring on the unwary here, look at David Augsburger’s Conflict Mediation Across Cultures, Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press (1992). (Also Augsburger’s Pastoral Counseling Across Cultures.) What seems reasonable and right to a North American is not the same as what seems reasonable and right in other parts of the world. What you may think is harmless may be deadly. What you think is a horrible perversion may be an essential part of the culture. Those who have studied family systems therapy make the claim that their discipline will cross any cultural barrier. They probably come closer to doing that than psychology per se, but I think they are not being completely realistic even so.

Fortunately the Gospel DOES cross cultural barriers. As a matter of fact the tremendous success Christianity has had in all the world is quite unique. So the best preparation for helping unreached peoples come to emotional and spiritual health is a thorough knowledge of the Bible and a lot of experience at applying basic Biblical principles in many situations. If you want some training beyond that, I would recommend something that is as culture-free as possible, for instance the Theophostic Prayer Ministry.

I hope this is of some help, even if it is largely negative.

Sincerely, Carolyn Kerr


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