It is just before dusk on a September evening in Nashville, Tennessee, at the Opryland Hotel, a colossal antebellum theme park of a hotel--thousands of guest rooms, soaring enclosed tropical gardens, life-size indoor replicas of southern mansions. At 10 minutes before the first plenary session of this particular therapy conference, the huge Presidential Ballroom is already packed with 3,300 professionals here for the four-day meeting, and latecomers like me are climbing over rows of knees to get to the few remaining seats. While giant screens on either side of the stage list upcoming regional conferences and workshops--in Philadelphia, Chicago, Orlando, Kansas City, Dallas, Cincinnati, Atlanta--I study the glossy 71-page program, noting the 7 plenary sessions, the 23 all-day and 84 hour-plus workshops on trauma and abuse, children and adolescence, marriage, psychopharmacology, sexuality, managed care, psychological research and new techniques, spiritual issues in therapy and multicultural populations. The standard crowd of professionals seems to be here--middle-class, young to middle-aged, mostly white with a sprinkling of blacks, Asians, Hispanics--though everyone is perhaps a bit better dressed than usual at conferences, with more women in trim skirts and jackets or suits than pants, more men in jackets and ties than jeans or khakis. Name badges refer to all parts of the country--though southern states predominate, and southern accents waft gently around my Yankee ears--and reveal the usual alphabet blizzard of credentials: mainly M.S.W.'s, M.A.'s, a scattering of Ph.D.'s and M.D.'s and M.Div.'s.
In short, this conference looks no different than any other of its type. Until, that is, the opening prayers and gospel music. Within a few moments, the whole assembly is standing, arms upraised, belting out "Oh, How I love Jesus" and "Only God Can Heal." Everybody seems to know the songs by heart and sings them with body-swaying, toe-tapping, arms-outstretched exuberance--everybody, that is, save one self-conscious family-therapy magazine journalist who has never been to a therapy conference quite like this before. "What am I doing here?" I think, and wonder if I should move my lips and pretend to sing along, too.
"We live in a time of great darkness, but you are the light of the world!" the first speaker proclaims to the audience. While we will spend the days of this meeting talking about standard therapeutic fare, he tells us--theory, technique, managed care--the real problems both our society and our clients face are in essence spiritual, and so must be the cure. "You are a distinct type of people helper. You are the image bearers of Christ. What you are doing offers the greatest platform for evangelism."
Evangelism? Isn't this word more suited to a revival meeting than a professional convention of mental health providers? In fact, this conference is both. Archibald D. Hart, the man exhorting the troops to be Christ's image bearers, is a psychology professor and former dean of the Psychology Graduate School at Fuller Theological Seminary in California, one of the leading evangelical Christian institutions of higher education in the country. And this meeting is the 1999 World Conference of the American Association of Christian Counselors (AACC), an evangelical Christian organization with more than 18,000 members dedicated to the proposition that modern psychotherapy is not only compatible with conservative, Bible-based Christianity, but actually derives a critical healing edge from faith that secular approaches can't match. The title of this year's conference, "The Soul of Christian Counseling: Answering God's Call to Care," is a reminder, as is every workshop this week, that the AACC exists not only to "encourage excellence in counseling worldwide," according to its mission statement, but also to "facilitate the integration of counseling principles and biblical theology" and "bring honor to Jesus Christ. …