Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Stay in your lane…

Written by: on February 15, 2019

I’m not sure how I feel about Luhrmann’s text, When God Talks Back.  Luhrmann sets out to understand the American evangelical experience through personally assimilating herself into a church system. “Tanya began researching the American evangelical experience by attending weekly services at the Vineyard Christian Fellowship Church in Chicago. This church, the Vineyard, is one of 600 congregations across America, and there are an additional 900 worldwide. Together, that makes a total of 1,500 congregations. Now, that’s really significant.”[1] All of Luhrmann’s evangelical research (observation/experience/interviewing) is done within a specific, narrow context of Vineyard Church.  While I believe her research is interesting, I question its validity in analyzing only one evangelical sect. What isn’t guaranteed is that her outcomes will translate across all denominational experiences.  Apparently I’m not the only reviewer critical of Luhrmann’s research methods. Barton Swaim of the Wall Street Journal also questions Luhrmann’s validity in her sampling of just Vineyard Church attendees (among other research issues he raises but I did not highlight them here)… “But writing a book about American evangelicals and interviewing only Vineyardites is a bit like writing a travel book about the British Isles without leaving Inverness. However one defines the term “evangelical”—and it should include Reformed Presbyterians, Missouri Synod Lutherans, traditionalist Methodists and the majority of Baptists—a great many evangelical denominations and dispositions stand deliberately opposed to the kind of theological subjectivism, neo-Medieval spiritualism and pious self-absorption that Ms. Luhrmann finds at the Vineyard.”[2]

As an Anthropologist and Psychologist by education, Luhrmann referenced “therapy” multiple times in her writing.  The statements made me wonder, outside of her education, if she had any experience in the field.  According to Wikipedia (I’m aware this isn’t the most valid source – speaking of questioning validity) Tanya Luhrmann progressed through her education rapidly – straight from her bachelor’s degree directly into graduate school culminating in her PhD in 1986 in Social Anthropology.  In just three years she entered higher education as faculty.  It’s a bit disturbing that her references to therapy infer she’s an expert in the field.  I have to admit – several references of the God relationship being similar to therapy or the “evangelical experience” being similar to therapy – made me cringe.

“For example, people learn to treat God as a therapist. People take to God the kinds of concerns that many New Yorkers will take to a therapist—talk about the ways that you feel uncomfortable at work, talk about the ways that you felt you let somebody down, talk about the ways that your relationship isn’t going so well. In this daydream-like interaction with God that people call prayer, people learn to hear from God advice a therapist would give them.”[3]

This kind of God is unique to each person, because it’s your mess of memories of being loved. It is a person among people. I came to believe that God worked psychologically for people the way that your own memories of parents work for you psychologically. You kind of carry them around in what a therapist might call an inner object or a self-object, available for you when you’re anxious, frightened, morose. If you have a robust internal object, that will buffer you against those difficult times.

Why do I cringe when I read these therapy references?  Because the training and ethics of social work practice do not ascribe to Luhrmann’s suggested therapy behaviors.  In full disclosure, psychology education is different than social work education, however techniques and interventions in the therapy process should be similar.  The core values of social work include service, social justice, dignity and worth of the individual, importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence.  Our paradigm of client assessment focuses on the Person in Environment (PIE) theory – which is the importance of understanding an individual and individual behavior in light of the environmental contexts in which that person lives and acts.  Social Workers also believe that clients ultimately possess the solutions to their problems – the social worker serves as the guide to help the client discover, reconcile, and implement this solution.  Clinical social workers practice a type of mental health therapy that is strength based, working with the client to identify natural skills and abilities they possess that can be used as a launching point to tackle issues causing challenges in the individual’s life. The social work framework for mental health therapy is holistic – emotional, spiritual, physical, social, and psychological.  It also takes into account the societal and environmental factors that can impact the well-being of the client.[4]  I share such detail to reiterate Luhrmann’s references to therapy are not accurate – therapists do not give “advice”; therapists are not just someone to “unload on” nor are they in any way similar to a relationship with a higher power (although therapists are trained to help a client connect to their higher power).  Rather, the social work therapy process is an evidenced based system of engagement, assessment, planning/goal setting, intervention, evaluation, and termination.

So, Ms. Luhrmann, as interesting as your research could be if done with a more valid sampling of evangelical Christians, please stay in your lane of training – psychology and anthropology.


[1] https://www.carnegiecouncil.org/studio/multimedia/20130516-when-god-talks-back-understanding-the-american-evangelical-relationship-with-god

[2] https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702303816504577314063168857308

[3] https://www.carnegiecouncil.org/studio/multimedia/20130516-when-god-talks-back-understanding-the-american-evangelical-relationship-with-god

[4] https://www.humanservicesedu.org/lcswvspsychologist.html#context/api/listings/prefilter

About the Author

Jean Ollis

18 responses to “Stay in your lane…”

  1. Dan Kreiss says:


    I share your frustration with her myopic perspective, limiting herself to Vineyard. While the Vineyard movement may not be palatable to all of us it does represent a powerful movement in U.S. Christianity and influences far reaching denominations through its music and theology. I think she chose the Vineyard churches because she thought they represented a change that has taken place in the U.S. where more experiential based churches were now mainstream with white, middle and upper class, highly educated people. I think her underlying question is ‘How did that happen?’

    I think it’s interesting that she receives criticism from both sides of the spectrum. There are those who are critical because she attempts to maintain academic distance and dismisses the impact her presence may have had. She also receives criticism because she becomes too immersed in the communities and becomes quite apologetic on their behalf. Perhaps if both sides are frustrated with her work she succeeded in challenging both to come together toward greater understanding.

    • Jean Ollis says:

      Well said, Dan. Perhaps the fact that neither side is happy is a good sign! I have so many process questions regarding the IRB and how she went about this research…too much higher ed perspective lol

  2. M Webb says:

    Great introduction and use of Elder’s critical analysis with the objective of improving leadership in your comments. I like your PIE reference and especially the principle that the “clients ultimately possess the solutions to their problems.”
    If your work was in a ministry setting all you would have to do is add the influence of the Holy Spirit to the “discover, reconcile, and implement” phases with your clients and you have the basis for some outstanding short-term Pastoral counseling. Whether formal ministry or marketplace ministry I know you well enough to know you and the Holy Spirit “co-create” solutions with the people you serve. PTL!
    Stand firm,
    M. Webb

    • Jean Ollis says:

      Hi Mike! Thanks so much for your thoughts and you are absolutely right! The Holy Spirit is always working through me and when clients are open to spiritual conversations we have them. I’ve had clients reconnect with God and a church after a painful experience, and even meet him for the first time. PTL is right!

  3. Kyle Chalko says:

    Great job Jean. Yes I wish Tanya would have stayed her in lane, both in writing about therapy and writing about experiencing God.

  4. Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Jean,

    I was so interested in what you thought about our author this week. You did not disappoint! Nailed it, you did…

    “In 1986 she received her PhD for work on modern-day witches in England, later published as Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft (1989). In this book, she described the ways in which magic and other esoteric techniques both serve emotional needs and come to seem reasonable through the experience of practice.

    Mary Jo Neitz “Review: Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft: Ritual Magic in Contemporary England.” The American Journal of Sociology 96:2 (September 1990) JSTOR 2781128


    • Jean Ollis says:

      Thanks for your feedback. At her core, I see Luhrmann as an anthropologist – most interested in “understanding” human behavior! I saw in my readings about her witch book as well but didn’t take any time to learn more about her findings.

  5. Go Jean and Go Social Workers. Reading your post made me so proud to be a fellow Social Worker and trained in the values of social work including the PIE theory, which is such an important distinction with Social Workers. Even though I focused on the things about the Vineyard Movement I like, I agree with you about her strange and ill-informed use of the therapy analogy. Way to call her out and keep her in her lane. Great post as always my friend. CWTSYG!

  6. Greg says:

    Jean, first of all our family motto concerning things outside our family is “stay in your own lane”, so I smiled when I read this was your take on the book this week. I do appreciate your perspective on her use of terms outside her expertise. I did feel at time she was reaching a little to far to make a point.

  7. Jason Turbeville says:

    I was interested as to your take of this book and you hit the mark. I also talked to my mom, she is an LPC with a Phd as well and she blasted a bunch of what I read to her. It is good to see your post, what I found disturbing, as well I think you did, was choosing just one group to do research and write a book on a much bigger group. Good job.


    • Jean Ollis says:

      Thanks Jason! I appreciate your feedback and I’m so glad for the reminder that your mom is a counselor as well. Kudos to her for a long career in the helping field!

    • Jean Ollis says:

      And to add one more thing, having a mom as a counselor is probably why you are so humble, self-aware, and insightful! I appreciate your kind spirit!

  8. Hi Jean,

    I have no comment on whether Luhrmann is in the right lane or not, but I think she was perceptive in identifying a trend in current Western Christianity.

    What she seems to pay attention to is that our culture has shifted to become one where we all pursue therapy, where it is more of a norm than an aberration, where our pursuit of inner healing is normative. And so a religious construct (ie. the Vineyard) begins to adopt some of the same language and approaches, and even one’s idea of God shifts to Him becoming our therapist and best friend that we have tea with.

    • Jean Ollis says:

      Mark, thanks for shifting my paradigm on the value of Luhrmann’s text with wisdom. I needed that. Once I started on my negative critique I was off and running lol. I also appreciate your analogy you shared with God as therapist…as you see I’m protective of our profession!

  9. Dave Watermulder says:

    Hi Jean,
    Thanks for this post. I think one of the troubling things about this research is the sort of false guise under which she did it. I can imagine a social worker or therapist who meets with a client with a lot of problems, and isn’t sure if this person can really turn things around, but– they are a professional, working to do their best to help that person find their way. It seems like with this author’s research, she kind of “posed” as a fellow seeker, as a person who was also trying to find something, and in a way, really didn’t care that much about what people were experiencing there. It felt a bit like a relationship of using someone, rather than really seeking to come alongside.

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