Excerpted with permission from the Jan/Feb 2000 issue of Family Therapy Networker

It is just before dusk on a September evening in Nashville, at the Opryland Hotel, a colossal antebellum theme park of a hotel. The 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. I study the glossy program, noting the sessions 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 a bit better dressed than usual at conferences. 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.

"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 this meeting talking about standard therapeutic fare, he tells us the real problems 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."

Christian counselors draw enormously on the Bible for psychological truths, as do many of their clients, who often go in expecting they will get a good dose of Scripture.

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 in the country. And this meeting is the 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 derives a critical healing edge from conservative Bible-based faith that secular approaches can't match.

The keynote presenter, Joni Eareckson Tada, is a strikingly pretty woman, with a radiant smile and brilliant eyes that flash like strobe lights. Tada has founded a worldwide service ministry providing spiritual and practical resources to the disabled, won a presidential appointment to the National Council on Disability, written more than 20 inspirational books and now hosts a daily five-minute radio program broadcast over 700 stations while producing a regular column for Moody Monthly, a religious magazine. She is also a quadriplegic.

Tada's message sounds some of the traditional paradoxes of Christian belief--the blessing in suffering, the power in weakness, the hope in hopelessness, the self-fulfillment in selflessness, the ultimate victory in defeat. "God has the world rigged for frustration, pain, disappointment," so that we will be driven to seek him out. "Life is supposed to be difficult." We are supposed to experience the suffering of Christ, so we can experience his power.

"The weaker I was in the wheelchair, the harder I learned to lean on Jesus, and the stronger I found him to be. . . . There is no help, no hope except in him."

Tada reminds her audience, a message I will hear often during the next few days, that ultimately, it is the divine agency of the "Wonderful Counselor" of Scripture.

I find myself ricocheting crazily between different emotions. On one hand, much of what Tada says embarrasses me, ringing of manipulative pathos and manufactured spiritual uplift--except for the authentically heart-breaking words at the end, "I will get my new body!"