Encounter and sensitivity groups

Serious questions are being raised about their value as therapeutic tools

Colin D. Standish, Ph.D., is president of Columbia Union College, Takoma Park, Maryland.


In a room devoid of furnishings, twelve persons engage in an en counter workshop. The age of the participants varies from early adolescence to the aged. For several days they concentrate on discovery and uninhibited expression of feelings, emotions, and attitudes. Their frankness increases and emotional expression intensifies during the frequent two-hour sessions. Few limitations apart from physical violence are placed on what the group might do or say. Non-inhibitive forms of expression are encouraged, and not uncommonly in the more extreme encounter and sensitivity sessions the group is encouraged to interact without the inhibitory factors of clothing.

Thus might proceed a typical en counter-group session through which, proponents assert, psycho logically therapeutic advantages will be gained. However, serious questions are being raised about the effects of encounter groups. Perhaps nothing has more effectively challenged sensitivity and encounter training than the research of Dianna Hartley, Howard Roback, and Steven I. Abroamowitz, of Vanderbilt University. Their findings, which appeared in the March, 1976, issue of American Psychologist, "Deterioration Effects in Encounter Groups," cast doubt on the therapeutic value of even the most conservative encounter groups and indicate many casualties in the program.

Perhaps the most vigorous and controversial exponent of the en counter-group method has been William C. Schutz in the Esalen program at Big Sur, California. In his book The Elements of Encounter (Joy Press, 1973), Schutz explains basic principles of encounter and also offers a brief history of the en counter program. Because many Christian leaders and pastors are utilizing the methodology of the en counter psychologists, it is worth while to examine the problems of encounter, its philosophical bases, and its effects.

Encounter is a method of human relating. It involves openness, honesty, self-awareness, self-responsibility, awareness of the body, attention to feeling, and emphasis on the here and now. Schutz goes as far as to say, "Encounter is education anti-religion in that it attempts to create conditions leading to the most satisfying use of personal capacities." —Page 5. Encounter-group "religion," as Schutz defines it, is a "demythologized and secularized form" (p. 8). Students of pietism will recognize the language—and perhaps the danger—of his further explanation:

"One thread running through the history of Encounter is clearly religious. The assumption that God is within, or works from within you, that you are a vehicle for expressing God, is a common theme. As I gain experience with Encounter, it be comes clearer that the Encounter goal of realizing one's potential is virtually identical with the religious goal of finding the God within" Page 8.

Encounter psychology has a base deeply entrenched in the mysticism of ancient and Eastern religions, as well as philosophic mysticism such as yoga, the martial arts of the Chinese and Japanese, the Holiness and Pentecostal groups of Christianity, the Moslem Sufi mysticisms, and psychosynthesis. And, declares Schutz, "The Encounter Culture follows the counter-culture."—Page 24.

Encounter's link with dangerous philosophic and psychological principles becomes apparent as one analyzes the background of the movement. Many see encounter as the first step in availing oneself of the energy in the universe—a step toward the fullest spiritual actualization of the individual, very much similar to that expressed in Eastern religions.

Modern group therapy had its origin with Field Psychologist Kurt Lewin, who, in 1947, established the first training groups (T groups). Since then, group dynamics has mushroomed and has taken many different forms. But the fundamental emphasis is upon personal awareness, self-expression, and physical and emotional expression. Perhaps no one has given greater credence to the encounter-group movement than Carl Rogers, who has called it the most important social invention of the twentieth century.

Many techniques are used in most encounter sessions, such as nonverbal communication, psychodrama, fantasy, massage, meditation, yoga, the Oriental martial arts, and psychosynthesis (dealing with the whole person, including the spirit). Indeed, it is not difficult to identify many similarities with the work of Franz Mesmer, the founder of modern hypnotism. Proponents claim that such uninhibited encounter removes psychological blocks, so that one may flow naturally. Society is said to be based on deception, masking of feelings, and disowning of the body. The emphasis is very much on realization of potentialities in the present, and this emphasis has persuasive impact upon the person facing emotional stress and psychological strain.

Having accepted uncritically the argument that encounter has religious significance, many church leaders and pastors have rushed to establish sensitivity groups. But dangerous fallacies lie within the encounter-group philosophy. Here are six.

1. Naively, Schutz claims that no one in the group is held to be emotionally sick, but each is held to be responsible for his own actions and decisions. But the tyranny of the group can be overwhelming nonetheless. For example, if all other members decide to remove their clothes, the center of attention rests upon the one refusing. Under such circumstances the pressure of the group can be impelling, especially for an insecure person. When questions such as "What are your hang ups?" "What are your inhibitions?" "Why are you ashamed of your own body?" begin to pierce the troubled mind of the nonconforming member, it is indeed rarely that he or she will resist the pressure.

2. Encounter and sensitivity groups are based upon a view of man that is consistent with the Greek pagan view of innate goodness; that somehow resident within man is his ability to find answers to his own problems and if he is free enough, if the inhibiting social forces are destroyed, then he will have a complete life. The emphasis is upon doing that which is natural and that which is free, in contradistinction to the Christian concept that man is born with a predisposition to move in pathways that alienate from God, and that without God man cannot be a complete being or a fully developed personality. Only by the newbirth experience, as man is united with God, can one achieve his full potentialities.

3. An emotionally disturbed individual cannot accept the frankness of other members of the group. Their expressed dislike or their criticism of the way he looks, the way he acts, or the way he speaks results in serious emotional implications. Such frankness even under a cloak of helpfulness is both unloving and a misuse of the virtue of truthfulness. The Christian philosophy that we are to see the very best in others, that we are not to judge, neither are we to condemn, does not allow for such group interaction.

4. There is emphasis upon ex pressing emotions, including the aggressive emotion of anger. But the Christian love philosophy says, "He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city" (Prov. 16:32).

5. Encounter and sensitivity theory places self at the center of the issue; one's own feelings, needs, and body become the pivot around which this therapy revolves. How inconsistent this focus is with the counsel of Scripture to crucify self and to die daily! There is no way that the egocentric can have emotional security and peace, for the active ego becomes vulnerable to every criticism, to the successes of others, to those who disagree with him, and to those who are exalted above him. Therefore it is inevitable that many casualties come out of encounter-group sessions. Rather than being restored to stable emotional lives, they suffer temporary or permanent emotional breakdown.

6. Encounter and sensitivity group psychology encourages participants to express their innermost feelings and situations. With no acknowledgment of sin, guilt feelings are intensified rather than eradicated, as they may be through the forgiveness that comes by confession and forsaking sin.

The church has an important function to fulfill in group dynamics of behavior. The Scripture encourages us not to forget the assembling of ourselves together (Heb. 10:25). Much positive therapy may come from the fellowshiping of Christian believers. Emotional strength and courage can be derived beyond the spiritual strengthening. But such therapy does not come from the dynamics of a program such as en counter therapy but rather through praying together, worshiping God together, studying God's Word together, and helping others together. In Christian therapy the emphasis is not on man but on Christ, the Redeemer. His matchless love and power bring restoration and peace, and provide motivation for selfless outreach. Through the uniting of hearts and minds with Christ, substantial changes can be effected in the lives of the emotionally debilitated of modern society.

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Colin D. Standish, Ph.D., is president of Columbia Union College, Takoma Park, Maryland.

April 1978

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