The church is bad at confession.
Don’t you just hate those broad stroke statements; those over-generalizations? Yeah, me too. But this one is right.
There are likely a number of reasons for this. Some of them are cultural or societal. Some of them have to deal with church structure, especially larger, institutional churches as opposed to smaller home-based church groups.
But even removed from anything spiritual, we don’t like confession. Confession means admission. Confession means we were wrong. Confession means we acknowledge our weaknesses and desire to make right what we did wrong.
And we spend a lot of time at church making sure we look like we are all right. So confession doesn’t fit.
Now, I want to be fair. Some church groups do a good job of this and others are trying. There are probably a large number of churches that would love to do better but they just don’t know how. And it makes sense that they don’t know how, because we don’t do this anywhere in our society well.
Without delving too deeply into cultural conversation, I do want to address what I believe are some ways churches can really help create a culture where confession is safe.
First, we need to rethink the invitation/mercy seat/altar call pattern. Having a specific moment in worship that calls for people to come forward to ask for public prayer or forgiveness sounds like a well-intentioned, well-structured plan. And many people have responded to such things with life-changing benefits. But when the focus is one person in front of many sharing the details of misdeeds, too many people are scared off. It takes a lot to be able to stand in front of a crowd to speak. It brings on shame to have the spotlight and focus placed entirely on you.
So instead of having that kind of public moment, create moments in worship that allow people to approach others and ask for prayer or to share their stories. It does not have to be public to be confession. It does not have to be spoken to the entire crowd to bring a blessing. But we need time and space to do it. So think of ways to have times that can draw people into conversation and community without the spotlight.
Also, we need opportunities for people to share their stories. I know I just said stop shining the spotlight on people, but I mean this in a different way. I have had the opportunity to stand in front of churches and share my struggle with addiction and recovery. It has generally been received well. Others have come up to me and thanked me for sharing. I have been given time to talk about the whole story; not just make a one or two statement summary of what is wrong. We need to hear from others. And not just the ones who we think obviously have a story–those who fit the stereotype based on clothing, tattoos, background, or any other number of things. We need to hear from our preachers, ministers, teachers, elders, deacons. We need to know that everyone has a story, a journey.
Rethinking our altar call can help to create more space for people to share with the potential for fear and shame to be less of a burden.
Second, we need more conversation in churches. I don’t mean the small talk that takes place in the lobby as we are arriving. I mean actual, deep conversations around dinner tables and in classrooms and on volunteer sites and maybe even as a part of our worship. I have a few friends at church who look me in the eye and seriously ask, “How are you?” They are not looking for a one or two word answer. They truly want to know. And I have learned to become willing to answer.
As we share more in conversation, we will become less and less surprised by the challenges people are facing. How many of reading this are married? Do you have difficult days in your marriage? How often do you share those struggles with others? If you don’t, is it because you are afraid no one else does? As we share stories to one another, we realize we share stories with one another.
This is also true if you are single. Do you struggle with loneliness? How many people would be surprised to know that? How surprised would you be to know that others struggle with that, as well? As we share more, we learn more.
No matter what stage of life we are in, chances are pretty good that our challenges and struggles are on some level relatable with others’ challenges and struggles.
Another important element of increased conversations is the eradication of surprise. If someone shares a story of their life with me, and I am shocked by what I hear, they may never want to share with anyone ever again. But as we share with one another more, we are no longer surprised that parents question their ability to raise their kids, that spouses often wonder how much longer they can stick around, that church leaders questions their ability to serve effectively, that a number of people are struggling with some kind of addiction. The more we share, the more we learn.
Third, we need to remember that while confession should in some ways be public, that does not mean we tell everyone every detail of every story. My children know a lot about my journey through addiction and in recovery. My spouse knows more. There are things I will share with her that I will not with my kids. That does not mean I am avoiding, it just means there is an appropriateness to how much we share from time to time.
There are elders at my church who know details of my life that some of my close friends do not know. I am not necessarily hiding anything. I have found those spiritual guides with whom I can share anything and everything. I have developed different and deeper relationships with those people so I can share with them differently.
I am advocating for more confession, for more openness, for more sharing. But I am also advocating for wisdom in how we do that. And I truly believe that as we begin, it is kind of an intuitive thing: we will begin small by sharing with those who are closest and come to know what we can share with others.
Confession is not easy. So although I make the claim that churches are bad at confession, it is not entirely the church’s fault. We all have a lot to learn about admitting our faults to God, ourselves, and other human beings.
But let’s be learning together.