The Gift of Confession
In the 1980s, North American evangelicalism experienced an almost revolutionary innovation: what later came to be known as the “megachurch.” What defined this new dialect of evangelical Christianity wasn’t really size but strategy. The philosophy of ministry and evangelism behind the megachurch movement was often described as “seeker-sensitive.” Sunday gatherings would be less focused on building up those who are already Christians; instead, gatherings would focus on being hospitable to “seekers,” those who were not yet Christians but were curious enough to consider attending an “event” that was accessible, welcoming, entertaining, and informative.
But in order for the church to be that sort of place, it was going to have to feel less, well, churchy. If it was going to be “sensitive” to seekers, the church would have to remove those aspects of its practice and tradition that were alleged to be obstacles to the “unchurched.” If the church was going to feel welcoming, it needed to feel familiar, accessible, and “cool,” characterized by the sorts of professional experience people associated with consumer transactions or the thrilling enjoyment of a concert. The seeker-sensitive church would feel like the mall, the concert, and Starbucks all rolled up into one — because those are places that people like, where they feel comfortable.
Not only would this change the architecture and décor of North American evangelical congregations, it also significantly changed the way we worship. “Traditional” liturgies were seen as dated, dusty and — worst of all — boring. Other aspects of historic Christian worship, like the Lord’s Supper, were thought to be just plain weird from the perspective of seekers. Instead, a seeker-sensitive congregation would have to de-emphasize certain aspects of Christian proclamation and worship in order to front-load those aspects of the gospel that feel more affirming. Less wrath, more happiness; less judgment, more encouragement; less confession, more forgiveness.
One common aspect of traditional Christian worship that was excised from seeker-sensitive congregations was the practice of corporate confession of sin. Historic worship always included a communal, public confession of our sin. Week-in and week-out, gathered before a holy God, the people of God would confess their failures and faults, their sins of omission and commission, saying sorry “for the things we have done and the things we have left undone.” And that regular confession of our sins would always be answered by “absolution” and the assurance of pardon — the announcement of the good news that, in Christ, we are forgiven.
This regular, stark, uncomfortable confession of sin doesn’t feel like something that would be “enjoyed” by seekers. It raises difficult questions and brings us face-to-face with disquieting truths about ourselves. It feels like the very opposite of being “sensitive” to those who are seeking.
But what if the opportunity to confess is precisely what we long for? What if an invitation to confess our sins is actually the answer to our seeking? What if we want to confess our sins and didn’t even realize it until we were given the opportunity? In other words, what if confession is, unwittingly, the desire of every heart? In that case, extending an invitation to confession would be the most “sensitive” thing we could do, a gift to seeking souls. Oddly enough, contemporary television seems to appreciate this truth. I can think of two stark examples that illustrate just this point.
The first is HBO’s dark, disturbing, but stellar mini-series, True Detective, starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as Louisiana detectives Rust Cohle and Marty Hart. The details of the narrative arc need not detain here. I simply point to an episode in which Rust is seen as the go-to interrogator for the department. He is able to elicit confessions from almost anyone. When asked how he does it, his method is rooted in a philosophy about human nature:
“Look — everybody knows there’s something wrong with them. They just don’t know what it is. Everybody wants confession, everybody wants some cathartic narrative for it. The guilty especially. And everybody’s guilty.”
Here is a truth the “seeker-sensitive” movement couldn’t have imagined: people want to confess. One can even find this in a BBC melodrama like The Last Tango in Halifax. Set in the charming environs of Yorkshire, the story intertwines two families, each with their own secrets and dark pasts. Late in season 2 (I’d say “spoiler alert” here, but can’t imagine Harvard Ichthus readers adding this show to their Netflix queue), a wayward daughter named Gillian makes a shocking, disturbing confession to Caroline, her new stepsister. The confession burbles up from some primordial need; indeed, the confession is veritably vomited out of Gillian — a point the director makes a little more obvious by then showing Gillian vomiting into the sink. While not subtle, the image gets at the visceral, bodily impulsion to confess. When Caroline, still in shock, asks Gillian why she told her, Gillian can only say that she needed to do so, even wanted to do so.
This desire to confess may seem counter-intuitive. Obviously the seeker-sensitive movement assumed this was the last thing non-Christians wanted to do. The assumption seemed to be that the last thing sinners want to be confronted with is their sin. But I wonder if these artifacts of popular culture actually suggest the opposite is true: that deep down we already know what’s true about our faults and brokenness. If that’s the case, rituals that invite us to confess our sins are actually gifts. The rites of confession have their own evangelistic power.
This is poignantly captured in the last lines of Graham Greene’s novel, The Quiet American. After implicating himself in fatal dealings involving a young man named Pyle, the narrator, Fowler, issues an apology:
“I’m sorry, Phuong.” “What are you sorry for? It is a wonderful telegram. My sister —” “Yes, go and tell your sister. Kiss me first.” Her excited mouth skated over my face, and she was gone. I thought of the first day and Pyle sitting beside me at the Continental, with his eye on the soda fountain across the way. Everything had gone right with me since he had died, but how I wished there existed someone to whom I could say that I was sorry.
The good news, of course, is that there is.
James K.A. Smith is professor of philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI where he holds the Gary & Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview, the editor of Comment magazine, and a contributing author to the Ichthus.Tags: church, confession, forgiveness, Graham Greene, history, James K.A. Smith, literature, liturgy, television, The Last Tango in Halifax, theology, True Detective