Why do we confess our sins? Is it to beg God to forgive us? What are we missing when we don’t make room in our worship services for confession?
Here is an excerpt from Discover the Mystery of Faith, Chapter 4, “Retelling the Story”
A good story requires tension. There must be a conflict or a crisis, something to draw us in, to make us feel and hope and long. The trouble with laying out our worship services in a narrative format is that we’ve forgotten where the tension lies.
What is the central tension of the gospel narrative?
It is that we, though we long to do what is right and become God-like in our love for others, consistently fall short. We quickly aspire to virtue, for this is what it means to have the imago Dei. Yet we discover our limitations right away, and this is what it means to be fallen. We are good but fallen, or fallen but good. Either way, we cannot be who we hope to be.
That is, without Christ. The gospel story doesn’t leave us in our hopeless state. God comes to us in Christ, doing for us what we could not do for ourselves, being for us what we cannot be in ourselves. This is what we call grace. It is the most beautiful word in the world.
Yet our services, though they may praise grace and teach on grace, don’t often lead us to experience grace. Why? Because the story we tell lacks tension. We don’t bring people to the cliff. Our sermons leave people saying, “Wow. That’s a great insight (or a powerful principle). I’m going to try that this week.”
Try that this week?
When the apostles preached, people were cut to the heart, crying out, “What must we do to be saved?” And we want to preach in a way that allows people to readily run out and apply it?
Don’t get me wrong: sermons must be fit to the world of the congregation. The Word must become flesh. We are not to give people heady lectures—something I’m all too often guilty of—and “trust God to help them apply it.” We must speak God’s Word in our world, as the saying goes. And there is a place for practical sermons, just as there are books in the Scriptures that are collections of wise sayings and generally true principles (Proverbs, for one). But if we leave people with the impression that they can do what God asked us to do without first pointing them to Christ and calling them to receive afresh His grace and His Spirit to change them and empower them, then our corporate worship services will fail.
When we started the New Life Sunday-night service in the fall of 2009, the goal from the beginning was for it to be a slightly different expression of worship but connected to New Life as a whole. My pastor, Brady Boyd, encouraged me to shape the service around the growing convictions in my own heart—worship and liturgy and faith. He and I would continue to study together and preach from the same texts with the same overarching theme, but in our own ways. Because of his encouragement to give corporate expression to my personal journey of rediscovery, we began with many liturgical elements. We opened the service with about thirty minutes of “modern worship,” led by my humble and thoughtful friend and fellow pastor Matthew Fallentine. He worked carefully to choose songs that fit the new approach. Out of our time of worship, I would come up and lead everyone through a corporate reading of the Nicene Creed. We had a time of silent confession, a corporate prayer of confession, Communion, the offering, announcements, and finally, the sermon. Early on, we had good pieces of the service, but we put them together like a variety show.
Then, Jesse, one of our leaders, said, “Hey, have you ever thought about putting Communion at the end of the service, like as the response to the sermon?” During Lent of 2012, we decided to try it: six Sundays on which the sermon led into a moment of personal confession and then into Communion.
All of a sudden, there was a story to the service; it had a beginning and a tension and an end. Personal confession, you see, was the missing piece. Without confession, a sermon is just good advice. To end the sermon by giving people space to silently admit where they’ve tried to follow Christ and failed means we led them to the “crisis” in the salvation story. We brought them face-to-face with their own frailty and brokenness. Confession, though, is not about feeling bad about yourself or beating yourself up. In fact, confession is not the end, just as a good story doesn’t end with the crisis point. You might say that it is at the crisis point that the story truly begins. In the same way, confession is a gateway to receiving God’s grace.
Some Christians, however, want to do away with confession. They want everyone to know that God has already forgiven us for everything, so there is no need to ask for forgiveness. In one sense, this is true: God freely offered us forgiveness in Christ. We do not confess because God is withholding forgiveness; we confess because we have been holding onto our own self-determination and self-reliance. Like a person with tightly closed fists, unable to receive a gift, we too easily cling to our own efforts instead of welcoming God’s grace into our lives. Confession is a way to let go. It brings us to the place where we finally admit that our hands are empty. It is in this place that Christ becomes our portion. We do not confess our sin because we hope to find a gracious God; we confess our sin because we know that God is gracious.
Confession is the tension in the story that we’ve been missing. What is the rescue scene without the crisis point that necessitates rescue in the first place? Can you appreciate the relief if you didn’t know the anxiety? Can you celebrate grace without having been brought to your knees? However, confession cannot been thrown into the service like an ingredient in a Crock-Pot. It is meant to be more like a palate-cleansing amuse bouche before the entrée. We can program the service elements like a late-night variety show; or we can arrange it in a story, a gospel narrative that people can enter into and reenact and participate in week after week after week. Historically, the Church has opted for the latter.
What would it look like if our services told a story, the Story of salvation?