I've come to believe that an institutional church is not a safe place for one person's confession.
Several years ago, while we were attending a small nondenominational church, Pastor Donn* announced at the end of Sunday worship that we would have a special mid-week meeting. "It's important that all members attend," he emphasized. "We have an important family matter to discuss."
Most of the hundred or so members who showed up Wednesday watched Pastor Donn summon the Hickmans, respected leaders in the congregation, and their pale 16-year-old daughter, Missy, to the front of the sanctuary. He put his arm around Missy's shoulders and told us he'd summoned us in order to snuff out gossip about Missy before it had a chance to begin.
He then asked Missy to confess her sin to us. Without lifting her eyes, the tearful, trembling young woman told us she had just found out she was pregnant. Missy's boyfriend, the birth dad, did not attend the church and wasn't present that night.
I couldn't deny that the congregation rallied around the Hickmans throughout Missy's pregnancy and into the first years of motherhood. But Missy was never again just Missy. She became Missy the project, Missy the Girl Who Got Pregnant and Stood Up in Front of the Entire Church. And while the meeting effectively cauterized gossipy tongues and rallied prayer and practical support for the Hickmans, it also served to make Missy Exhibit A whenever the church's youth pastors gave an abstinence sermon for the next year or so.
Missy's own Hester Prynne experience taught me that personal confession is too big to be entrusted to an entire institution. In a church setting, I think public confession should be prefaced with a spiritual Miranda warning: Anything you say may well be used against you. Your confession might easily become a shorthand way to brand you: "Jeff? He's the embezzler." "Cindy is an alcoholic." "Missy got pregnant at 16."
Anne Jackson responds to this troubling church culture in a new book, Permission to Speak Freely: Essays and Art on Fear, Confession, and Grace (Thomas Nelson, 2010). Jackson asked her blog readers this question: What is the one thing you feel you can't say in church? The book captures the flavor of the hundreds of answers she received, ranging from, "I had an affair on my wife and I still think about the other woman," to, "Even though I'm a staff member at my church, most of my deep and significant relationships are with people I met online," to, "I was raped by a counselor … I thought he was a friend."
Jackson includes her own prose and free-verse poetry on the subject of fear and confession. She details her own confessions about the sexual abuse she experienced as a teen, her addiction to pornography, and her square-peg experience as a church employee in order to give readers, as a friend of hers called it, "the gift of going second."
Jackson's book is a helpful response to institutional unwritten rules that are more hospitable to silence and shame than to confession. However, I was struck by the fact that most of Jackson's confessions first occurred in the safety of one-on-one relationships. Once she experienced a grace-filled response from her hearer, she became emboldened to confess the truth about herself in more public settings, such as speaking gigs or on her blog.
Jackson's goal is to provoke churches toward creating a culture where members can speak freely about their mess. And that's to the good. But her own story demonstrates that public confession of individual sin is the final step in a process that must first begin with God and then move to a small, safe community of one or two others. Jackson's admissions of sin in Permission to Speak Freely are not really confessions as much as stories about confessions that have already occurred.
A church can and should facilitate a culture of confession by making space for these stories. That space can't be manipulated into existence (as was the case with Missy), and will not happen at all if church leaders do not acknowledge that spiritual transformation is a continuous process, not a programmable product.
But the real work of confession isn't the work of the church. It is the work of me coming to the end of myself and telling the unvarnished truth to God and you, and of you responding with compassion—and, perhaps, a story of your own.
Michelle Van Loon is the author of two books on the parables of Jesus, and blogs at TheParableLife.blogspot.com. She has written for the women's blog on Why Boys Fail, Hutterite communities, and church 'volunteers'.