The Great Unburdening
Why do we do what we do?
Welcome to The Bridge Church. If you’re new here, you’ll undoubtedly notice that we do things a little differently here than you might be used to at other evangelical churches. Perhaps it’s the geography of the service - the way we set things up and use our space; or perhaps it the style of the service - either more formal, or less formal than you might be used to from where you came; or perhaps it’s the form of the service - the way we structure and order the elements of worship over the course of 90 minutes. Whatever you’ve noticed, I want to tell you that much of it is intentional, and there are important reasons for why they are the way they are.
If you’re not new here, perhaps you’ve been here for a while and find our unique way of doing things familiar, or perhaps you’ve been here so long that you remember a time when things were different and perhaps long for a time gone by. I want to take the better part of the next semester on the blog to remind you of why we do what we do, and to help you remember the very intentional reasons we have for the choices we have made. Last time we looked at why the conversation we have after the sermon matters so much, and continuing over the next five or so weeks we will be looking at the following aspects of our worship service to better help you understand/remember who we are, why we do what we do, and what are the goals of our choices.
The Geography of Worship - what we want you to notice and experience when you walk into our space for worship
A Peculiar People; a Thankful People - why we start with the offering
Perfectly Balanced as All Things Should Be - how we consider both who we are and who we long to be when choosing a vocabulary of worship (song style and selection)
The Proclaimed Word - rediscovering the public reading of scripture
The Applied Word - why the sermon is dialogical (discussion questions matter)
The Great Unburdening - the liberating power of corporate confession
Recognizing the Body - why we take time every Sunday for the passing of the peace
A Community of Hospitality - how and why we centre the service around the open table
The Power of Presence - why the prayer and ministry time at the end of the service is not just an addendum
Sending - what we bring back into the world
This week we continue the series with a confession - actually, that's not quite right - we continue with confession and why, counter-intuitively, people want even need to confess. Read on to find out more...
I am not a good person.
That might shock some of you to know, I am after all your pastor. I'm supposed to be a paragon of virtue and spiritual maturity, but those who know me best know me to be a deeply flawed and frequently self-centred individual. And you know what? I happen to know with a fair degree off certainty that you aren't categorically better than I am. We are all broken people who do messed up things. You have probably heard someone say something before to the effect that the fundamental difference between a disciple of Jesus Christ, and someone forging their own path in the world is that we are invited to confess and repent of those sins and through Jesus Christ find forgiveness and restoration.
But that's not quite right is it? Let's refine that statement a bit. What separates a Christian from anyone else, is the fact that we respond to that invitation that is offered to everyone, while most other people either ignore it, or feel that they don't need it.
But even that is a bit of a false equivalency isn't it? Because even the most strident secularist (to speak nothing of persons of other faith traditions) feels a need, a compulsion even, to confess their sins. There is something deep within the human soul that recognizes poison and wants to purge itself from it. Like your body wretches when sick to expel the contents of your stomach, there is an almost insuppressible need to seek cathartic confession of sin. To experience a moral unburdening of of the wrongs we have committed and to find restoration of relationship between ourselves and the persons we have wronged. The problem is, that we live and move, and receive our values today from a culture that tells us in every way that wrongness is only a matter of perspective. That vice is virtue, and that self-interest is survival. Our culture takes us and pats us on the head and says that whatever we have done is no big deal.
"It wasn't criminal" or; "it was only technically criminal" or; "no one was really hurt" or;
"the people that were hurt really deserved it" or; "you're the real victim here" or; "it was justified no matter how wrong it was."
But none of these platitudes deal with the actual cognitive dissonance we experience when transgress a moral law; when we wound another, wound ourselves, or break a relationship. We need something more than an empty assurance that we did nothing wrong when deep in our soul we know better.
Enter the liturgy of corporate confession. Specifically we believe that the regular practice of confession accomplishes four important things in the life of the worship participant.
1. It unburdens the soul
There is a phenomenon that most of us have heard of called "catholic Guilt," it's a description of an internal moral dissonance that those raised in the Roman Catholic Church experience even years after they stop actively practicing their faith. It's a drive to deal with one's sin through the Catholic rite of confession and a need to receive those words of absolution that "You are forgiven." I don't actually believe in "Catholic guilt" (with a capital C) but I do believe strongly in the notion of "catholic guilt" (with a small c). Small c catholicism is an expression of universality, of a common and shared experience across time and culture and geography, and I whole-heartedly believe that every single one of us experiences that in spades - even if we evangelicals lack a lexicon to give name to it. We all experience a need to unburden ourselves from our sin, to name it, put it out there and then to receive assurance that we are forgiven and reconciled to the one we sin against. This is why every week in our worship service we give people an opportunity to give voice to that dissonance and to experience an unburdening of their spirits and an assurance of Christ's forgiveness and cleansing. People need to confess. You need to confess. And so we make sure that (almost) every week in worship you are given an opportunity to confess.
2. It names and deals with communal sin
Not only do we sin against God personally, but the Church as a community of faith is guilty of sin corporately. As a community we lack faith. As a community we can be unfaithful. As a community we can be judgmental. As a community we can be self-interested. As a community we can be immoral. The list goes on. I cannot confess or repent personally on behalf of my community. I lack the agency to speak on behalf of the body - but when we join together with one voice on a Sunday morning and acknowledge the ways in which we together have been less than the people that God has called us to be - we can deal with the spiritual issues that cause us to fail, and find strength together, in Christ, to be better.
3. It teaches a language of confession
In my years of pastoring one of the things I have learned is that increasingly as the generations go by, people do not know the language of confession and repentance. They know that they have to deal with their sins, they know that God wants then to confess, repent, and be restored but the language of confession has not been taught to them. I see this especially with evangelical Christians (like ourselves) who have either grown up outside of the church, or have grown up in multi-generational evangelical families. There are a great many things we do exceptionally well as evangelicals, but confessing and repenting is not one of them. In our haste to unshackle ourselves from some of the forms of older Christian faith traditions we have sometimes thrown out the baby with the bathwater and abandoned some things that were crucial to forming people into the very types of disciples we want them to be. The practice of corporate confession of sin is one of those things that we are worse off for having left behind. By bringing this rite back into the regular worship of the congregation we are aiming to teach you the language that will help you develop a life-long pattern of keeping short accounts with God, and with others. By learning how to humble yourself and say sorry; by learning how to bring our sins before God and by forming a habit of doing so, we hope to equip you for a life or regular personal confession and repentance that leads to maturity.
4. It assures us that we are forgiven
While personal confession is an indispensable discipline of the Christian life that cannot be simply replaced with a corporate practice of confession alone (see the point above), one of the things that we do not receive in the practice of personal confession that we always receive in the rite of corporate confession is an assurance of absolution and forgiveness. While the Holy Spirit may speak to your heart words of comfort and absolution, and a mature believer is always tuning their heart to hear his voice, and while the scriptures may be unequivocal about the promise of Christ's forgiveness of our sins, it doesn't change the fact that sometimes you need to hear it spoken to you. Sometimes you need to hear someone tell you that you are still loved. That you are still okay. That you are still forgiven.
As a father I see this in my own children. When they mess-up, and when they get in trouble and know that they have done something bad what they need to know most of all is that there is some assurance that their father still loves them; that he has forgiven them; and that their relationship with me is restored. We may try to act like we're significantly more advanced than our children but in reality, no matter how old we are, we all still need the same thing. When we confess our sins together in worship, we always follow that time of confession with a declaration of absolution. Not that I as the pastor have the power to forgive you for the sins you commit against God, but that I as the pastor have the responsibility to remind you of God's unwavering promise that you are forgiven. We don't want people to walk away from worship having not experienced the assurance that Christ has indeed covered their sins and that through his work on the cross has extended complete forgiveness.
And so, if you have ever wondered why we take time to confess our sins in worship every Sunday, now you know.
Next time, we will take a look at why we pass the Peace of Christ every Sunday before communion, and why that is not the same as making everyone in the congregation stand-up and shake hands during the welcome.