The Gift of Confession

James K.A. Smith — The Harvard Ichthus  
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.



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