When I was young, still living with my parents, we had this treadmill that was in the laundry room. I'm not sure who was using the treadmill back then, but apparently someone was, because one day my parents called my siblings and me into the laundry room.
"Who spilled pop all over the treadmill?" Mom and Dad asked.
We each looked at them expressionless.
"The treadmill has sticky liquid all over it. Someone was using it and drinking pop and spilled it. Who did it?"
No one said anything.
To this day, I'm not sure if my parents ever did find out who spilled that pop. They were searching for a confession, and no one ever did fess up.
Fessing up. It's not something that comes naturally to us. At least not as naturally as covering up, hiding, and keeping our mistakes to ourselves.
"No one ever needs to know?" we tell ourselves.
"As long as it doesn't hurt anyone."
"Let's just keep this between us."
We have a hundred ways to not confess and very few safe spaces in which we can reveal what we've done or thought or said without fear of undue anger and judgment.
As I've led worship in a variety of venues and churches throughout the years, I've seen quite the spectrum of how worship is done - things being accented and highlighted; others being downplayed or avoided. But in nearly every case, confession is an aspect of worship that goes largely ignored, at least in evangelical circles. And, more interestingly, when I add some sort of element of confession to a worship service, the same types of responses come up.
"Are we going Catholic?" someone might ask, anxiously.
"Why confess when Jesus has already forgiven all of our sins, past, present, and future?" someone else might question, worried about our theology getting messed up.
Confession, however, was not patented by the Roman Catholics. Nor does it deny atonement and forgiveness. Instead confession is distinctively Christian just as it highlights Christ's work on the cross.
Retelling the Gospel
From immensely early on in Christian (as well as Jewish and Israelite) tradition, confession has been an integral aspect to worship gatherings. This is because every well-considered and thoughtfully planned service should seek to dynamically retell and reenact the Gospel.
A worship service begins with a focus on God's character and actions, usually in a call to worship, a psalm, or a celebratory song. In light of who God is, we are then moved to recognize our own fallenness, thus leading to confession. That is then followed by an assurance of pardon, a declaration of what God has accomplished in Christ through His incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension. This is followed by thanksgiving and a summons to follow God's Word. We are called to respond, and finally we are sent out to be the kind of people God calls us to be.
Regardless of the tradition - from pre-Reformation Roman Catholic, to Luther, to Calvin, to Cranmer - this distinctly Gospel-shaped pattern of worship has emerged throughout history. However, in more recent times, cutting out the confession part has been in vogue. This has happened for a variety of reasons, some with the best of intentions - such as making services more seeker-friendly - and others more consciously seeking to downplay the truth about human fallenness.
However, when we cut confession out of worship services, we are removing an essential part of the Gospel story. Without confession, God's mercy becomes less amazing. Without confession, our dependence on God becomes less necessary. Without confession, we begin to think, in even the most subtle of ways, that maybe we're not in such need of saving after all.
The great news about the Gospel, however, is not only that Jesus has saved us, but that He is continuing to save us. We are not only forgiven of our sins, we are also being sanctified from them, called into new lives that bring healing and restoration to ourselves, our communities, and our world. When we begin to ignore confession—to ignore the times when we mess up and actually bring pain into the world—then we might begin to think that sanctification isn't for me, but just for them, whoever "them" is in our minds. Confession should remind us, however, that, yes, we are saved, and we are being saved.
As I said above, we are only too often given opportunities to cover up, to hide, to put on our false masks, and pretend to be people we aren't, behaving in ways we don't actually. But when we confess, we are being given a chance to practice being real, taking off our masks, and facing up to the reality of who we are and what we do. When we confess together in a sanctuary, in one voice declaring, "We have sinned in thought, word, and deed, in what we have done and what we have left undone," then as a community, we are all participating in truth-telling. We know that we are not alone in our depravity; we begin to comprehend that we are not in solitude when we mess up yet again. And the more we practice, the easier it becomes to take off our masks and fess up.
When we confess, it prepares us to more joyfully and thankfully receive the assurance of pardon, the assurance that God's love for us is indeed absolute and unshakable, even in light of our sin. When we pray our confession together, and then it's followed by singing, "O He loves us! O how He loves us!" those words take on depth and gravity that they might not have had before. Confession doesn't undo Christ's forgiveness of us. It reminds us to wonder at it; it helps us to not forget just how amazing God's grace is. Communal confession gives us the chance to confess aloud without fear of judgment, but instead with confidence in the finality and scandal and beauty of God's love for us.
That's we have confession at Good News, the church I lead worship at. And that's why we'll have confession at any place I lead worship. Even if it makes us uncomfortable, even if it places words on our lips that we'd rather not say, it's too important to leave out. Through confession, we open ourselves up to healing and to knowing just how powerful forgiveness is. And any worship leader would be amiss to deny their congregation that opportunity.
Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Worship
James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom
Robert Webber, Ancient-Future Worship