How to Make Your Church a Safe Space for Confession
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the 9Marks Journal (Fall 2018), pp. 84-90.
In the last few years, the idea of a “safe space” on university campuses has been practiced and debated. The idea is to have a space on campus where a person is safe from being silenced or bullied by those who have more power, where someone could be insulated from ridicule or pain. In safe spaces, there is no shaming because a student is protected, both ideologically and emotionally, from anything that disrupts their good feelings.
Leaving the debate about university safe spaces aside, I suggest that local churches ought to be the “safest space” for Christians to confess sins in general and sins tied to pornography in particular.
James commands us to “confess your sins to one another” (James 5:16). Confession to others weakens temptation (John 3:19–21; 1 John 1:5–10). It’s not burdensome (1 John 5:3), but burden-sharing and burden-relieving.
Yet people don’t naturally confess their sins. Instead we work to please and impress others. This is true in the world, and it’s true in our churches. As a result, our churches don’t feel safe for confession. I’ve felt the barrage of sin and secrecy among my own church family.
Yet, by God’s grace, my church is learning to cultivate a culture of grace and confession. Here are two steps that have helped to cultivate a culture in which members more readily confess the sin of pornography use.
Step 1: Recognize and Articulate the Church as a Safe Space
Your church won’t be safe if your idea of safe is being “safe” from the danger of being offended, reproved, corrected, or having your feelings hurt.
Christians should seek safety from a far greater danger: unrepentant sin. Because of this, our churches must be a place where saints wage war together against the deceitfulness of sin (Hebrews 3:12–13). Confession should be normal, while rejection, gossip, and self-righteousness aren’t.
Why? Because (1) the church is a group of self-conscious sinners, (2) the church is a group of redeemed sinners, and (3) Christ structured the church for the Christian’s growth.
The church is the safest space for confession because the church is a group of self-conscious sinners who cannot condemn you.
A church shouldn’t be surprised that Christians sin. On the contrary, we’re taught to expect it and to remove the log from our own eye—seeing our sin as the bigger problem—before removing the speck out of a confessor’s eye (Matt 7:1–5).
The church is the safest space for confession because the church is a group of redeemed sinners who experience growth in grace.
The Lord Jesus blessed and recreated the church. He filled it with those who are poor in spirit, who mourn their sin and the sins of others, who are compassionate to the needy, and who are purified in heart by the new covenant (Ezek 36:25–27; Matt 5:3–8).
God’s people expect to bear each other’s burdens because others have borne theirs. Because they’re sinners who have been redeemed only by grace, self-righteous judgment and shame don’t make sense. Christians focus on heart change and transformation, not behavior modification—which means Christians renew their faith in Jesus constantly, understanding that strengthening others comes through brokenness, repentance, and faith in Christ (Luke 22:31–32).
But let’s be honest. Are churches really like this? Though imperfect and in progress, churches ought to be.
The church is the safest space for confession because Christ structured the church for the Christian’s growth.
Jesus commands the church to share responsibility over one another as a body of believers who exercise the keys of the kingdom (Matt 18:15–17). He intends for redeemed sinners to live amid other self-consciously redeemed sinners, who take responsibility for one another’s discipleship and growth. Simply put, every Christian needs his or her fellow church members. And they need him or her, too.
Furthermore, Jesus gives elders to local churches as gifts to model Christian maturity (Eph 4:11–16; 1 Tim 3:1–7). Christians need elders, just like sheep need shepherds.
Regarding this God-ordained arrangement, one church member recently wrote to me, “They won’t be okay with my sin, but they’ll still love me and help me confess to others and ask for forgiveness and help me to mourn over my sin. And I know they’ll help me in taking practical steps in fighting lust.”
Due to our commitment to one another, we cannot run from each other when things get tough and sin is exposed. Our proximity and regular interactions force us to deal with sin (Phil 4:21) or to grow weary in pretending. And when grace is regularly exercised, this “creates a baseline of trust,” as one of my church members put it. Christians can sense the dangers their brothers and sisters are in when they avoid other members.
As a pastor, you must continually repeat these things to your church family so that they eventually take root and bear fruit.
Step 2: Cultivate Your Church as a Safe Space
Pastors can strengthen a culture of confession and restoration by praying, preaching, overseeing, equipping, and modeling mature Christianity.
Pray for and preach the corporate responsibility of burden-bearing and burden-sharing.
One member told me that it is easier to confess at our church because there is “a collective habit where majority of the church members confess specific sins to one another.” If, on the other hand, “the majority refrain from sharing their own sin, it reinforces that sin should be hidden.” But “when more people share, it sets a precedent for more timid people to be freed from the shame of hiding and enables them to confess sin, seek support, and receive help.”
Pastor, pray for your church to grow in the practice of confessing sin for help in sanctification. When you preach, apply the text to the church as a body, not just to individual Christians. Encourage them to help each other bear the burdens the text addresses. Ask hard questions in the sermon so that people learn how.
Oversee structures and other church practices that strengthen safety in confession.
As a pastor, I make sure that every Sunday we have a corporate prayer of confession where sins are pointedly, concretely, and specifically confessed: “Lord, we confess that, just this past week, we let our eyes take a second look at the person on the street. We let our minds stray to someone else’s spouse…” We also renew our church covenant every first Sunday of the month before we take communion. In our membership class, we teach on the corporate and personal responsibilities for every member. And when I interview a member who desires to join our church, I ask questions about some temptations. I also make sure our small group structures encourage confession and accountability.
All of this clarifies the expectation that our church cares about the sin and temptations that wage war against our members’ souls (1 Peter 2:11).
Equip members to confess, ask, and apply the gospel to each other.
Teach church members how and why to confess sin—because sin is always present and it wants to destroy us. Tell them to face this reality squarely by openly yet discreetly addressing necessary issues that many find taboo.
Teach them to ask hard questions. I’ve passed around Randy Alcorn’s article on accountability groups and have sent it to all our members.
Equip your members to hear someone’s confession, and to respond in a way that helps the confessor feel biblical conviction, remember Jesus, and ask for forgiveness. Equip your members to communicate the kindness of God in the gospel because it’s God’s kindness and not our guilt-tripping or shaming that leads to transformative repentance (Rom 2:4).
Train your people not to define a fellow church member by their singular sin. Christ Jesus defines them as the family of God, a saint in Christ, and the temple of the Holy Spirit.
Model the Christian’s need.
Christians naturally follow their leaders. Do you feel your need for your church family? Do you feel the need to confess your sins and repent in the midst of your relationships with fellow church members? Do you believe this is best not only for them, but also for you? Do you believe you encourage church members to find strength in Jesus and not in you as the perfect pastor? Do you see yourself first as a Christian in need of accountability and discipleship, or as a pastor helping others to do these things? Do you preach what you do not practice?
Pastor, do you feel like your church is a safe space to confess your own sins? Do you trust your church family for your own growth by being wisely vulnerable? You should.
Do you ever model your own need for Christ? If not, you won’t effectively convince others to trust the body that you yourself don’t trust. Your example of fear will undermine your teaching. Your church will feel a further disconnect between ideal and practice. And your people will continue to hide and look elsewhere for relief from shame and guilt.
But if you do model your need for Christ, you’ll lead and disciple people to confess their sins. And by God’s grace, over time, your church will become an actual safe space—protecting saints from unrepentant sin and unnecessary shame—and your people will make progress in killing their sin (Rom 8:12–13).
Safe churches are led by safe pastors.