Many years ago, while serving in a traditional church in the Deep South, a lady just a few years older than me approached me after the morning worship with concern written on her face. She had always been supportive of my ministry. Her husband served on the pastor search committee that presented me to that church. I never knew her to gossip or meddle in situations at church. So her intense facial expression caught my attention. What could so viscerally bother her?
She told me, “When I come to church I want to feel good about myself. But I when I leave each Sunday, I don’t.” She then suggested that I make some changes so that she would no longer have that kind of feeling when leaving. Of course, she intimated that the place to start would be with my preaching.
Now, I do not doubt that she heard some poor sermons from me. Some of those sermons made me feel pretty badly, too! But not in the same way! Yet as I thought on what she said, I realized that it went much deeper than the sermons. Having earlier grown accustomed to church services that revolved around the ‘hip, hip, hooray,’ ‘it’s fun being saved’ mentality, to press the issues of God’s Word to the conscience was new to her. She thought it the duty of the pastor and those leading the worship service to keep things light, on the surface, non-intense, avoiding conviction, and certainly not cross-focused. Don’t pinpoint the issues of life and the reality of the gospel’s application. Don’t get too close to the truth about my life. Don’t make approaching God a big thing.
While she spoke for herself, this lady probably expressed the sentiments of many in that church—and in other churches. They view a Christian worship service as therapy for the emotions instead of an encounter with the living God. Ironically, she exposed her heart. She did not want to meet the God who left Isaiah crying, “Woe is me!” Nor the Christ who left Peter moaning, “Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!” She really wanted the worship service to be all about her.
Not About Us
What is the antidote to that kind of thinking? While we can identify numerous elements, e.g. corporate Scripture reading, theologically-rich hymnody, passionate prayers rooted in the revelation of God, and faithful expositional preaching, one aspect of worship that must not be left out is corporate confession of sin. The act of corporate confession brings the congregation into focus: worship is not about us but about the living God. Confession brings us into humility before the Lord and one another, seeing ourselves as we are, as we express our utter dependence upon the grace of God in the cross of Christ. Confession moves us to a place of humility, which is necessary as we seek to enter the presence of the Lord. Such corporate sense of humility and contrition before the Lord enables the congregation to better understand its organic unity in the redemptive work of Christ.
Our practice has been to call the congregation to worship by the reading of God’s infallible Word. Confession follows as we reflect in confession upon the text of Scripture together. God’s revelation exposes both His majesty and our sinfulness. It urges us to rely upon Jesus Christ’s death for us in a fresh way. We’re united in seeking the Lord, confessing together both the affirmations in Scripture concerning God’s character, work, and ways, and how it exposes our sinful ways. Each act of confession ends with the consciousness of sins forgiven by the gracious gift of God through Christ. Below is an example of how we most recently approached the corporate confession after the reading of 1 Corinthians 1:1–9.
An Example of Corporate Confession
How overwhelming, our Father, that You would show such care,
such love and kindness,
to bring us not only into relationship with Yourself through Christ,
but also into relationship with the local church!
Your corporate focus on us—
sanctifying us in Christ Jesus,
calling us “holy ones,”
and uniting us with the larger body of Christ,
reminds us that Your will for us intertwines with
all of those that Jesus has redeemed,
so that united together in the Body
we discover immeasurable joy and purpose.
So in the church, joined together in union with Christ,
we experience grace to walk faithfully,
enrichment to our speaking and understanding concerning Christ,
confirmation that we belong to You,
gifts for service until Christ returns to present us blameless in His presence,
and fellowship with the Lord Jesus.
Consequently, we realize that our treating lightly the body of Christ
corresponds to neglecting Your choicest gifts.
Living with a focus on our individualism
instead of our relationship with the body of Christ,
shows how far we’ve strayed from Your purposes in the redeemed.
Having that “go-it-alone” attitude when facing difficulties and temptations,
neglects the very means You have given
to build us up in a most holy faith.
Forgive us of these sins of neglect and self-centeredness.
Enable us to know great joy as forgiven people,
united as followers of Jesus Christ. Amen.