Confession, Assurance, and Incarceration

Prison and Public Worship

Sunday worship can be a strange thing. What we do and say in church can seem a little bizarre, both to those who haven’t missed a Sunday service in twenty years and to those who are warming a church pew for the first time.

The peculiarity of Christian worship was driven home to me several years ago. Our congregation had reached the part of the liturgy where we together confessed our sins to God and received God’s assurance of forgiveness. As we spoke the words given to us by the order of worship, I heard someone behind me whisper to his friend: “We sound like a cult.”

To the person behind me, a whole room full of people reciting the same words at the same time was not the sound of worship but of a creepy group of fanatics straight out of a strange B-grade movie. We could just as well have been reading gibberish or Justin Bieber lyrics.

Strange . . . and Formative

But as strange as moments like this can feel, the various aspects of Christian liturgy remain an important part of Christian life and worship. If we try to make Christian worship less strange by avoiding or watering down the “weird” parts, we’ll miss out on some of the most formative—or transformative—aspects of worship.

Thinkers from across the Christian spectrum, including Catholic William Cavanaugh, Anglicans Stanley Hauerwas and Sam Wells, evangelical Marva Dawn, and Reformed thinker Jamie Smith, have taught me that holistic Christian worship is a formative act with the potential to cultivate imaginative, faithful disciples.

In the power of God’s Spirit, Christian worship—everything from God’s greeting to God’s parting blessing—has the power to form us into disciples of Jesus who love God and work for the good of God’s world.

Confession, Assurance, and Incarceration?

So how can thoughtful worship deepen our discipleship and our striving for the common good?

Well, let’s return to the example of confession and assurance that the worshiper behind me thought was so strange.

I spend much of my time as a community chaplain in Edmonton’s inner city, journeying with men and women leaving Canada’s prison system and resettling in the Edmonton area. One of the most common questions I get from churchgoers and non-churchgoers alike is, “How can you show them love or care after what they did? They went to prison for a reason!”

There are all sorts of ways I can—and do—respond to that question. But one simple way is to say, “I belong to a church community where we confess our sins together and are reminded together of God’s forgiveness.”

Before I am greeted by blank stares or shoulder shrugs, I go on to explain.

Confession is not just something we do to make us feel better, or more grateful, or comforted (though comfort and gratitude is involved). And confession and assurance are definitely not optional extras in the worship liturgy, fillers between the praise songs and the sermon that can be taken out if they make us uncomfortable.

When we confess our sins to God as a community, we acknowledge one of the deepest realities of the life of faith: all have sinned (including us!) and all fall short of God’s glory. As many Christian liturgies put it, we fail to live the truly human life that Jesus embodied for us “by what we have done and what we have left undone.”

By confessing our common brokenness and receiving God’s gift of forgiveness each week, we are being formed into people who both understand the seriousness of harm and wrongdoing and can see ourselves in others’ brokenness.

And yet, the rhythms of worship do not let us stop there. There is more to the story. We go on to receive God’s forgiveness.

We are assured in this movement that we are made whole entirely by God’s grace in Jesus. We depend entirely on God’s generosity to overcome the brokenness that distorts our relationships with God and with the people and places around us. Despite the fact that we are deeply warped, we can be made whole. There is another chapter to our story. Second chances are possible.

The movement from confession to assurance may feel like just an extra to the service. It doesn’t teach or proclaim the way a sermon does, and it doesn’t move us the way that music can.

By confessing our common brokenness and receiving God’s gift of forgiveness each week, we are being formed into people who both understand the seriousness of harm and wrongdoing and can see ourselves in others’ brokenness. In recognizing our common brokenness, we may also come to see the importance of second chances.

If this is true, then our weekly confession and assurance may also help form welcoming, supportive communities for those leaving prison—all in the power of God’s transforming Spirit.

Our holistic worship may overflow from the liturgy into all sorts of unexpected places, creating mentoring projects for those leaving prison, advocating for more humane prison systems, creating innovative restorative justice programs that help inmates see the harm they’ve done, or simply offering jobs to folks with criminal records. Second chances come in many shapes and sizes.

The practice of confession and assurance reminds us that we who have sinned against others and against God can receive God’s improbable welcome. Surely, then, we can extend that welcome to those who so desperately need second chances. With thousands of North American men and women leaving our prisons each year, our communities will be better, and safer, for it.

Once our eyes have been opened to the formative potential of our Sunday morning liturgies, our worship life can help us navigate all sorts of thorny issues. What might the Lord’s Supper teach us about how we welcome immigrants and newcomers? What might baptism imply about empowering children living in poverty? What does our practice of receiving benediction or passing the peace have to say about our public discipleship?

Worship for the Common Good—A Lesson from the Past

The connection between worship, discipleship, and the good of the community is not new. In fact, it was a centuries-old liturgy from the Reformed tradition that first helped me make connections between my Sunday morning confession and assurance and my work with offenders. It was a Calvinist liturgy from 1571, written by churches welcoming offenders back into their community, and it has much to teach us modern Christians about the connection between public worship and public life, about solidarity, and about the healing potential for churches welcoming former offenders into their midst. Here is an excerpt:

We in the sin of this our brother accuse and condemn our own sins, in his fall we all lament and consider our own sinful nature, also we shall join repentance, tears, and prayers with him and his, knowing that no flesh can be justified before God’s presence, if judgment proceed without mercy. . . . We all here present join our sins with your sin; we all repute and esteem your fall to be our own; we accuse ourselves no less than you, and now, finally, we join our prayers with yours, that we may obtain mercy, and that by means of our Lord Jesus Christ.

This liturgy presents a beautiful vision of what God’s church can be: a worshiping, confessing, praying group of disciples being transformed by our worship for the good of our world.

Reformed Worship 111 © March 2014, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.