Last weekend, I had eleven 12-year-old boys in my basement for a youth retreat. It was chaotic, gross, and perfect. We heard unhindered laughing, chasing, yelling, and body noises through two floors and closed doors. The leaders talked straight about God and good choices. Our doorbell rang at all hours, announcing the arrival of more volunteer drivers, youth mentors, and meal makers from the church.
My son glowed with testosterone and belonging.
On Sunday afternoon, I pulled on a hazmat suit and headed down the basement stairs to survey the damage. I picked up Slim Jim® wrappers, vacuumed millions of chip crumbs and rainbow Nerds candy, and looked away gagging when it came time to clean the toilet. But the entire time I smiled to myself and thanked God.
This retreat was so much better than the last one.
* * *
When we moved to a new state a couple of years ago, we knew we needed to find a church right away. We were deeply invested in the charismatic liturgical Anglican one we left behind. Her rhythms and traditions were thickly braided into our family’s social and spiritual life.
We soon discovered there was nothing like our former home in our new town. We visited many new places, and every one made at least one of us cry on the ride home. We sighed a lot. We took a lot of Sundays off.
One church was always recommended. It was by far the most popular church in the area, especially for middle school and high school kids. We were constantly warned, “If you go there be ready to stay because your kids will never want to leave.”
They were right. At first.
The morning we visited that church my sixth-grade twins were welcomed with unlimited soda and donuts in a hipster lounge complete with pallet board walls, minimalist furniture, and flat screen TVs. The staff smiled broadly in their matching shirts. Our kids begged us to get out and not embarrass them.
We took our youngest up to the elementary school section. It was a brightly painted carnival with cheery music and cuddly volunteers. They gave out free candy when she checked in. Our daughter hugged us tightly when she said goodbye, cheeks full of Starbursts®.
My husband and I then found a seat in the back of the dark balcony. It was so much like the megachurch from my childhood, where my parents found Jesus. I felt like a 90-year-old crank. The music was too loud, the fog machine was thick, the flashing lights were bright, and the singers’ names, and Twitter handles were posted on the screens. The sermon was a video projected life size onto the stage. It was entertaining, and I wished I had popcorn and some of the sweets my kids were given.
On the ride home our son, amped up on more sugar than he’d had in weeks, led our debrief: “Is this really a church? I’m not sure it’s really a church. It’s more like a concert or something? The music was so loud! And there were lights. I don’t remember anything about God. And there was smoke! I couldn’t figure out the smoke. Wait! Is it like in the Bible?! Like when they laid their offerings on the altar for the Lord? So the smoke machine is supposed to remind us to make sacrifices?!”
Our former church, with her sacraments and incense on high holy days, would have been so proud. How dear that this boy assumed that the fog machine was a nod to ancient worship practices. We burst out laughing.
But we went back. More soda, donuts, and Starbursts®. More lights and fog. More exuberant entertainment. It still didn’t feel church, but our tweens in their formative years didn’t complain, so we kept going back.
They begged to go on the big youth retreat. We prayed hard and released them onto one of the ten buses that would carry them off to zany adventure and promised encounters with Jesus. I gave the leaders my cell and begged them to text/call if they needed anything.
They looked wrung out when I picked them up two days later. They told me the weekend was “fine.” I assumed they just needed long naps, lots of water, and some protein. Desperate for details, I asked my son later if he learned anything new during the weekend. He fought back tears and answered, “Well, I learned I smell like _____ all the time” (he said the word that rhymes with duck).
I blinked, shook my head, calmly asked what happened, and what the leaders said about it. He told me that the leaders had no idea because the guys in his group had grand Southern manners and knew all the Bible answers, but when the leaders were gone those boys hit, kicked, and swore at him and some other boys.
Middle school is universally rough, but please.
When we finally talked with the head of the youth ministry, he was shocked and apologized. But, within five minutes, he and his assistant took it all back when they said, “Our church really attracts the cool kids. If we tell those kids they do something wrong, they’ll be offended and won’t come back.”
They’ll be offended? How were these boys going to know Jesus if they didn’t even know when they were sinning? Was this church really not going to lovingly guide middle schoolers to own their small and big mistakes, model repentance and forgiveness, and celebrate reconciliation and fresh starts? Was keeping the kids happy and coming back the priority?
I instantly remembered the meeting I attended for those curious about joining the church. The pastor made it clear that they wanted it to be a safe, appealing place for the unchurched. One of their primary goals was that no one would ever be offended by anything that they’d seen in a church before—no crosses, no altars, no robes, no stained glass, no liturgy, no pews. Nothing that looked, smelled, tasted, or sounded like “church.”
I longed for our old church across the country after that disappointing meeting. Our old church was messy and had human sinful drama, like all churches, but it knew what sin was and how to confess it. We did it every week, together, in front of each other. After singing, Bible reading, and teaching, the entire congregation would pray these words aloud:
Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done and what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your son, Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name, Amen. (Book of Common Prayer)
When a body of believers says these words together out loud every week, there is a camaraderie, foundation, and expectation for admitting wrong. In that context, a youth leader confronting an 11-year-old about bullying, teasing, and swearing is not offensive. It is helping a child see how his thoughts, words, and deeds did not show love to the other boys in the neighboring bunks.
Of course, there were weeks in my former church when I was thinking about my shopping list, my whining toddler, or my runny nose instead of confessing sin. But the steady repetition of these words eventually invaded my soul. I would find myself panting this confession in the middle of a run, mouthing it as I hit the snooze button, and muttering it through clenched teeth in traffic. When my specific, grievous, gross sins came to mind, I had the language to admit them to God: “what I have done and left undone… my whole heart…delight in your will.…” It got a little easier to admit when I wronged my family and friends. I grew in empathy and grace when people sinned against me because I was learning we were all in this together.
I applaud the earnest vision the modern church has to draw church-haters back to God. I celebrate that huge spirit of welcome, grace, and hospitality. It is urgent and necessary. But it can be dangerous if it’s too cheap. Like the pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned the German church during World War II:
“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.” (Life Together)
It’s hard to fit all that truth in every Sunday morning. That’s one of the reasons I think liturgical churches are making a comeback.
We are skeptical of alternative facts, political correctness, and feel-good sermons because deep down we know we need more. We crave time-tested truth and wisdom. The prayers, readings, rituals, and sacraments were not designed by someone we can follow on Twitter, who may disappoint us tomorrow with her political ideas or selfies. Instead, these deeply rooted words and practices carry the gravitas and authority of billions of people over thousands of years.
Of course, great, life-changing truths are shared in thousands of modern non-liturgical churches every week. And liturgical churches sin against their people and lose their way, too. Regardless of tradition, a church has to be the place where we find out the truth about our Savior Jesus Christ and our true, broken selves. Paul David Tripp reminds us that church is not a sugary sales center:
“The church is… a conversion, confession, repentance, reconciliation, forgiveness and sanctification center, where flawed people place their faith in Christ, gather to know and love him better, and learn to love others as he designed.” ― Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands
* * *
I was surprised how hard it was to write this story. I pecked at the keyboard with surprising bitterness. I realized I still hadn’t forgiven the church, pastor, and leader involved in that disappointing retreat. And I hadn’t asked forgiveness for my own anger, resentment, gossip, and keeping a record of wrongs. I needed to confess my sins.
I closed my laptop, looked out the window, took a deep breath, and began the prayer that was burned on my heart in church years ago, “Most merciful God, I confess I have sinned against you, in thought, word, and deed….”