One of the seven sacraments in the Catholic Church is the act of penance. It’s a long-standing practice where the sinner privately confesses his or her sin to the priest who then absolves the penitent believer from all guilt in an act called absolution. But while this event stands as a sacred sacrament in the Catholic Church, it may seem odd for anyone unfamiliar with Catholic tradition. For many reasons (including different interpretations of Matthew 16 and Hebrews 10), Protestants don’t uphold the practice of penance. At least in the formal, priestly sense. Our belief in the new covenant, in the finished work of Christ, abrogates any sacerdotal power of forgiveness. God forgave us in a crucified Christ. And now there is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Him. (Rom. 8:1) The keys to the kingdom are given to ministers of the Gospel so that by the authority of Christ, not the church, His earthly body shall become a “royal priesthood.” (1 Pet. 2:9) We reject the sacrament of penance. However we do uphold the need for confession. (1 John 1:9) And that’s where the problem begins.
While many churches may not agree with the Catholic practice of penance, it’s necessary that we understand something. Something that Catholics get right. And that’s the dire need for confession. The Catholic Church understands that people have junk in their lives. And that junk has to go somewhere. Guilt. Shame. Embarassment. Confusion. Bitterness. Anger. Hurt. Christ may have taken our punishment on Calvary, but that doesn’t mean we don’t punish ourselves. Satan has been vanquished…but not annihilated. And after a few thousand years of practice, He knows exactly how to plague young believers in their spiritual journey. And one of his best weapons is isolation. The feeling that sin must be contained. That nobody else understands. That nobody else cares. That their sin makes them a freak. The Accuser does His best work when young people hide their sin. And that’s why confession is so important. It’s an art that I fear we’ve lost as a church. But ever so silently, the practice emerges in its own way across American Christianity. It may not be in a confessional, but it’s not altogether different.
In reality, confession isn’t just therapeutic for the soul. It’s also essential for authentic Christian community. (1 John 1:6-7) And that’s where so many churches have fallen short. We don’t have confessional booths (“oratories”). We don’t have allotted times for penance. Nor do we need them. But our churches are still full of young sinners with pounds and pounds of sinful baggage to share. To get off their chests. To ask for prayer. But how? Most Sunday schools don’t offer the kind of social and spiritual setting conducive to open confession of sin. Real confession. Let’s face it: fear prevents most teenagers (and adults) from bearing their hearts with others. Even with those in authority. And likewise so many young adults today feel that their churches don’t offer the necessary tools to help them find sincere community. The Word is preached. But it’s not discussed nor is it sincerely embraced. So without a set institution of confession, what is the church to do? To get away from peer pressure. To get away from the anxiety of judgment. To get away from the temptations. To find a safe environment to share their burdens. To find authoritative figures who want to listen. For so many youth ministries, they’ve found the answer to this problem. It’s not a confessional. It’s called youth camp.
Before I go any further, I believe two things must be clarified. First, by no means am I declaring that church youth camps are the direct Protestant equivalent of the Catholic confessional. However, the parallel is striking at certain points. Secondly, church camps are legendary not simply because they offer safe environments for confession of sin. They’re also awesome because they feature intense worship, games, activities, and other cool stuff. However camp has in many ways become the last frontier for teenagers looking to leave the judgment of their everyday lives in order to find a safe environment to bear their hearts with people who care. For one reason or another, they don’t feel like they can get that on Sunday mornings or Wednesday nights. Does this mean that there aren’t people in their everyday churches who would be willing to hear them out? Absolutely not. But as mentioned before, churches have serious work to do in creating structures in their respective ministries that allow, for example, teenage boys to talk about the sin of pornography and masturbation without fear of being marginalized. To be supported and held accountable. To be mentored. To be discipled. Is your Sunday school class doing that? Is your church doing that? It’s a tall task. But it’s a necessary one. Especially today when kids see 10 times more with their eyes than I did when I was their age. And I’m only 29. Fortunately, church camp offers isolation in a good way. Even Christ Himself found a desolate place to pray alone. (Mark 1:35) My own church does the same with youth camp. It’s called East Texas! It’s a time when the busy teenage life of school, homework, practice, and programs can be drowned out by silent biblical introspection, heart-felt worship, and open fellowship. And from the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. (Matt. 12:34) And boy do they speak. The question then becomes how.
How do kids just start talking about their problems? It’s easy: we let them. By taking away obstacles of peer pressure and appointing leaders committed to bringing the Gospel into their hearts. Talking about real life. Real struggles. Real sin. And the need for a real Savior. That’s community. With the Word at the center. That’s the beauty of a bibliocentric church camp. It’s a dynamic that so many don’t feel they get on Sunday mornings where broken people come in each week, do the same drill, hide what’s really on their hearts, and leave. For the first time in their lives, good kids discover three things: (1) how wretched they really are. (2) how much they need Jesus. (3) and that they’re not alone. That’s why, as a youth pastor that runs a large youth camp, each of my leaders is charged with overseeing the three C’s of Camp: (1) Conviction (2) Confession (3) Community. It’s not forced. It’s not coerced. And it doesn’t have to be. One will lead to the next. Why? Because once the Gospel is preached and our leaders are willing to step out on the ledge and share some of their hearts, broken teenage hearts fall like dominoes. It takes courage. It’s called carrying your cross.
Inevitably with every church camp, however, disappointing talk about the “camp high” is sure to follow. And I suppose it’s warranted. Like Israel wanting to go back to slavery even after witnessing God’s awesome power in the plagues, so many teenagers long to crawl back to their sin even after experiencing authentic Christian community. As long as there has been a church, there have been those who have fallen away. (1 John 2:19) But if we viewed church camp through a lens of confession, perhaps it would shed some light not only upon the nature of camp but on the nature of the church as well. Does the transparency and authenticity of the local church mirror that of church camp? Are our ministries attempting to cultivate sincere relationships within a context of small groups? Does the vision of the church value community through confession? (1 John 1:5-10) Perhaps the reason so many students long for camp so intensely is because they don’t feel like their church offers a suitable alternative. Or perhaps the “camp high” only appears so because it’s followed by the utter disappointment that what Christ desired for them as a part of His body is really only offered one week out of the year. To avoid offering an overly simplistic view of youth ministry, I’m willing to concede that sometimes church camp is simply that: a fun experience that can’t be replicated by the church consistently. But as a church, what are we offering at camp? Is it the “experience” of lights and sound? Or is it the glimpse of authentic Christian fellowship through the lens of conviction and confession? Both get results. One just lasts longer than the other. Confession isn’t for super-Christians. Just sinners. And what we make out of camp says a lot about what we make of His church.
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” -1 John 1:9