Together in Prayer

Vertical Prayer with Horizontal Impact

Incorporating Confession in Your Small Group

This article was published in the training tool called Corporate Spiritual Disciplines for Small Groups.

“I have a confession to make. I have been deceiving the group about my relationship with my boyfriend. We have been sleeping together, and I’m pregnant. I am resigning as leader of our group.”

Our small group leader’s confession began the most poignant gathering of our many-year history. I personally was taken completely by surprise. Julie (not her real name) was emotional and repentant, accepting full responsibility for her actions and not making any excuses. After she had finished her confession, our group surrounded her and prayed earnestly for her, expressing both our comfort and total support for her. Julie’s courage in confessing her sin enabled her to receive both emotional and spiritual support and enabled the group to continue to move forward in its mission.

We all know the scriptural mandate around corporate confession from passages like James 5:16 and 1 John 1. We see the value in such confession – the humility, spiritual growth, and community that results from such transparency. But how can we effectively incorporate confession into our small group times? This article will give you some foundations for successfully including confession in your small group.

Confession doesn’t just happen
“Okay, let’s open our prayer time with confession”. If you’ve ever tried this jump-in-the-water approach, you’ve probably found that it didn’t work out as you intended. Perhaps shallow responses protected deeper failures, or repeated confession indicated lack of life-change.

Why does shared confession, if practiced at all, tend to become rote and not bring about real life-change? Because effective shared confession does not begin with the act of confession itself. It begins with laying a relational foundation from which confession can spring naturally.

Authenticity and Accountability
Effective shared confession begins with an environment of authenticity and accountability.

Authenticity requires us to remove our masks when we come to the group, to be genuine with each other about our joys and heartaches, successes and failures. A group that values authenticity places a high priority on knowing and being known. If this isn’t a value universally adopted by group members, effective confession will be very difficult.

Accountability is another aspect of knowing and being known. When group members are accountable to each other, they give each other permission to come alongside them and speak into their lives. In fact, when group members truly value accountability, they may share items that allow other group members to help them identify a course correction that ultimately may keep them from sin. One person’s blind spot may be illuminated by another in the group.

Authenticity and accountability require that group members both trust and value each other. As a result, these can take time to develop. Some groups employ something like an accountability covenant to formalize this idea; for other groups, this develops naturally over time.

Our group had been together for several years and over that time had shared many experiences and deep prayer times. Our relationships began with a shared mission – to pray for the Persecuted Church – and continued into our personal lives. As a prayer team, we focused most of our time on the task (oh, yes, and the potluck!), so for us the relational development was a by-product of shared vision and commitment more than the result of an intentional plan. It doesn’t matter how you get there – whether naturally over time or maybe more quickly as a concerted effort. The point is that the trust required for authenticity and accountability is an absolute prerequisite for effective confession.

Confession isn’t easy, whether it’s done personally or corporately. As a result, your group members must see the value of shared confession if they are to follow you down this path. Individual group members may regularly confess their sins to God, but may not see the value in repeating that process in the group setting. As the leader, you need to show the value. Start by determining what your group members currently believe and practice regarding confession.

Some may need to learn the basics of confession – to see the Scriptural mandate and understand the close relationship of confession to forgiveness and cleansing. Group members won’t buy in to corporate confession if they don’t regularly practice personal confession before God. A good Bible study may be the right place to start.

Even if group members regularly practice personal confession, you may need to show the value of corporate confession. Shared confession has many of the same benefits as the small group itself has – iron sharpening iron, friends helping each other up, believers staying alert to the work of the enemy in each others’ lives (Proverbs 27:17; Ecclesiastes 4:9-10; Matthew 26:41).

Additionally, shared confession has value for group relationships. We all wear masks to some extent, limiting the level to which others can truly know us. Shared confession helps remove those masks so that we know each other more completely. Most of us long to be known (just think of how much time we spend talking about ourselves!) but we sabotage that very longing by keeping people at arms’ length when it comes to our weaknesses and failures. Our deepest relationships are with those who know us fully and still love us – starting, of course, with God Himself.

Some groups need to focus some time on the value of corporate confession; for others, the understanding develops naturally over time. In our group, we never actually studied shared confession, but our desire to live examined lives in obedience to scripture has led to many spontaneous times of confession and prayer.

Compassion and Confidentiality
Two major fears hold people back from confessing their sins to others: judgment and betrayal.

We understand that God judges our hearts, so we have no problem confessing to him. But confessing to others gives them a power over us that we can’t accept. This fear is well-founded. Most of us tend to be somewhat judgmental – if not outwardly, then inwardly; hence Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 7:1-5.

The antidote to judgmentalism is compassion. How many times do the Scriptures speak of Jesus having compassion on those he healed, even when there was obvious sin involved? Compassion led him to forgive and heal, to teach and touch. Jesus’ compassion contrasted sharply with the judgmentalism of the Pharisees and Sadducees and led people to seek him out.

You can’t develop compassion in your group by studying it. That’s a good place to start – group members should understand the importance of compassion and how it opposes judgmentalism. But understanding the importance and actually being compassionate are two very different things.

You can, however, note how compassion develops in your group by observing the interactions and relationships over time. When group members begin to spontaneously respond to and pray for each others’ needs, compassion is developing. When they rejoice and mourn together (Romans 12:15), compassion is developing. When you see compassion growing, your group is prepared to hear confessions without judgment.

In our group, as in many groups, a spirit of compassion has developed over time without any “program” in place to focus on it. We care about each other’s successes and failures; we celebrate triumphs and mourn losses together. We pray for each other, pull for each other, and provide for each other. This foundation creates a space where we can be honest with each other without fear of condemnation.

Fear of betrayal of confidence is another major barrier to shared confession. I may be willing to be open and honest with my small group, but I don’t necessarily want a wider circle of people to hear my failures. I don’t have relationships with them; I don’t have any reason to trust that they will be compassionate and not judgmental. Additionally, the information may come back to harm me if it gets to the wrong people.

Confidentiality is a must for effective corporate confession. A confidence betrayed destroys relationships and group unity, and precludes future confessions and possibly even sharing of prayer needs.

Many groups approach confidentiality with a signed covenant. Others simply develop the understanding over time. However you do it in your group, it’s essential that what is said in the group meeting stays there unless permission is specifically given to repeat it. (I secured permission from my former group leader before writing this article, and I’ve had her review it before submitting it.)

Toward effective shared confession
Keep in mind that the addition of new members to the group will change the group dynamic. It will take some time to build the mutual trust necessary for effective shared confession. Work intentionally toward this, but don’t rush it. People need to feel safe in the group for confession to be meaningful.

Shared confession can be an effective tool to promote community and bring about life-change in your group. Laying a foundation of authenticity and accountability, buy-in, and compassion and confidentiality will start your group on the road to effective corporate confession.