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The second in an 8 part series on congregational culture, i.e. the ways that Jesus lives in our churches.

The Joy and Power of Repentance as a Corporate Spiritual Discipline

Years ago I was teaching a teen Sunday School class (aka catechism) that focused on repentance, using the account of the woman caught in adultery who was dragged into the temple courts (John 8: 1-11).  As we reflected together, a 16 year old noted, “isn’t it cool that Jesus said that the one who was without sin could cast the first stone at her, but the woman didn’t realize that Jesus himself was the one without sin. And then, he doesn’t cast a stone; instead, he challenges all the people in the story -- the Pharisees and the woman -- to repent.”

That was one of those lovely light-bulb moments that every pastor, teacher, and youth leader longs for (and I quoted that young man when I preached on the passage two weeks later).  

I’ve pondered that passage and the issue of repentance a great deal since that evening, and I have come to this conclusion: there is powerful and direct correlation between a congregation’s capacity for corporate repentance and the room it has for Jesus to live in its midst.

Or, to make this statement using different words:

When a congregation repents well, its culture --  i.e. the spirit that lives within it -- will lean towards humility, teachability, hospitality, and a healthy vulnerability that shares how the Lord’s power is made perfect in its weakness. It becomes like clay that is softened for refashioning.

When a congregation does not repent well, its culture will more easily lean towards being judgmental, consumerist, driven by opinions and a critical spirit, less willing to change to follow the Spirit’s leading, less open to hospitably welcoming folks who are not like the majority. Its clay remains hardened.

Paul’s testimony to the Galatians illustrates clearly and simply why this is so: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” (Gal. 2: 20a).  What is true for Paul personally is also true for our congregations corporately: as our sinful selves are crucified with Christ, the resurrected Christ moves in and makes his home within us. “Put to death whatever belongs to your earthly nature...Let the word of Christ dwell within you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.”  (Col. 3: 5a, 16).

Corporate repentance creates room and invites Jesus to move in.

How might we strengthen our corporate repentance? Here’s a few initial thoughts.

  1. I’m very grateful that in the Reformed tradition, most weekly liturgies include time for confessing our sin. What a gift! Building capacity for corporate repentance begins with a weekly liturgical moment that focuses entirely on strengthening our “repentance muscles.” Regular exercise guided by a “trainer” serves to keep them strong.
  2. Capacity building is gradual, persevering work. I once described it to a friend as “focused incrementalism,” seeking to make something stronger bit by tiny bit over the long-term. I believe it takes three years of such focus for a spirit of repentance to become a strong, shaping dimension of a community’s life (depending, of course, on what the culture was like when one began such a process).
  3. When it’s time to lead the confession liturgy, I ask myself, “how might my leading invite the congregation to confess their sins more deeply and fully?” After a season of trial and error, I’ve adopted an approach that looks something like this:
    1. I never stop declaring what an amazing and liberating privilege it is to have the opportunity to confess our sins corporately (referencing a variety of Scripture passages). I’m one of those weirdos who find the doctrine of total depravity encouraging, because it leaves me no choice but to throw myself on the mercy of God. We don’t have to carry our garbage; we are free to leave it at the foot of the cross! I invite worshipers to come to the cross anticipating the joy of release.
    2. Once a month or so I include a brief (four sentence maximum) testimony (my own or someone else’s that I share) in introducing the call to confession. Each testimony illustrates in some way the beautiful gift that confession is.
    3. I use resources such as The Worship Source Book to identify various ways to shape prayers of confession.
    4. About once a month I will leave a 45 second period of silence during  a prayer of confession for worshippers to offer their own personal prayers. As a worship leader I feel like I’ve learned to “read the silence,” and this silence usually feels very rich and profound to me.
    5. The spoken prayer will be followed by a sung prayer that gives voice to contrition, release, and the contemplative joy that is found in a community gathered at the foot of the cross.

Repentance is both a spiritual discipline and a way of life. As we practice the corporate discipline, we are inviting the refining fire of the Holy Spirit to transform us as a community, and he always accepts that invitation!  He brings with him that lovely fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, and this fruit basket expands the room for Jesus to live in our church. Thank you Lord that your mercies are truly new every morning.   

Faith Formation Ministries has a discussion guide for church councils and others in leadership to help groups reflect on congregational culture. If you’d like a copy, contact us at [email protected].  

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