“I didn’t know what to think of that,” says Snider. “One-on-one conversation is ultimately superior, but for this teen Facebook worked.”
Snider’s ministry colleagues have had similar experiences. “They said people approach them on Facebook and just start dumping these confessions that go way beyond small talk. It adds a level of protection for a lot of young people.”
Still, Snider remains ambivalent about how much technology can help what he sees as a growing need for genuine and deep communication. Ministers who think they’re more in touch with their flock because they are hooked to a BlackBerry are only “sucked into an illusion of availability,” he says.
He would prefer to see a renewed emphasis on face-to-face counseling and discussion aimed at helping people express their concerns and deepen their relationship with God.
“Handled with delicacy and care, that can be a very fruitful process,” Snider says.
When the Rev. Mark Reamer arrived at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in north Raleigh, he brought extensive experience in hearing the confessions of young people: he had served as a chaplain in the U.S. Navy.
At special sessions offered at St. Francis for middle school and high school students, the confessions strike him as “sincere and authentic,” says Reamer, and the young people seem comforted by the ritual of the sacrament. Protestants, he says, might want to adopt some of the Catholic elements of penance, just as many have adopted the ritual of Ash Wednesday.
In an age of technological isolation, as information explodes and intimacy withers, Reamer says the human touch becomes all the more important in expressing the divine. He notes the human contact in anointing with oil in the rites of the sick, receiving the Eucharist, and the voice of the confessor.
“One of the things I love about being Catholic,” he says, “is that the sacraments are so appealing to the senses.”
But McKennon Shea says sites such as PostSecret might be pointing churches toward a new kind of confession that is at once personal and communal in its benefits.
“There’s a cathartic effect that does model confession,” he says. “A whole host of people just go and read [the postcards]. They want to know they are not alone. What one person thinks is his or her deep secret is mine too. Just knowing someone out there has this going on can be helpful.”
Shea says churches should try to achieve that effect within a Christian context.
“It does force the church to ask: Are we creating a space like this somewhere? Can we let people confess and at the same time feel like they’re not the only ones out there?”
Ned Barnett is a former newspaper reporter now working as a freelance writer in Raleigh, N.C.