Whether it is art or something else, the PostSecret phenomenon raises questions for ministers, particularly those who work with youth: Are churches failing to provide an outlet for the need to confess? And, if so, are they also neglecting another spiritual hunger — the longing for forgiveness?
For McKennon Shea, admissions director at the Divinity School and long involved in youth ministry, the answers are “yes” and “yes.”
“PostSecret put the church on notice that we have lost a sense of confession and what goes with it, that absolution, that forgiveness,” says Shea, a 2008 alumnus who has served as an assistant pastor at Duke Chapel. “It’s something we lost in the Reformation. It may have been done away with in the life of the church, but nothing changed in human beings. We still have that need for forgiveness.”
Elyse Gustafson, a third-year divinity student and a regular reader of PostSecret, agrees that the site taps a desire the church tends to ignore.
“The popularity of PostSecret might be in part due to Protestant America’s disinterest in confession,” Gustafson says. “All that guilt and shame has to go somewhere, even if the church won’t take it.”
Acknowledging the desire to confess is one thing, but deciding how churches should respond becomes complex, particularly for Protestants.
Shea believes churches can provide time and space for confession — responding in a way that helps heal a broken relationship with God — without exclusively claiming the power to absolve sins.
“We have the tools to respond, to reclaim what we lost,” he says. “It doesn’t mean ministers have to go and build a confessional booth. But we have to find a place where people can hear the story of a God who forgives and loves and listens to secrets that we can atone for.”
Third-year student Tommy Grimm believes that young Christians “find an honesty that they long for, yet fear” at the PostSecret site.
But Grimm does not see the site’s popularity as signaling a need for changes in how churches minister to youth. Rather, he says, PostSecret calls the church to be what it should always be — a source of comfort and understanding.
The young, he says, “want to be a part of something that takes humans, with their quirks and hopes and failures, seriously. That’s not something the church should be for the sake of reaching today’s youth. That’s something the church should be because that’s who she is.”