Kelsey Merison, a 2009 Trinity College graduate now in medical school at Ohio State University, thinks young people prefer confiding to a pastor they know well, but only up to a point. “It can create barriers when the young person is worried about what the minister will think of them.”

Merison, who grew up Catholic, says she never felt close to her priests. “To me, confessing the sins just felt like I was talking to a stranger.” While she thinks Protestant churches should carefully consider how they listen to youth, she senses that none of her friends are interested in something akin to the Catholic confessional.

Today’s young people may not have a greater need for confession than previous generations, but they are making the need more apparent as they explore — and are sometimes isolated by — a world of instant messaging, tweeting, and social networking sites. Some pour out sad or embarrassing information on Facebook. Others confess anonymously on PostSecret or blogs such as one aimed at Duke students called MeToo. Some open up suddenly in group discussions.

Illustration by Kyle T. Webster
What’s Church Got to Do with It?

Fred Edie, faculty director of the Duke Youth Academy for Christian Formation and assistant professor of the practice of Christian education, notices that more young people are revealing secret concerns.

“One thing I note is either a generational or cultural tendency toward self-revelation,” Edie says. “At our Youth Academy, for example, it has become relatively routine for students to share stories or incidents of significant wounding (of themselves or from themselves to others) as they grow to trust one another in Christian community.”

As Edie and his staff weigh how to respond to these disclosures, they’ve developed approaches — both communal and one-on-one — that go beyond simply accepting the cathartic value of confession. They try to make it a process for emotional and spiritual mending.

“Unlike PostSecret, the point of confession for Christians is not just therapeutic relief of one’s own existential pain,” he says. “It is to enable reconciliation between themselves and the party or the parties to that pain.”

Elyse Gustafson thinks young people are not looking to the church to provide public catharsis, but a private, listening ear.

“The popularity of PostSecret should remind the church that people need people to talk to,” she says. “I’m not sure the church’s response needs to be about programs or liturgical reform. I think it has more to do with listening to people. That means listening to whatever people have to say, even if it’s ugly or boring.”

Warren, who posts less than 3 percent of the 1,000 postcards he receives weekly, thinks an effective confession doesn’t require an audience or even another person.

It requires only honesty and the courage, he says, to reveal what he calls the two kinds of secrets — those one hides from others and those one hides from oneself.

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