Incorporate Confession in Your Small Group

Incorporate Confession in Your Small Group

Why the effort and potential awkwardness are worth it

Note: This article has been excerpted from the training tool called 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 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, comforting her, and offering our support. 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 1:9. We see the value in such confession—the humility, spiritual growth, and community that results from such transparency. But what does it take to effectively incorporate confession into our small group meetings? Moving your group toward confession will take time, but there are some key principles that can help move you in the right direction.

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, heartaches, successes, and failures. A group that values authenticity places a high priority on knowing and being known. If this isn't a value adopted by all group members, confession will be very difficult if not impossible.

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.

Some leaders employ something like an accountability covenant to encourage their groups to move toward greater authenticity and accountability. But leaders must be patient. While they seek to encourage authenticity and accountability, they must also let those important traits develop naturally as the group comes to value and trust one another over time.

Our group had been together for several years and 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. Deep relationships were a natural byproduct of shared vision and commitment. As our trust grew, so did our authenticity and accountability, which are the prerequisites for confession.

Buy In

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.

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—iron sharpening iron, friends helping each other up, believers staying alert to the work of the enemy in each other's 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 arm's 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 fear. 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 does Scripture 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, though. 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 other's 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, 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 without fear of condemnation.

Fear of betrayal 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 it precludes future confessions and possibly even other types of sharing.

Many groups approach confidentiality with a signed covenant. Others simply develop the understanding over time. However you choose to establish confidentiality, 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 had her review it before submitting it.)

Moving Toward Effective 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 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. Laying a foundation of authenticity and accountability, buy in, and compassion and confidentiality will start your group on the road to effective corporate confession.

—Andrew Wheeler is the author of Together in Prayer; copyright 2011 by Christianity Today.


  1. What is your initial reaction to incorporating confession into your group?
  2. When have you experienced confession bringing a group together?
  3. Do you know how your group members feel about confession? What obstacles might you face in introducing confession in your group?

Note: This article has been excerpted from the training tool called Spiritual Disciplines for Small Groups.

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