It has now been well over 100 years since a large number of Bible-believing American churches separated from mainline denominations because those denominations had abandoned belief in the Bible and in certain fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith. When these churches left their denominations, they stopped using the denominational liturgy as well. While there are certain advantages to having a “free” service, there are also some serious disadvantages. One problem that has arisen in the evangelical church as a consequence of the removal of liturgy is an erroneous view of the Trinity. Many evangelical Christians believe that there is no distinction between the Father and Jesus, and I often hear people thanking the Father for dying on the cross for their sins—an appalling heresy which would be obvious if some affirmation of faith were read each week by the congregation.
Another standard component of high church liturgy that is missing in most evangelical church services is corporate confession of sin. The hymn or prayer “Lord, have mercy upon us” (Kyrie Eleison) was consistently a part of Christian liturgies since the early church. Historic liturgies usually also contained a separate prayer of confession (e.g., “Merciful God, we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed”) and a prayer for forgiveness. Sometimes these prayers are read by a minister; sometimes they are read responsively by the congregation. Admittedly, these prayers and hymns often have theological faults; they may sound like a plea to be saved anew every week, and the minister may wrongly pronounce the congregation’s sins forgiven on the basis that they have read the right words or are part of the right church. Many people wrongly believe that performing the liturgy will get them into heaven. But there is also a biblical model for corporate confession; the most notable example is the Old Testament Day of Atonement, in which the high priest first made atonement for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people assembled before him. Many Psalms also include confession of sin (e.g., Pss 79:8-9; 130; compare Ezra 9; Neh 1; Dan 9). In the New Testament, the Lord taught His disciples to pray, “Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us” (Luke 11:4). In a non-liturgical church service, corporate confession of sin could be as simple as a sentence in a pastoral prayer, or it could be an entire prayer where the congregation is asked to kneel. The pastor confesses that “I and my people have sinned greatly” and prays for God to have mercy upon His people.
In most evangelical churches I have attended, prayers offered during the service are about the worship service, needs in the congregation, missionaries, the sermon, the congregation’s response to the sermon, and so forth. I do often hear calls in churches for individuals to repent of specific sins. I rarely hear a pastor call the whole congregation to join with him in confessing their sinfulness and asking God to have mercy upon them. Whatever the reason for this may be, it certainly breeds spiritual arrogance. There does not seem to be a sense that the pastor and the whole congregation are in dire need of God’s mercy and grace on a daily basis. In some instances pastors may be too proud to confess that they are sinful. More commonly, there are people in evangelical congregations would be offended if the pastor confessed that they are very sinful people. Many people in churches believe that they are basically good, and only sin occasionally. But perhaps this is as much a product of failing to practice corporate confession of sin as it is a reason for not practicing it. If a congregation is told every week that they and their pastor(s) are offending God by many of the things they do and say and think, they will not think as highly of themselves (cf. Rom 12:3). They will recognize their neediness before God, and will understand that they must recognize and battle the sin that is in their life. They will not be so offended when a pastor asks God to have mercy on “us” for “our” sins and to bless us even though we do not deserve it (cf. Psalm 103:10).
Corporate confession of sin is not necessary to be saved, since salvation is an individual and personal matter. But corporate confession is an act of humility and a prayer for needed grace (unmerited favor). It also communicates to people that the sin nature has affected every aspect of their being, and that they are very far from perfection. Verbalizing the fact of one’s sinfulness on a weekly basis will not only result in obtaining grace and mercy from God, but will also guard against the rise of Pharisaical attitudes in the church in which some people view themselves in a perfectionistic manner and have difficulty either acknowledging their own faults or forgiving those of others—attitudes which have unfortunately been all too common in churches that do not practice corporate confession of sin.