“First, there’s what we’ll call the “youth group” approach. It’s not so much about the sermons, but more what happens in the small groups. Sometimes, when the discussion moves along, people will begin to talk about areas of “struggle.” One person shares, then another identifies with the same struggle, and pretty soon you have people chuckling over shared foibles and faults.”
Christianity is inextricably bound up with the notion of sin. The Bible tells the story of the triune God’s rescue mission to redeem rebels out of their sin and guilt, which alienates them from his shared life of light and love. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the central message of how the Son came in the power of the Spirit to conquer sin and death through his own life, death, and resurrection. Without seriously considering the weight of sin, as Anselm so famously urged us to do, we can’t possibly understand the glory, goodness, and mercy of God’s liberation. Neither can we respond to it appropriately with repentance, faith, and worship. This is why Christians have historically spent so much time talking about sin.
If you’ve been around church long enough, though, you know there are plenty of ways to “talk about sin” that fall short of considering its full weight. I can think of at least five.
1. The ‘Youth Group’ Way
First, there’s what we’ll call the “youth group” approach. It’s not so much about the sermons, but more what happens in the small groups. Sometimes, when the discussion moves along, people will begin to talk about areas of “struggle.” One person shares, then another identifies with the same struggle, and pretty soon you have people chuckling over shared foibles and faults.
At that point, you get a discussion of “sin” that treats it more like chewing your nails than a serious, soul-destroying plague with real-world (in this and the next) repercussions. Sin is named lightly, and so barely named at all. Instead, we’re lulled into a false sense of security, with little urgency about the sickness destroying our souls, or our need for God’s healing hand.
2. The Millennial Way
Second, there’s a way of talking about sin I could dub the “authenticity badge” approach. Maybe I’m just jaded, but this seems to particularly be the bane of millennial discussions on sin.
For those of us who grew up in a youth group, we know we’re supposed to take sin seriously and not paper over it. But when that spiritual stream hits the cross-currents of our generation’s cult of authenticity and therapeutic self-narration, our discussions take a different character. We sit around and we “confess” our sins, sometimes very publicly—but all too often as a way of cutting off criticisms or calls to repentance. We’ve “owned” our messiness, so how could anyone demand more of us without falling into pharisaical judgmentalism? Or again, though we share our sins, our motive isn’t genuine brokenness before God, but an ironic way of demonstrating our righteousness through our willingness to appear broken before others.
3. The ‘Sectarian’ Way
Third, there’s what we might think of as the inverse of the last two. Certain churches cultivate a way of speaking of sin with grave seriousness and properly earnest tones. They don’t see sin or brokenness as a badge of heroic authenticity or vulnerability. Instead, it’s a target that marks those outside the tribe.
We might call this the “sectarian” approach, in that it involves speaking of sin as a practice or feature of those people “out there,” but rarely of us “in here.” Sin is to be repented of and its consequences to be feared—but only (or mainly) by others. After all, sin isn’t something we ourselves would deeply identify and struggle with, and be guilty of. We’re past that—if we ever had a problem to begin with—and so we speak of sin only when warning others.