Confessions pour out on church's Web site, www.mysecret.tv
On a Web site called mysecret.tv, there is the writer who was molested years ago by her baby sitter and who still cannot forgive herself for failing to protect her younger siblings from the same abuse.
There is the happy father, businessman and churchgoer who is having a sexual relationship with another man in his church. There is the young woman who shot an abusive boyfriend when she was high on methamphetamine.
Then there is this entry: "Years ago I asked my father, 'How does a daddy justify selling his little girl?' He replied, 'I needed to pay the rent, put food on the table and I liked having a few coins to jangle in my pocket."'
About a month ago, LifeChurch, an evangelical network with nine locations and based in Edmond, Okla., set up mysecret.tv as a forum for people to confess anonymously on the Internet.
The LifeChurch founder, the Rev. Craig Groeschel, said that after 16 years in the ministry he knew that the smiles and eager handshakes that greeted him each week often masked a lot of pain. But the accounts of anguish and guilt that have poured into mysecret.tv have stunned him, Groeschel said, and affirmed his belief in the need for confession.
"We confess to God for forgiveness but to each other for healing," Groeschel said. "Secrets isolate you, and keep you away from God, from those people closest to you."
LifeChurch, which is 10 years old, tries to draw back those who may have left the faith, Groeschel said. The church hews to a conservative theology on homosexuality and abortion.
Its nine sites, in Arizona, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas, draw a total of 18,000 people to weekend services. LifeChurch also has a "virtual campus" online, and it relies on technology to bind together its "campuses" through endeavors like broadcast sermons.
Still, mysecret.tv represents the first time the church has had an interactive Web site tied to its sermons, in this case a series that Groeschel began last month on the need for confession.
"I can't tell you how many hundreds of times people have told me that 'I'm going to tell you something, Pastor, I've never told anyone before,"' Groeschel said. "I realized that people are carrying around dark secrets, and the Web site is giving them a first place for confession."
The Internet already offers many places to confess, from the dry menu of sins at www.absolution-online.com to the raunchy exhibitionism at sites like www.confessionjunkie.com and www.grouphug.us. Like much on the Internet, it is impossible to know whether the stories recounted are sincere or pure fiction.
One of the best-known sites is postsecret.blogspot.com, an extension of an art project in which people write their secrets on postcards and mail them to an address in Germantown, Md.
Mysecret.tv may be singular because it gives people at LifeChurch an easy opportunity to act on the sermons, said Scott L. Thumma, professor of the sociology of religion at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.
"It's not what you typically expect when a pastor delivers his weekly sermon, and you hit the back door and forget what he said," Thumma said. "Here it takes on a life of its own, and the folks that are here are not just those who go to LifeChurch."
Since its inception, mysecret.tv has received more than 150,000 hits and more than 1,500 confessions, Groeschel said. Absolution is not part of the bargain, just the beginning of release.
"There's no magic in confessing on a Web site," Groeschel said. "My biggest fear is that someone would think that and would go on with life. This is just Step 1."
The confessions are often just a paragraph or two. Some are eloquent, almost literary. Others are long, rushed and without punctuation, as if the writer needed to get it all out in one breath.
The starkness of the tersest confessions is jolting: "I have verbally and physically abused my wife."
Another, referring to a spouse, said: "I tell you I love you everyday. Truth is I do love you, but I'm not in love with you, and I never have been. I just don't want to hurt you and feel worthless."
Many women speak of their regrets over having had abortions.
Other writers say they cannot shake the recurring nightmare of being sexually abused as children. Most were abused by relatives, neighbors and friends. Some went on to abuse younger children in their families. They state simply how their parents often did nothing to help. A few wonder where God is in all this.
"When I was 7, I was sexually abused by a guy," a girl wrote. "Then, when I was 13, my mum did the same thing to me. Now I am 16 and scared. My doctor put me in a mental home. Sometimes, I think where is Jesus and why's he not helping me."
Because the site is anonymous, the staff at LifeChurch cannot reach out to those who are in danger of harming themselves or others, Groeschel said.
Thumma pointed out that the resources section of the site could be improved. It now lists mostly religious books rather than mental health services.
Perhaps the most important activity the Web site has is letting people know that they are not alone in their suffering, Thumma said. It harkens to the now rare practice of "testimony time" at evangelical churches, he said, when "you could hear stories about people overcoming problems, stories of hope, so that you felt you weren't the only one struggling."
Among those changed by the confessions is Groeschel himself.
"Knowing that so many people I see every week on the outside look so normal, and yet inside there is so much pain, that has been surprising," he said. "When you hear about it in their own words, it's hard to bear."
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