PostSecret and Church

Just a break from my Theology in a Post-Cartesian World series.

Are you aware of the PostSecret phenomenon?

PostSecret was started by Frank Warren in 2004 when he sent off 3,000 self-addressed stamped postcards asking people to reveal a secret, anonymously, and mail it back to him. Further, the postcard was to be “decorated” in a self-expressive or thematic manner. Warren received hundreds of responses which formed the basis of a community art project.

However, since that time PostSecret has become one of the biggest web sensations. Every Sunday Warren posts some of the secrets that have been mailed to him. Some of the more interesting secrets Warren held back from the website publishing them in three books, PostSecret, My Secret, and The Secret Lives of Men and Women.

To participate in PostSecret you must do the following (from the PostSecret website):

You are invited to anonymously contribute your secrets to PostSecret. Each secret can be a regret, hope, funny experience, unseen kindness, fantasy, belief, fear, betrayal, erotic desire, feeling, confession, or childhood humiliation. Reveal anything - as long as it is true and you have never shared it with anyone before.

Create your 4-by-6-inch postcards out of any mailable material. If you want to share two or more secrets, use multiple postcards. Put your complete secret and image on one side of the postcard.

Be brief - the fewer words used the better.
Be legible - use big, clear and bold lettering.
Be creative - let the postcard be your canvas.

Mail your secrets, or other correspondence, to:

13345 Copper Ridge Road
Germantown, Maryland
USA 20874-3454

Please consider sharing a follow-up story about how mailing in a secret, or reading someone else's, made a difference in your life.

Since its inception PostSecret has acquired a wide cult following. As a psychologist I’m fascinated by the dynamics of it all. I also think PostSecret poses some spiritual questions.

Here are some random reflections:

Clearly, a lot of the PostSecret phenomenon is voyeuristic and exhibitionistic. But, apparently, lots of people are being powerful affected as both participants and consumers of PostSecret. The participants report powerful cathartic effects from selecting, designing, and mailing in their secret. Many consumers of the website and books also report healing effects. Many of us feel deeply alien, strange, and deviant. Reading through the secrets seems to attenuate those feelings. Readers feel more “normal,” more “at home” in the human species.

So, it seems pretty clear that PostSecret is meeting some deep need in people. A need to somehow reconcile with the skeletons in our closets. But, from a psychospiritual vantage, what are we to think of this?

On the one hand, the anonymous and vicarious nature of PostSecret is worrisome, psychospiritually speaking. Any healing that is experienced is individualistic. It’s not a communal process. Thus, PostSecret seems devoid of spiritual benefit.

But on the other hand, the secrets, if you read them, are very raw. Very raw. Which makes me wonder if the church will ever be a place where true transparency, confession, acceptance, and healing are to be found. Stated bluntly, the church, as she currently exists, cannot handle real, raw, festering secrets. And if this is the case, isn’t PostSecret standing in the gap? Meeting a need?

In short, rather than spiritually critiquing PostSecret’s failings, might we also consider the possibility that PostSecret is critiquing the failings of the church?

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12 thoughts on “PostSecret and Church”

  1. Postsecret is AMAZING! When I got introduced to it back in April of last year I was immediately addicted. You are definately right in that the phenomenon brings much interest to those of us in the field of therapy.

    I own all of the books thus far, visit the weblog religiously, and have mailed in my own secrets;however, what I have found to be even more interesting was my experience back last month when Mr. Warren FINALLY made a trip to Texas.

    Frank happened to be in my area one night, so I made sure to attend to get to see him speak about the project and with hopes of having one of my books signed. That experience truly brought the whole project to life! It is really impossible to describe in words the feeling there was in that room among so many Postsecret fans. I mean Postsecret to that point had always been faceless, but at that moment I was able to put faces to secrets that I still think of to this day. I was able to look at the person next to me and think, “I wonder if he wrote that one secret?” I couldn't help but continually look around as Frank spoke and think, "Wow, that person has secrets like me. Wow, we are all a bunch of ‘broken’ people here." It's a message that many times the church setting tries to get across--"we are all sinners"--but at the same time, I have never had the kind of feeling I had among that PostSecret crowd, whenever I've been sitting in a church pew. I guess it's like how in church you feel you can't admit to having those "problems" or "secrets", but with Postsecret there's no condemnation.

    So I highly encourage people to take part in this new phenomenon! Visit the site. Read the books. But if at ALL possible attend one of his "talks/book signings". The feeling you'll have while you're in that room, and the feeling you'll have once you leave...indescribable! [People can visit his website to see where his up-coming visits are. And hey, if it would be "cool" with ACU, I think y’all should get Frank to come speak there...he does MANY college visits, and I think Postsecret is PERFECT for college-aged students!]

    Oh, and by the way, I sure did get Mr. Warren to sign a picture of himself when I was there! ;) It goes right along side the rest of the autographed pictures of individuals I have that I feel have made contributions to the mental health field...

    ...Postsecret = definately mental health oriented to me!

  2. Hi Kim,
    How fun that you go to go to hear him speak. I think you are right, the PostSecret thing is tapping into something in people the church has totally missed.

    Here's the other thing I think it helps with. Therapists see a different side of people. We get to hear and keep a lot of client's secrets. I think PostSecret helps non-mental health professionals see facets of humanity that they would not otherwise see. All that "brokenness" you speak of. In short, PostSecret teaches you a lot about the human condition and experience, stuff you never hear in church.

  3. Love, love, love the, those parts that are not too deep for me, that is. :) Love the poems to Jana...

    Where is the line between healthy, good transparencey designed to help us and help others and unhealthy transparency (voyeuristic)? humm...that is a hard question.

  4. Hey, Richard, just found your blog - I'm enjoying it!

    I'm been talking to churches lately about this very thing, how we avoid confessing our sins to each other. We claim it is an overreaction from the Catholic confession, but I'm of the mind that it is the unwillingness to take the responsibility of listening to confessions and the lack of trust of confessing for ourselves.

    Just got through reading a book on the subject as well, "Cultivating A Life For God" by Neil Cole. Something more churches should emphasis for the healing and maturation that is possible. Could this be the reason why we say our churches are a mile wide (maybe half a mile these days) and an inch deep?

  5. Hello lawtondickerson and vaught_family!

    I agree that church must become more transparent, but the PostSecret phenomena makes me despair. Will we ever be a place where such things are shared? (I'm not speaking of the odd or shock-value secrets, but the ones where real brokenness comes through.)

    To accomplish this, following up on both your comments, we must set up, I've no better way to to say this, "structures of discretion." Places where confession is expected, but within a space of trust and discretion. In my church, we lack these structures/spaces/places on a broad scale.

    Here's the Catch 22. To get to the level of intimacy required for confession you need to spend lots of quality time with a small group of people at church. This takes time and effort. But broken people often don't put in this time/effort due to their brokenness. They either feel they don't belong or as time passes as relationships develop they feel fake and drop away.

    So, yes, maybe we do also need another kind of structure like in the Catholic Church where confession can happen in a fairly anonymous way. That is, the church might experiment with all kinds of methods. I think the more outlets the better.

  6. Sounds to me like we should confess of not confessing.

    Richard, when I was there Highland had small groups, but these were more Bible study groups. Do these structures function as places for confession, or not? Small groups seem an obvious way of churches to implement this kind of behavior... but I wonder: Is it even appropriate in that setting?

    Perhaps if churches had something akin to a therapist/s on staff... then not only would there be a safe, professional place for confession, but one could receive professional help in overcoming these deficiencies, and not simply be confessing them. This seems a more proactive structure.

  7. Pecs,
    Highland does have small groups but they vary widely in size and function. Basically, that venue is limited. Small group ministry is difficult; it is hard to take a group of strangers and make a small group click.

    I think your point about confession and spiritual formation is important. Confession is more than just catharsis. It needs to be connected to spiritual direction.

    More and more at ACU we are talking about spiritual directors, people with intensive training and even credentialing in being a Spiritual Director. I think ministries like these (where a church had multiple, credentialed spiritual directors) in a church would be helpful.

    I think we should also add more confessional rituals in our public assemblies. I went to a lot of Catholic mass as a child and in every mass these words where said:

    "I confess to Almighty God
    And to you my brothers and sisters,
    That I have sinned through my own fault,
    In my thoughts and in my words,
    In what I have done, and what I have failed to do..."

    I think the CofC should do something similar in every service to help create a culture of confession.

  8. Hey everybody,
    Two thoughts:
    I think in my former church we moved in that direction. We had some structures like:
    we were encouraged to make spiritual friendships; which is an institutional form of a normal friendship but I think this institutionalization can help you to dig deeper.
    People in ministry were required to being coached (and I think my youth pastor had a solid psychological understanding). Theese were institutions which always boil down to chemistry... to the quiestion: does it fit together? Does ist work out?
    But more import were the network kind of people who had an eye on the people on the margins. They connected to them and expended hospitality to them. And when you open space for people to talk you will realize that people want to talk.

    The second thought:
    See, I'm not a therapist; but is it possible that a certain degree of voyeuristic pleasure is normal for people with a gift for empathy? You know: your mind is trained to engage with others live and you kind of need it like someone else might need a good book. This element of pleasure is maybe the motivator -and a legitimate one!- that brings people to help other people. I'm not sure...

  9. A few months ago, I attended an open NA meeting as part of a chemical dependency counseling internship. I felt as feedingyourmind did at the Post Secret conference - it was so refreshing to hear this raw brokeness expressed. I loved the honesty and acceptance that the NA family provided - everyone could expose their brokeness, and love and support one another toward recovery. I left wishing that churches were more like NA and AA. How great would it be to start off a small group saying, "Hi, my name is Kelly, and I am a sinner," and be greeted by fellow sinners who weren't hiding anything either.

  10. Hi. I think your article was great, and I cited it in my review of My Secret -- which went over really well with at least one of my readers. Check it out if you feel so inclined.


  11. Hey Richard,

    I found PostSecret in a bookstore a little over a year ago and was fascinated by it. I bought it and my wife and I went through it together. I think these types of thoughts belong in any conversation of what it means to be human. There seems to be a side of us we display in order to function in society and the side of us we hide because we will get fired, divorced, shunned, etc. for revealing the depths of our humanity.

    Thanks for the post!

  12. We do this type of sharing with my church all the time - the problem with that is BECAUSE we are THAT open and THAT raw - other's view our church as a cult - they think we are all brainwashed and not really following the bible - this angers me - I have never had a closer relationship to God until now and it has been BECAUSE of the raw expression of the human condition with my brothers and sisters at the church. I encourage you most of all to visit one of our chapters, study the bible with someone, and see for yourself. 
    Or International Churches of Christ.


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