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"We Are All Here"

Worship in the Prison Church

“About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake . . . all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose. The jailer . . . thought the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted, ‘Don’t harm yourself. We are all here!’”
—Acts 16:25-28

Paul’s remarkable shout of faith pierced the ears of the Philippian jailer: “We are all here!” In the aftershock of the earthquake, the jailer must have assumed that all had escaped. But the prisoners did not head for the exits and for freedom. It was as if the prisoners, including Silas and Paul, realized that the earthquake was not so much an interruption of their worship service as an unexpected opportunity to witness to God’s power and grace.

In this worship, it is the jailer who asks, “What must I do to be saved?” It is the jailer and his family to whom Paul and others speak the Word of the Lord. In response to that Word, the jailer washes the wounds of the prisoners before he and his whole household are baptized in the prison. Then he brings Paul and the others into his house and sets a meal before them.

What could we learn from such a worship service? What might be the characteristics of a prison worship service that would compel prisoners not to flee but to say, “We are all here”? What are some of the obstacles that prevent authentic worship in today’s prisons? Where can we find a good model of worship that involves the active participation of prisoners in developing and leading worship? How might churches on the “outside” relate to their brothers and sisters in prison?

These are more than academic questions to those who are in prison. My son, Troy Rienstra, is one of those prisoners. His observations from the perspective of fifteen years behind bars in the Michigan prison system are revealing and sad.

True worship within the prison, Troy says, is essentially missing. Although chaplains help to schedule services by outside churches in Michigan prisons, they are not responsible for the content of these services. Even when conducted by outsiders who are well-intentioned, these services sometimes feature sermons of condemnation. In addition, Michigan state corrections policy does not permit those who conduct the services to have any kind of fellowship with the prisoners. Like a televised service, these “outsider”-led services do not offer prisoners the freedom to communicate with the worship leaders.

Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be

When we contrast the present reality of worship in prison with the story of Paul and Silas in Acts, some of the major problems in many prison situations are evident. These include the lack of the availability of the sacraments (Paul and Silas baptized the jailer and his family—presumably in the jail, v. 33); the preaching of the Word (Paul spoke God’s Word, v. 31); and the lack of discipline and support that comes with a fellowship of believers (the jailer provided a meal for Paul and the other prisoners, v. 34).

If churches on the outside fail to recognize the need for Christians in prison to organize and lead corporate worship, how can we expect a prison congregation to assume responsibility and develop a mission for its own members and others? Is the common assumption that we (the outside church) have to “bring worship” to the prisoner correct?

As we reflect on the ascension of our Lord in this issue of Reformed Worship, we do well to ask How does the ascension of Christ benefit the prisoner? The prisoner needs to know that Jesus pleads his or her cause in prison before the Father. In fact, prisoners need to be affirmed by God’s grace in their present situation by the church on the outside.

A Better Way

Prison Congregations of America (PCA) is a marvelous organization that promotes the establishment, organization, and recognition of prison congregations. PCA advocates the congregational model for facilitating prison ministry. Prison congregations are a place for prisoners to worship in a way that is initiated and directed as much as possible by prisoners.

Typically, the organization relies on outside churches near a prison to support the work of a chaplain who works with the prison church members. The neighboring churches visit and participate in the prison worship services to provide support as a “sister congregation” to the prison church.

Prison congregations offer an opportunity for prisoners to be part of a community with responsibilities and ownership. A prison church provides inmates a chance to participate in worship through ushering, reading Scripture, singing, making confession, assisting in communion and baptisms, and exhorting from the Word. A prison church also provides inmates with access to the support of a chaplain who is a pastor to the church and is allowed to call men and women to serve since he or she is paid by the church, not the state.

According to Troy, testimonials are highly valued by prisoners. Confessions and affirmations of the faith among prisoners are opportunities to open hearts and share with the congregation where they have come from and how the Lord has restored and elevated their lives. And the congregation is edified when they have the opportunity to witness the transforming power of the Holy Spirit in a fellow prisoner through personal testimonies.

Fellowship with visitors from the outside is a very important part of prison church worship activities. A prison church service typically sets aside at least 20-30 minutes for worshipers to visit one another. In a prison in South Dakota that I visited, an 80-year old farmer and his wife travel fifty miles every week to attend the prison service. Both of them greet each of the over 80 prisoners by name. They write to them and encourage prisoners by letters and visits. (Some states, including Michigan, do not permit such “follow-up” activities.)

The order of worship for the Prison Lighthouse Fellowship Church of Sioux Falls, South Dakota illustrates some of the basic features of a prison congregation (see sidebar). The bulletin lists the prison officers or council of the church, demonstrating that this congregation is part of the body of Christ and is affiliated with the Baptist General Conference.

In the worship service I attended there, a prisoner gave a greeting, a bulletin, and a Bible to each prisoner and visitor. The service was conducted in a chapel in the prison, not in a prison classroom. The chapel had been decorated by prisoners who labored for three years to repair the chairs and paint the stained-glass windows. It was clearly “holy ground” for the prisoners.

It is difficult to adequately express the tone and mood of that service in a prison church. Hearing confession in the form of a rap, joining prisoners in praying for missionaries of the Baptist Conference, singing songs at the urging of a prisoner who ran down the aisle encouraging his fellow inmates to sing louder (“Let’s hear you!”), and listening to the messages by two prisoners (supported by applause and cheering) were powerful affirmations of the Spirit’s work. The worship service was victorious and joyful. Prisoners offered each visitor a parting benediction: “Thanks for coming, drive carefully, and come back.”

Jesus is present in our prisons. Our Lord not only pleads the cause of the prisoner, but the King is sending his Spirit to those in prison as a guarantee that he will take all members of his prison body to himself in heaven.

 

Excerpt

Prison Lighthouse Fellowship Order of Worship

Welcome to our congregation at the Jameson Annex.

Welcome and Prayer

Praise and Worship
“Open the Eyes of My Heart” WR 656
“Awesome God” CH 179, SWM 20, WR 658
“So Come On”
“He Reigns”
“How Great Is Our God”




Prayer

Message

Closing Song
“Above All”

Prayer and Benediction

Anouncements

  • Welcome to our guests from Emery, South Dakota; Milford & Spencer, Iowa; Prison Congregations of America
  • Prayer Concerns: Pray for our missionaries Irv and Mary Stauffer; they are church planting and serving in administration in the Philippines.
    Pray for Larry and Kay Odle. Larry is our District Executive Minister of the Heartland Baptist District.
    Pray for our sister church in Odessa, Ukraine.

No whispering: There will be time to visit after the service.