Worship in Prison

Yesterday I had the opportunity to attend a worship service at the prison where I am a “student intern.” For those of you who do not know, I am doing an independent study this semester on Prison ministry and pastoral care. It has been great to spend one day a week at the prison talking with Chaplains and inmates and just getting a sense of how a prison operates. It is something that I might think about doing down the road in my ministry. It has been an experience that’s for sure, one that I am very glad to be participating in.

Well I was very impressed with how everything went at the service. The Chaplain and I arrived around 8:00am and things seemed to be moving along. Everyone who participated in the service was an inmate (besides the chaplain and I), and there were ushers, musicians, and a worship leader and then there were about 250 inmates there to worship.
I first noticed the dress of the inmates, some were wearing their “regular” clothes issued by the prison, all the ushers had white button shirts and others had blue button shirts on. I am sure there is some significance but I am not sure what at this point. But the one thing that I noticed was their shoes. It seems that one of the things they had control over is what shoes they wore and you can see the guys who were really active in the service were wearing the “nicer” shoes. Again, a dynamic that I was picking up on but I am not sure how everything really plays out.

The Christian Chaplains rotate on who is leading the service on a Sunday morning. Yesterday was the Lutheran Chaplains turn (he is the one that I am working with on this) and he said when he started working there he tried to do a “Lutheran Type Liturgy” but for that community it really did not work. So it is more of a free form where there is music at the beginning and then some prayers, some more music and then scripture and a sermon and then they end with an “Altar Call” and then end with the Lord’s prayer.

I have to say the music was great. There were three different choirs and they all had a full band behind them. The “lead Choir” was VERY good. They had 5 singers with one lead singer and the rest was all in harmony. I was very impressed with the quality of music and thought these guys should do a CD and call it “Soul in the Cell” — I said something to the Chaplain and he said that the state would not let them. Which is too bad – they could of done some good with that money.

Anyway, during the service some guys were up with their hands in the air and others just sat there and then there was a mix of in-between. It is hard to tell who was there to worship and who was there just to “look good” for the guards, staff, parole, and what not. It is terrible to think that but it is a reality. I think as long as they are there at least hearing what the Gospel has to say who knows what might happen because of that. God works and we cannot limit that, even when we think God might not be able to reach someone, God does and how dare we put a limit on that!

After the service I had a lot of guys come up to me and thank me for coming. They asked a few questions about who I was and they told me that I was welcome back at some point. I must say, out of all the churches I have been too while in seminary – (about 6 church in field rotation my first year and about 6 church since for various things) this was the most “friendly” congregation I have been too. It did not matter what you were wearing, what you were doing during the service or who you were, you were welcome.

Overall, it was a good experience for me as this whole independent study is good for me. I think it is good for any church leader to have something they are passionate about. Something that drives them in their ministry. I am interested in a lot of things and it has been hard for me to take on a focus, to take on something and put my whole self into. Granted a pastor needs to be a jack (or Jill) of all trades – to be good at many things and a master of a few…… but as I learn more about the issues that revolve around prison ministry I think I have found something I can really sink my teeth into.

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5 thoughts on “Worship in Prison

  1. This sounds like quite an experience. I don’t know of anyone at LTSS doing prison ministry but there were a few folks at my internship church. They found it to be very rewarding as well.

  2. We have a prison congregation in the SW MN Synod called Prisoners of Hope Lutheran Church. It operates within the walls of the Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton, MN. I had a chance to worship there, with some members of Salem. Like you we experienced one of the most friendly churches we had ever been to. God bless you in your ministry. I am glad you are finding your niche.

  3. Nice post, Joe. My dad’s good friend from seminary was instrumental in the development of Prison Congregations of America. I’m always encouraged when I hear about people who’ve been able to attend worship services in a prison congregation, and hope that someday I’ll have a chance too. Thanks for writing about your experience. (This is Joy from Luther. ;)).

  4. Joe, I really appreciated your observations about the community there – this is vital work. There is a prison ministry group here at LTSG, but the number of students apparently fluctuates from 1-8. Prison ministry is one of our “multicultural” options here. I am sure your experience has given you much to ponder.

  5. Joe, thanks for these words. I had the privilege of spending my summer at a Psychiatric Forensic facility in California and experienced much of what you did (though the crowds were smaller and there weren’t choirs). It really opened my eyes to a big need that is overlooked by most churches … serving our brothers and sisters in prisons (and other marginalized ministries) … I wonder when we’ll finally listen to Jesus’ words about serving “the least of these”

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