Sunday, September 18, 2022 | Trey Comstock
When I was 19, I served on a traveling worship team out of the Wesley Foundation at William and Mary. Each semester, we would plan a service and then take it on the road to different churches around Virginia. I couldn’t have known it then, but it turned out to be one of the most important things that I did in college. It fed directly into of my career as a pastor and is indirectly how I met my wife. The highlight of each semester for me, on the worship team, was the service we would lead a Greensville Correctional Center, a maximum facility in southern Virginia.
The first time that I ever helped lead worship at Greensville, I remember distinctly walking in through the yard wearing a black shirt and black dress pants, carrying the team’s guitar on my back. No matter that I’m a high tenor from suburban north Houston, I was doing my best Johnny Cash impression. I didn’t know what to expect. Prior to that moment, the closest that I’d ever been to the prison system was visiting a police station with a jail as a Cub Scout and getting pulled over for speeding. I felt a lot of things walking that yard, but none of it prepared me for what awaited me inside the gates.
The service that evening remains one of the most powerful worship experiences that I have ever had, and it had little to do with our part in the service or the preaching. It was the worshipping body itself – the assembled congregation of incarnated folks. They sang with force and power, so that the lyrics felt real and palpable. They wept. They hugged. They cheered as someone got baptized in a rollaway dunk tank. When they sang about eagles wings, I felt them raising. When the sang about broken chains, I knew freedom in Christ. I vaguely knew before that worship wasn’t supposed to be about a performance. It’s meant to be a collective act of worship. There, in Greensville Correctional Center, I knew it in my bones. We were praising the Lord as one body in Christ. I can’t tell you how long the service lasted. Hours? Minutes? Forever? I can tell you that, when it was over, and we were tearing down our gear, I mourned the loss of that moment. It was somehow more than mission trip worship, church camp worship, and Contemporary Christian concerts.
After than formative experience, I’ve had many more opportunities to lead worship, retreats, and small groups inside jails and prisons. They all had that same tenor. The Spirit and the Gospel have a particular power inside prison walls that I don’t often experience outside them. Both Jesus and John Wesley challenge us to not forgot our incarcerated brothers and sisters. I’m telling you that by visiting them, you might end up changed as well.
Why is it that way? Why do songs of freedom, broken chains, and rising up have such peculiar potency among folks who are visibly in chains? Having never been incarcerated, I can’t pretend to have a definitive answer to this question, but I do have a theory. A prison church is one of the few churches on the planet where no one can hide from the fact that they are a sinner. So often, prison testimonies begin with a version of, “We all know how we got here” and the congregation responds in the affirmative, “Oh yeah. We know.” They don’t have the luxury of hiding their sin under layers of polished shoes, neatly pressed dress clothes, and the niceties of polite small talk. “How are you? How is the family?” “Oh, we are just swell. Life is good.” Outside of a prison, we can get away with projecting a sinless image or an image of sins being minor and in the past. We might even be able to fool ourselves into thinking that God’s grace is for those hardened sinners other, not neat and tidy me. The bold proclamation of salvation has power inside prison walls because they know and can’t escape from the fact that they need to be saved from something. On the outside, we can believe that church is for nice people to be nice rather than as a hospital for sinners.
This is where, for me, Paul’s various self-confessions have an impact. Paul is the Biblical Figures Top Ten List. He’s a headliner. He’s the Apostle to the Gentiles. He wrote like one third of the New Testament. His student, Luke is reasonable for a huge chunk too. He also sees himself as chief among sinners. Even towards the end of his ministry career, which is the setting for his letters to Timothy, he still feels weight of his sins, of his desire to do violence to God’s people. He declares that he has been set free from them, and frames the argument as if God could give him mercy, the worst among sinners, then certainly, God has mercy for you. The power behind these words stem from Paul’s knowledge that what he has been saved from is weighty. Thus, he can feel the relief of that weight being lifted off. In being honest, maybe even a little overly harsh, he gives us a window into what God can do for us as well.
Talking of sin in church can be a difficult mine field. Too often, we swing wildly between two extremes. We shout so loudly that everyone is going to fry for the smallest infraction. Or, we take the weight out of sin entirely and reduce the Gospel to being nicer. The witness of Scripture points to sin being a big deal, but the arch of those same testimonies is that Christ died for us even though we are sinners. If we leave out an understanding of our own sin or project a sinless image to the world, we miss the point. Salvation is earth shattering, life changing, and chain breaking precisely because we are being saved from something. Maybe, church outside the prison walls would have more power and reality if we didn’t try to hide our own imperfections.