Prison Praise Music

By Nadia Bolz-Weber 02-27-2008

I'm always a bit anxious in new worship environments. As I settle into my plastic chair at New Beginnings Lutheran Church, I realize that now is certainly no different. At least, I think to myself, my cell phone won't go off in worship; it was confiscated by the guard before I went through the metal detector.

New Beginnings is a congregation on the inside of the Denver Women's Correctional Facility, and I've come with three others from my own community to share in their worship service. My anxiety is not at all lessened by the praise music - of which I have an almost irrational aversion - coming out of the jam box behind the purple-draped altar. Seriously, I'm sinfully snotty about this issue.

The problem is that, as the women file into the room in their dark green scrubs and black boots, many immediately pick up the song sheets and begin singing along. I've always associated what I call "Jesus-is-my-boyfriend music" with privileged white suburban mega-churches. But here in front of me are women of untold sin and sorrow, worn, unlike many of us, on the outside; singing "Lord I Lift Your Name On High" - singing about how faithful and marvelous God is from the inside of a prison.

I feel moved - and not by the emotionalism of the overproduced praise music. I'm moved again by how God seems to continually show up in ways I find objectionable. Like John the Baptist attempting to talk Jesus out of being baptized, and the disciples scandalized by Jesus' conversation with the woman at the well, and Peter's "God forbid that ever happen to you" at the news of how his messiah would die, I too object. God forbid that God's own redeeming work in the world be done through music and theology I find abhorrent. It's totally annoying and absolutely predictable. It happens every time.

Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran vicar living in Denver, Colorado where she is developing a new emerging church, House for all Sinners and Saints. She blogs at and has a book for Seabury Press coming out this Fall; a theological and cultural commentary based on having watched 24 consecutive hours of Trinity Broadcasting Network and survived.

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