A worship service I attended recently was like no other I’ve ever seen. And I have seen quite a few.
When I arrived with the pastor and three other leaders, 10 minutes before the service was scheduled to begin, no one else was there. Then, precisely on time, about 70 worshipers arrived.
The first 10 minutes or so were “fellowship time,” as each and every worshiper joyfully entered, hugging the neck or shaking the hand of the pastor and leaders, including me as their guest.
As they did so, many of them volunteered to serve or lead during the service. The pastor noted each of their offers, and told some of them they would have to wait until next time, because we only had two hours to worship.
Those who did join us in leading the service shared special music, or recited passages of Scripture they had memorized, or gave brief testimonies of God’s grace and goodness in their lives. One especially memorable man apologized for taking so long to slowly walk to the front, assisted by his cane. He said he was 71 years old, but more alive today than when he was 18, because of the Lord’s work in his life. He then sang a moving and joyful spiritual that had all of us clapping and joining in.
The open prayer time was passionate. One man transparently thanked God for recent victory over a temptation in his life, while another prayed through tears, thanking God for a healing contact from his ex-wife, the first one in 34 years.
When the pastor gave me an opportunity to speak, I found myself citing a passage from my own devotional time that week, rather than a more carefully rehearsed message. As I spoke from my heart and sought to apply that passage to their lives, the worshipers gave me their eager attention, and encouraged me with their amens and other signs of agreement.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing to me about that worship service, however, was that I was told there is a “waiting list” to enter it that is about four times larger than the room can hold. You see, that unusual worship service was within the walls of one of our Illinois prisons on a Saturday night, and those worshipers were its residents. The leaders were from one of our Baptist churches that has led a ministry there for over 20 years.
As Christmas now approaches, I am reminded that the good news of Jesus’ birth came first to a humble group of shepherds. They were in many ways “confined” themselves, in poverty, in low social status, with limited freedom or opportunity, and with little hope of a brighter future. Yet the Bible tells us they were also men who were “abiding” and “keeping watch.” When the good news about Jesus invaded their darkness one night, they eagerly received the news and ran to meet him.
That’s what I felt in prison that Saturday night. There was certainly a darkness, a sense of oppression as I walked through multiple security checkpoints. But inside, the good news had arrived, and those who had received it now enjoyed a freedom to worship and celebrate that is all too rare outside the prison walls.
As we encouraged those worshipers to share the good news about Jesus with others, as did the shepherds, their enthusiastic responses told me they already were. I guess that’s why there is a waiting list for the Saturday night worship service. And I guess it’s why we should all receive the good news humbly this Christmas, grateful that we do not have to wait to worship him.
Nate Adams is executive director of the Illinois Baptist State Association. Respond at IllinoisBaptist@IBSA.org.