Thank you for your kind letter. Actually, we have met before at some CSD function. Many inmates have also told me about you. Would love to meet up with you some time. The area of Jordan or so is quite convenient for me, I have meetings there sometimes. Feel free to call me or get back to me through e-mail. Thank you also for your interest in my publications. I published a book on prison ministry 2 years ago in Chinese. It should soon be published also in English . Meanwhile, I attach one article that has already been published. Feel free to upload it to your website.
Peace to you,
Thank you Tobias! Looking forward to meeting you again soon. John W
2012-08-07 Pastor Tobias Brandner, Hong Kong
Assistant Professor for church history and missiology at the
School of Chung Chi College, Chinese University of Hong Kong,
and a prison chaplain for the Hong Kong Correctional Services Department. firstname.lastname@example.org
Charismatic Faith and Prison Ministry
Originally published in
Australasian Pentecostal Studies 14 (2012)
In its past century’s worldwide spread, Pentecostal faith has touched all
possible ethnic, cultural, and social groups. As an originally counter-cultural
movement, it has always been particularly effective in touching people
at the margins of society. Among the groups touched are people in prison.
Prison ministry worldwide has had a strong link to Pentecostal-charismatic
spirituality. The paper is based on observations of somebody involved in
prison ministry in Hong Kong. It gives a systematic survey of the central
points of convergence between Christian faith life in prison and revivalist and
charismatic faith and it critically assesses the strengths and dangers of
such faith in prison. The analysis may stand for the Pentecostal-charismatic
encounter with other groups at the margins of society.
The starting point of this paper is the observation that Christian prison
ministry groups tend to have strong links to charismatic spirituality, that
spiritual life in prison shows some charismatic characteristics, and that such
spirituality appears to be successful among inmates. This essay asks about
the cause, nature and origin of this convergence. As an originally countercultural
movement, Pentecostalism has always been particularly effective in
touching people at the margins of society. Among the groups touched are
This paper gives an analysis of the different points of convergence
between the revivalist and charismatic tradition and the Christian faith
and ministry in prison. By giving a short account of the history
of modern prison ministry the first section tells how the revivalist and
Pentecostal- charismatic tradition historically influenced prison ministry;
the next two sections depict revivalist elements of independent faith
groups in prison and how elements of popular faith merge with prison
culture; the fourth section explains the links between radical faith and inmates’
personalities; the next two sections show how revivalist faith successfully
leads inmates in their process of healing. A final chapter critically assesses the
strengths and dangers of charismatic spirituality in the specific ‘totalitarian’
(2) of prison.
(2) Erving Goffman, Asylums. Essays on the Condition of the Social Situation of Mental Patients
and Other Inmates (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1961).
A short note regarding the methodology of this essay: The essay is based
on participating observation from many years of prison ministry in the
ethnically Chinese context of Hong Kong and from several visits to
prisons in other cultural contexts. This ministry included the cooperation with
a broad variety of Christian groups and individuals who joined the author in his
activities, among them Christians from charismatic, from non-charismatic
evangelical, and from all historical Protestant traditions. This essay does
neither attempt to quantify the extent of charismatic faith nor to qualify
charismatic faith’s success in comparison to non-charismatic faith. The
faith traditions to be found in prison are as diverse as elsewhere and their
success depends on a variety of factors. The essay simply tries to describe and
understand the particular points of convergence and affinities between
charismatic faith and prison ministry.
1. Agents of spiritual change: Christian care for those in prison in past
Christianity has always had a strong concern for those in prison.(3)
(3) For a general understanding of the history of the prison, the most useful resource book is Norval Morris
and David J. Rothman (ed.), The Oxford History of the Prison. The Practice of Punishment in Western
Society, (New York, Oxford University Press, 1995). Regarding the Christian contribution to the evolution
of modern penology and criminal law, see Gerald Austin McHugh, Christian Faith and Criminal Justice. Toward
a Christian Response to Crime and Punishment (New York, Paulist Press, 1978). Lee Griffith’s The Fall
of the Prison: Biblical Perspectives on Prison Abolition (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans, 1993), offers
interesting historical information about the dissident and prophetic tradition of the church.
Imprisonment is not only an important topic of the Bible, but, indeed, a very
concrete experience of many people in the Bible. The biblical narrations
regarding imprisonment show a belief that prisons are special places of
revelation and that prisoners have a particular relationship to God.(4)
(4) Griffith, The Fall of the Prison, 138.
In the post-biblical Christian history, the Christian care for prisoners, for
prisons as penal institutions, and for punishment as a judicial process
reveals a peculiar doubled-sidedness. On one hand the church has, ever
since becoming a dominant element of Occidental society, been a constructing
element, participating in the establishment of a legal and judicial system
that controls and exerts power. In this process, and as a central institution of
society, the church lost its independence towards justice and punishment.
It became increasingly part of a repressive social order and turned into an
institution that exerted power and was even responsible for running prisons,
first developed as penitential cells.(5)
(5) McHugh, Christian Faith and Criminal Justice, 21; Alan R. Duce, “Prison Chaplaincy”, in: Alastair V.
Campbell, A Dictionary of Pastoral Care (New York: Crossroad, 1987), 219.
the other hand, there is a tradition of Christians using imprisonment
as a lens through which to see God. They understand prison as a living parable
that points to fundamental experiences in human existence
– corporality, limitation, suffering, chains, hopelessness,
and death. This second tradition stands in critical tension with the social-constructive
tradition and, historically, expressed itself in various forms of care,
compassion, and solidarity with those in prison. It is in this context that Christian
ministry to those in prison emerged, partly through chaplains, partly through
lay visitors. Chaplains not exclusively, but more commonly belonged to
Christian mainstream traditions, while the lay ministry, again not exclusively,
was more related to the revivalist tradition, more specifically the emerging
voluntary missionary and evangelical groups of the 18th and 19th century,
most importantly Methodist Christians and Quakers, later Holiness
groups like the Salvation Army or the Volunteers Prison League.
These groups did not only focus on individual spiritual change, but equally on the
destructive aspects of imprisonment as a whole. Important prison and justice
reform movements were triggered by such revivalist groups as the Quakers and the
Methodists, most importantly John Wesley, his friend John Howard who
inspired the prison reform movement of the late 18th century with his
publication The State of the Prison in England and Wales (1777), and the
Quaker Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845) who not only established a prison
visitation program that brought Christian education to female inmates, but
equally used her influence to propose reforms to the prison system.
This emphasis on revivalist lay ministry groups continued to shape prison ministry
well into the 20th century. Since the 1960s, as Pentecostal spirituality
increasingly influenced historical and traditional denominations, lay-based
prison ministry grew significantly. Many local prison ministry initiatives have
emerged and formed national prison ministry associations, the most well known
among them Prison Fellowship International (PFI), an international
NGO that now brings together national ministries from around 110 countries.
A core concern of many Prison Fellowship groups continues to be prison and
justice reform and the introduction of elements of restorative justice.
Among the volunteer prison visitors, two groups deserve particular attention:
On the one hand, there are former offenders who became Christians while
in prison and continue to care for those among whom they used to live. On
the other hand, there are business people who, underneath their success in the
world, realize that Christian existence calls them to the radical other side of
society. At the beginning of the 21st century, there is a revival of faith-based
initiatives for rehabilitation of criminal offenders and for persons with mental
health problems or histories of substance abuse. A very interesting development
is the emergence of faith based prisons or prison units (see more below).
Other developments include Christian therapeutic communities that combine
spiritual, cognitive, emotional, relational, moral, and behavioural transformation
with vocational training and life skill education.(6)
(6) See George De Leon, The Therapeutic Community. Theory, Model, and Method, (New York: Springer
Publishing, 2000); Nick Manning, The Therapeutic Community Movement. Charisma and Routinization
(London: Routledge, 1989).
In these therapeutic
or fellowships, ex-offenders,
often former addicts, play an important role as peer-counsellors and role models.
This short outline of the historical development of Christian ministry to those
in prison shows how the revivalist faith tradition was crucial in inspiring
the emergence of lay-based prison care groups and how it continues to give
crucial inspiration to prison ministry, both in the spiritual transformation of
individuals, as in the reform of the prison system. The historical outline gives
us a basic understanding of the people involved in prison ministry. The most
important evangelists are, however, not visitors from outside, but inmates
themselves who, after their conversion, begin to reach out to their fellow
inmates and share their faith with them. Our next observation starts from
2. An example: the revivalist church behind bars
(7) On the ‘church behind bars’ see the more extended discussion in Dale K. Pace, A Christian’s Guide to Effective
Jail and Prison Ministries (Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1976), 199-214.
The latter are prisons or prison units run by Christian organizations
that try to bring about change among the inmates through a wide variety
of religious programs. Faith-based prisons first evolved in Brazil in the 1970s
and have, since then, spread into different countries and penal contexts:
not only in Latin America and the United States, but also in Europe,
Asia (Singapore), and Oceania (Australia and New Zealand). (8)
(8) A comprehensive and independent description of projects within this development can be found in Jonathan
Burnside, Nancy Loucks, Joanna R. Adler, and Gerry Rose, My Brother’s Keeper: Faith-Based Units in
Prisons (Cullompton, Devon: Wilan Publishing, 2005).
Faith-based programs for and with prisoners show broad variety
depending on the different contextual needs, the interests of those
involved, and the abilities of supporting volunteer groups.
The church behind bars, in contrast, is more independent from the outside
Troy Rienstra, “Partners in the gospel”, Christian Century, 123/20 (2006),
gives an inmate’s view of the empowering effect of the church behind bars.
Prison ministry usually encourages inmates to conduct their own
religious activities in addition to the occasional programs by outside visitors.
A church led and administered by inmates is a truly local and indigenous
church, and only such a church can grow to become a solid spiritual home for
inmates. A church that depends on occasional visits from outside volunteers
– or even on the more regular visits of the prison chaplain – does not give
the inmates a sense of responsibility. Thus, aiming at a church behind bars
is a simple missiological necessity. And in many prisons around the world
vibrant independent prison faith groups have emerged. These independent
faith groups are not restricted to Christianity, as the success of the Nation of
Islam in U.S. prisons shows. However, the most famous among these groups
is the Christian revival at the Los Olmos High Security Prison in Argentina.
This strongly charismatic revival has inspired Christians around the world
and has been reported on various charismatic Christian platforms.(10)
(10) See for instance the website of Every Home for Christ;
(accessed on 3 June 2011); further the report about the revival by Michael Richardson
and Juan Zuccharelli, Revival behind Bars, Glendale: Professional Word Publication, 1995.
It is said that nearly half of the 3,000 inmates of the prison converted to Christ and
started to have regular worship and prayer chains.
Of course, one of the preconditions for a strong church behind bars is a
relatively high degree of inmates’ internal interaction. Only then can inmates
gather freely and enjoy a self-determined religious life. In a context like Hong
Kong or similar Singapore, where there is a high level of internal segregation
and control, only small prayer groups, restricted to the smaller number of
interested inmates from only one workshop, can gather for joint prayer, Bible
reading, and occasional singing. They depend on at least one charismatic
leader who gathers the small group and encourages them.
The situation is different in prisons that are run with less internal restrictions,
as personally witnessed for instance in South Africa or learnt from South America.
Here, groups of inmates operate independently under different forms of leadership.
A good number of such groups go on steadily and keep attracting new
inmates. If they survive the transfer of the founding leader, they have
obviously reached an important stage of maturity. Groups are usually
more stable among prisoners with long sentences who do not face frequent
transfers, but they may also become monotonous without fresh input
from new members. Some of these groups consist of only two or three
inmates regularly reading the Bible during lunch break and discussing it.
Others have full worship services with music, prayer, joint Bible study, and
possibly a message from one of the leaders. Despite the narrow theological
perspective of many of these groups, they show openness towards other inmates
and the staff, and they can have a positive impact on the whole atmosphere of a
unit. Many prison officers have revised their negative image of prisoners after
witnessing the steadiness and reliability of such faith groups over an
extended period. Prison management does not mind these groups’ meetings, as
long as their overall authority is not jeopardized. These groups are particularly
powerful tools of evangelism: many inmates start to believe because the
spirit, the gentleness and the genuine interaction of such a group has touched
Of course, churches behind bars also have their inherent dangers,
possibly most importantly that they absorb and reflect the dominant sub-culture
of the prison and turn evangelism into a kind of recruitment similar to the
recruitment of criminal sub-culture. This danger applies, however, not only
to independent gatherings of inmates, but also to those with visitors involved.
It is indeed as much a temptation for inmate leaders of revivalist groups in
prison as for Christian visitors or chaplains who act as spiritual leaders in
prison to take the position of a ‘big brother’ and to dominate the group in the
spirit of an authoritarian head who expects unquestioned loyalty in response
to his (indeed, this is mostly a male behavior) service and support.
Los Olmos does not stand alone, but has found parallels in prison groups
around the world, both among inmate groups led by Christians from outside
the prison and those led by Christian inmates themselves. The next section
introduces several factors that influence prison spirituality and often shape it
in a revivalist, charismatic, or counter-cultural way.
3. Popular religion shaping Christian faith in prison
That Pentecostalism grows by including and transforming elements of
preexisting popular religion has been pointed out by Harvey Cox and
others after him.(11)
(11) Harvey Cox, Fire from heaven. The rise of Pentecostal spirituality and the reshaping of religion in the
twenty-first century (Reading, Mass.: Perseus, 1995), 219-22, with reference to the Korean context; his thesis
was corroborated by research regarding other background, regarding the Chinese context, see for example
Gotthard Oblau, “Pentecostal by Default? Contemporary Christianity in China”, in: Allan Anderson and
Edmond Tang (2005), ed.: Asian and Pentecostal. The Charismatic Face of Christianity in Asia (Regnum
Books International), 411-436.
Prisons are places where popular religion is thriving. When
analyzing how popular religion affects the spirituality and theology of many
Christian groups in prison and shapes them in a charismatic way, two main
aspects need to be mentioned. The first one is the belief in the powerful
presence of demonic powers, and the second one is the belief in the
effectiveness of prayer. For the context of this author’s observation, it is the
Chinese popular religion with its roots in animism and ancestor worship that
builds the background of most Christians in prison. In simple terms, Chinese
popular faith expects people to venerate their ancestors – to express their
gratitude to them and to bring offerings that provide a good life in the realm of
death. The fate that people await after death and the judgment that they receive
depends first on their behavior and deeds during their lifetime, i.e., the merits
that they have accumulated, and second on offerings from their offspring.(12)
(12) Tik-sang Liu, A Nameless but Active Religion: An Anthropologist’s View of Local Religion in Hong
Kong and Macao, China Quarterly 2003, 388f.; Tam Wai Lun, „Local Religion in Contemporary China“, in:
James Miller (ed.), Chinese Religions in Contemporary Societies (Santa Barbara: ABC Clio, 2006), 66.
If someone has died in tragic circumstances, unredeemed and without
reconciliation, possibly as result of a killing or an accident without
subsequent redemption of the negative energies, he or she may return to the
world and haunt the living offspring. Although other contexts in Asia differ
from the specific Chinese form of ancestor worshiping, we find a similar
magic worldview through many Asian cultures. In this worldview, spirits are
all around us and humans need to pacify them through religious rituals like
prayers or offerings.
This worldview is also dominant among those in prison: It is common to hear
inmates use the vocabulary of magic to interpret their crimes. Their relapses
or their failures in life are understood as the result of spirits working in their
lives. Equally, stories of encounters with spirits and demons during the night
are widespread. Inmates who experienced conversion find it, not surprising,
easy to understand the biblical message because it depicts individuals in a
continuous struggle within a world populated by demons and evil spirits.
The dominant magic worldview of many people in prison, probably
beyond the Asian context, is supported by an important aspect of prison life:
Where many inmates face day after day with little hope, where isolation from
life outside prison keeps them in an emotional and spiritual limbo, magic
superstition and credulity grow. Many prisoners cling to anything that
can positively influence their present misery. Anything that promises
instant change and redemption seems particularly appealing. Inmates thus
respond particularly positively to a religious faith that is based on a magic
understanding of the effect of faith. They believe something like a magic
potion is necessary to break through the vicious circle in which they find
themselves caught. Only a radical break with the previous life, a change and
complete discontinuity with all that has shaped the preceding life, is adequate to
respond to the present misery. This enchanted world view with its belief in
the continuous power of demons and spirits and the perception of life as a
battle field between competing forces resonates with charismatic spirituality
and, in the case of religious conversion, finds its appropriate continuation
I remember a group of inmates convicted of sex offenses who,
during our prayer fellowship, regularly shared how much the
demons (魔鬼 mo gui, or 心魔 xin mo) were still at work in their
bodies. This was their way to express how much they felt obsessed
by sexual fantasies and how they had failed to put them to rest.
To explain their obsessions within such a religious framework is
psychologically questionable, because it separates desire from self
and puts the blame on an outside power, Satan. However, it does
reflect their genuine and obviously true feeling of lacking control and
of being subject to something beyond their own power.
Blaming an external agent, any spiritual and demonic power, for a
particularly detestable crime helps mitigate the terrible burden of guilt at a
point where a person is not yet ready to fully face responsibility for a crime.
It also gives support where a person is at his or her weakest, surrounding the
person’s failure with a stable framework. Inmates who have turned to
faith then look back to their previous moral failures with a sense of moral
achievement and even superiority.
The other element of the Chinese worldview that links Christian faith in
prison with charismatic spirituality is its practicality. Chinese popular faith
believes that the spiritual realm can be influenced through our religious acts
and moral lifestyle: we will receive as we have done, if not in this life, then
in the life after death. Prayers are straightforward. People pray for wealth,
for health, for success in examinations or, in the context of prison, for
early release. Prayers, similar to other religious acts, are believed to directly
influence people’s fates and the spiritual realm. We are easily reminded of the
tradition of prosperity teaching of E.W. Kenyon and the popularization of his
teaching in the Faith teaching of Kenneth E. Hagin.
Prosperity teaching has been strongly criticized, not least by
representatives of the revivalist tradition:(13)
(13) See particularly the critical discussion by Evangelicals that is published as Andrew Perriman (ed.), Faith,
Health and Prosperity. A Report on ‘Word of Faith’ and ‘Positive Confession’ Theologies by ACUTE
The psychologically, prosperity teaching
has been criticized
for its equation of belief and success meaning that the
of success, be it continued illness or poverty or other problems,
are due to a lack of faith. Prosperity teaching thus makes a person not only suffer
under the manifest problem, but also under the spiritual failure. Practically,
it has been criticized for the possibility of abuse through charismatic healers.
Theologically, it has been criticized for its triumphalism that denies the
dimension of the cross, the reality of suffering and injustice, and the
experience of prayers not answered.
While these points of criticism are not particularly linked to the faith context
of prison, there is one aspect that is more specifically linked to the situation
of those in prison. The danger of a belief in a direct effectiveness of prayers
is that it reinforces typical elements of inmates’ thoughts, as it may lead to a
manipulative understanding of God – even more so for someone accustomed
to manipulative human relationships. Many inmates have grown up learning
that feelings and relationships are for sale; they have behind them a history of
manipulation and emotional abuse. They have learnt to assess relationships
in terms of material benefits and to emphasize the importance of money in
human relationships. They easily extend this manipulative understanding of
relationships to God: ‘If you bless me materially, I will believe in you.’
A deal with God can, however, be a starting point for serious spiritual
growth. I remember A-Keung, who had been a regular gambler.
At one point, he promised God that if this last time, he would
bless him with winning the game, he would give up gambling and
turn to Christ. It happened – and A-Keung has become an honest and
committed Christian. However, whether such a starting point can
develop into a stable spiritual basis remains questionable.
See: Evangelical Alliance Commission on Unity and Truth among Evangelicals), Paternoster(2003). Maybe the
concise critic of the movement comes from C.S. Lewis: “I didnt go to religion
to make me happy.
I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable,
I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.” C.S. Lewis, God in the Docks: Essays in Theology and Ethics (Grand
Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 58.
While the expectation and the occasional experience of direct effectiveness
of prayer can be a first step in a process of spiritual transformation that leads
to deeper faith capable of integrating the experience of ‘unheard’ prayers,
it is often enough bound in manipulative relations and expectations of
immediate spiritual change.
4. Inmate personalities and radical faith
Charismatic faith shows a thoroughness, zeal, and radicalism that other
Christian faith traditions sometimes lack. Being related to what is most
valuable to us, faith necessarily is radical. However, when radicalism
combines with a certain personality structure, radicalism can turn into a
strategy of escaping reality. Radical faith finds a good nurturing ground in
prison, where many inmates have a strong body, but a weak personality:(14)
(14) Howard Clinebell, Basic Types of Pastoral Care and Counseling. Resources for the Ministry of Healing
and Growth (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1984), 174ff. offers a list of characteristics of ego weakness.
they have a weak sense of personal identity and worth, they have little self esteem,
and they have no clear concept of who they are. They have a rather
low ability to tolerate frustration, to control impulses, or to organize their
life. Many inmates are unwilling to take up adult responsibilities or to handle
everyday relationships in a mature way. They have a strong tendency to form
dependent relationships, and many deep wounds from their childhood or
adolescence have brought chaos to their emotional life. The prison environment
amplifies dependency as inmates unlearn independent ways of resolving
Such persons are easily attracted by strict theological views,
by a faith within narrow margins, and by the promise of instant success.
Combined with this kind of personality structure, radical faith can turn into a
mechanism to repress chaos – the chaos of prison life in general or the chaos
of each person’s personal life in particular. A radical faith offers a clear break
with the past and a new beginning that puts the failed old self completely to
rest. People in general crave for certainties in their life. For people whose life
goes through the breakdown and crisis experience that imprisonment often
means, new certainties become even more crucial. Inmates may find such
certainties in the narrowly understood teaching of religion.
The strict religious framework can offer a way to better understand
one’s crime, namely as a result of a failed spiritual life and rejection of
God – in the words of an inmate: “I was bound by desires for drugs, for
sex, and for money. Now I am free. I have laid down my bondage at the
foot of the cross.” Some may go a step further and blame the devil for
their crime: “It was not me, but somebody else was at work within me.
Now, Christ is at work within me and He has helped me to drive out Satan.”
A radical spiritual life offers a meaningful way of coping with the daily
emptiness of prison life. It offers a strong surface identity and an
idealized self-image that stands in contrast to the dehumanizing experience of
imprisonment where, in many contexts, numbers replace names, where, in
most contexts, the prison uniforms replace individual clothes, and where the
monotony of every day takes away all joy. The daily experience of powerlessness
stops causing constant pain, as true power is found elsewhere. The
daily frustrations and unpleasant events are merely the small challenges of a
benign God who, through them, raises the faithful inmate’s ability for self control.
The radicalism of faith groups in prison is reinforced by applause from religious
volunteers who are impressed by the spiritual fervor of many inmates.
In this way, both sides benefit from a convergence where the interests of
Christians from the outside and the needs of inmates on the inside merge.
Radical Christian faith groups are attracted to prisons because they set their
hope on the prisons as places from where, in a countercultural mode, the
revival of the churches takes its starting point.(15)
See the article in the Free Christian Press on 27 January
reporting on the Crossroad Bible Institute’s mission outreach to prison
(accessed through the internet on 9 Aug 2011)
Prisons appear as strategic
with a crucial impact in the extension
of God’s kingdom where Christ’s battle against Satan begins.(16)
(16) See the report of Edgardo Silvoso, from the Evangelical Beacon about a visit to the Olmos Prison, Argentina
(accessed through internet on 9 Aug 2011), http://www.pastornet.net.au/renewal/journal16/16h%20
Global.htm. See further the critical discussion of strategic-level spiritual warfare in Randy Friesen, “Equipping
Principles for Spiritual Warfare”, Direction (Winnipeg, MB), 29/2 (2000), 142-52.
Inmates respond positively to such spirituality
it strengthens and encourages them
to play such a crucial role in God’s plan of salvation.
5. Charismatic counseling
In this section, I try to show how, through what elements, and to what extent
a Pentecostal-charismatic perspective is effective in counseling in
the prison context. Counseling in prison shares its basic principles with
counseling in other contexts, but has peculiarities that are unique to prison,
the most important being the radical power difference between counselor
and counselee, more neutrally speaking visitor and inmate. While a counseling
relationship always includes an element of inequality, and while
the experience of powerlessness is a common existential issue, this aspect
is exacerbated by the limitation imposed by prisons: Visitors can come
and go as they like, while inmates are bound to stay.
Visitors can choose to render certain services or not, while inmates have
little to offer in reciprocity besides their affection and gratitude.
Visitors can initiate encounters and all kinds of programs,
while inmates depend fully on steps taken by visitors.
Moreover, ministry in prison involves another inequality that is
possibly more significant: an emotional inequality, or a relational dependency.
Visitors gain excessive relational power as they turn into important sources of
love and warmth in the lives of inmates who, deprived of their previous nurturing
networks, yearn for close relationships and acceptance. Inmates strongly
respond to the visitors’ presence and their offers of help, and they willingly
believe in order to deepen a friendship that has become so vital when
deprived of loving and caring mutual relationships. Another distinctiveness
of counseling in prison is that the participants are behaviourally different
from most church groups: dominantly young male adults and thus an age
group that is less dominant in many churches, often with limited education,
limited interest for intellectual discourse, and strongly interested in physical
When considering what a Pentecostal-charismatic perspective in counseling
offers to prison ministry, an immediate problem is that it appears difficult
to get hold of recognized descriptions about what Pentecostal-charismatic
counseling is or whether it is in anyway different from other traditions.
There is little in the way of specific ‘charismatic counseling’ literature.(17)
(17) Most dictionaries lack reference to charismatic counseling or, if they have, describe it in very general
form. An example of this non-specific description is the article by R.P. Spittler, “Charismatic Pastoral Care”,
in: Rodney J. Hunter (ed.), Dictionary of Pastoral Care and Counseling (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990),
141f. Spittler simply lists some general features of charismatic religious practice, among them healing, glossolalic
prayer, and others. Rather about spiritual direction from a charismatic perspective than about counseling
is Oliver McMahan, Spiritual Direction in the Pentecostal/Charismatic Tradition, in: Gary W. Moon and
David G. Benner (eds.), Spiritual Direction and the Care of Souls. A Guide to Christian Approaches and
Practices (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 156. The books by Marvin G. Gilbert and Raymond T.
Brock, The Holy Spirit and Counseling: Theology and Theory, 2 vols. (Peabody, Mass.: Henrickson, 1985)
and John K. Vining and E.E. Decker (eds.), Soul care: A Pentecostal-charismatic perspective (New York)
We can only indirectly approach it by referring to terms like healing, spiritual
deliverance, spiritual guidance or spiritual warfare.(18)
(18) Oliver McMahan, “Spiritual Direction in the Pentecostal/Charismatic Tradition”, 156; Anderson, An
Introduction to Pentecostalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 234.
Counseling is understood as part of the progressive pursuit of holiness
and one of its most powerful tools is the prayer. Reflecting my observations
about the context of prison above, I like to subsume my understanding
of counseling in a charismatic perspective in the prison context under the
following aspects: Physicality, mutuality, empowerment, spiritual warfare,
spiritual guidance, reframing, and what I like to call salvation realism.
The term ‘salvation realism’ needs explanation: It stands in contrast to
a soteriology that sees man in a dialectic tension, a simultaneity of God’s
justification and a continuing power of sin, as e.g. in the Lutheran
tradition where salvation is understood relationally, as change in how God
sees me; habitual change of my person – the actual sanctification process – is
deemphasized. In contrast, the Pentecostal-charismatic tradition’s emphasis
on sanctification claims real and significant change to happen. While Lutheran
soteriology has its strength in providing a realistic perspective on human
existence, it lacks incentive for effective change. In a prison context where
many people carry deep wounds and need thorough healing, an approach
that provides more incentive, offers more guidance, aims more at cognitive
behavioral change, and stresses spiritual discipline may be more appropriate.
One of the typical ways through which cognitive change happens is
reframing. Although reframing is a common term in counseling, not
restricted to charismatic tradition, I like to show that it has a special
affinity to charismatic faith expressions. Reframing assumes that the way
we look at reality has a direct effect on how this reality shapes us. A key
element in reframing is that it has a self-fulfilling element, like a student who
learns in the first driving lesson to focus on the direction he or she wants to
drive. When we focus on an obstacle we will naturally move towards it: if we
focus on failure, we will fail. If we focus on the reality of imprisonment, we
will see only bars all around us. The positive direction of thought uncovered
by reframing releases a strengthening energy that turns an originally narrow
reality into one that is dynamic and full of potential. Reframing is not
concerned about the roots of psychological suffering, but about how to solve
it. An example of reframing is when inmates say that their arrest has actually
been a blessing in disguise, e.g.:
“If it were not for being here, I might have already been killed.” Or:
“Imprisonment saved me from going further down the road of drug
addiction.” “It is God who brought me to prison so that I would be
saved.” Or: “God has shown me a way to learn about Him and get
close to Him through encountering Christ behind bars.”
Such reframing, although at times hard to be taken without reservation, is
a kind of surrender that trusts in the Spirit’s guidance in a special life situation.
It has an auto-suggestive effect and turns the primarily negative experience
of imprisonment into a positive experience that allows new direction or
may even have saved one’s life. Many inmates discover quitting smoking,
gambling, or swearing as possible behaviour changes applicable to life in
prison. They equally recognize that success in achieving such goals strengthens
a person’s confidence.
It is important to note that it matters where suggestions for reframing comes
from. If it comes from an inmate, it is his or her active and successful way
of reframing a painful experience. It gives significance to an experience of
distress and meaning to a time that is usually seen as void of meaning. It is,
however, crucial not to impose reframing on others. It can be very cynical
when a visitor says: “At least by going to prison you have met the Lord Jesus
Christ.” Such a statement – and I have heard it many times – extends the image
of a punishing God, gives legitimacy to punishment, and is insensitive to
the reality of suffering involved in imprisonment. Visitors’ spiritual guidance
of inmates in their process of reframing and cognitive shifts happens through
(19) Andrew Lester and Howard W. Stone: Helping Parishioners Envision the Future, in: Stone, Howard W.
(ed.), Strategies for Brief Pastoral Counseling (Minneapolis: Fortress Press 2001), 49ff. offer a variety of
methods how a person can be helped to develop hope.
The techniques that aim at bringing cognitive shifts show affinity to various
more or less serious psychological schools, among them the psychology of
positive thinking, popularized by Norman Vincent Peale (1952), The Power
of Positive Thinking, cognitive restructuring, (20) personal excellence training,
motivation-based management styles, or success modeling in athletics and
dozens of pop-psychology schools. One of their common principles is ‘Fake
it till you make it!’ Although in many ways problematic and open for abuse,
it is certainly a principle that is effective to trigger cognitive change and it
is a principle that is not alien to the Pentecostal tradition, particularly to its
Faith Movement (Word of Faith).(21) They share the idea that many problems
and conflicts have their roots in wrong thought, in negative programming and
in harmful perceptions that can be overcome through conscious training.(22)
Mind and language can remold and change reality. Faith groups are training
grounds for such cognitive change to happen.(23)
(20) L.R. Probst, “Cognitive Psychology and Psychotherapy”, in: Rodney J. Hunter (ed.), Dictionary of Pastoral
Care and Counseling (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990), 189.
(21) See for instance the critical comments in this article
(22) See for example the American Community Corrections Institute’s list of erroneous beliefs, in this article
(23) An example of an empirical study about one such cognitive-behavioral program is offered by Stephen T.
Hall, “Faith-Based Cognitive Programs in Corrections”, Corrections Today 65/7 (2003), 108ff.
6. Charismatic worship in prison
These processes of reframing, of spiritual guidance, and of cognitive and
behavioral training now happen less in the traditional word-based and one-to-one
therapeutic setting, but in the collective experience of worship celebration
that may include music and bodily movements. Here, the experiential,
one may say physical needs of young men with often little education
and limited strength of verbal expression find satisfaction. The extended
singing and the bodily involvement have an energizing, strengthening, and
reframing power on many inmates. The non-verbal character of worship touches
on the different aspects of human life, spiritually and bodily. The singing
and the movement of the music contrast the overwhelming dullness of prison.
Some of the most powerful experiences of visitors are connected to joint
worship that offers a radically alternative experience to the overall
atmosphere of prison: The power of a group of male basses singing
together, the silence of a meditative worship, a prayer where
individuals jointly address God. All are ‘peak experiences’ of encounter with
the Holy Spirit and bring participants in touch with transcendence.
During a period of time, I had invited a charismatic preacher to lead
the worship services in prison. The services included patterns with
clearly reframing effects – for example, when he invited people to
respond with shouts of ‘Hallelujah’, or when he led in prayer
and invited people to speak after him. Such an expressive
worship turns into a training ground for people to learn
alternative language and perception patterns. The worship has a
collectively reframing effect and can cause real transformation
by dissolving destructive patterns by which to perceive reality.
Another key aspect of charismatic counseling is empowerment. It similarly
happens more in the collective setting than in the one-to-one encounter.
Empowerment counters the radical experience of disempowerment in the prison
context. It is enhanced by the mutuality and equality of joint celebration and
worshipping where inmates themselves may take up leadership roles and visitors
turn into guests. Worship that is prepared, designed, and conducted by
people from outside for those inside remains alien to the inmates, no matter
how well-planned it is. It is a service for the benefit of the inmates and turns
them into recipients.
On the other hand, a worship, where the planning and the leadership
belong to the inmates, turns them into subjects and gives them
ownership over what they plan. The content and style of such worship will
naturally reflect the concerns and questions of the inmates. When inmates
join together to plan and conduct worship, they enter into a community of
like-mindedness that allows them to see their situation in relation to other
people and experience something of normal life. Any program that treats
inmates as subjects and counters the norm of disempowerment will revive
inmates and strengthen their subject status.
Worship transcends the one-to-one dimension, receives a cumulative effect,
and can affect large parts of a prison community. It is a place where both
visitors and inmates grow together and overcome the separation between
those there and us here. If such collective convergence takes off, it can turn a
group of individual prisoners and visitors, each one alone in their loneliness,
into a healing community. Here, communication happens as much through
non-verbal means. Pain is, in part, resistant to language and cannot really be
shared. In the words of Elaine Scarry, ‘whatever pain achieves, it achieves
in part through its unsharability, and it ensures this unsharability through its
resistance to language.’(24)
(24) See about pain and pain’s resistance to language Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and
Unmaking of the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 4ff; further Craig Haney, Reforming
Punishment. Psychological Limits to the Pains of Imprisonment (Washington, DC: American Psychological
Association, 2006). 9f.
Although the chance to express pain verbally should be regarded
as an important element in a healing process, we must constantly
be aware that pain not only resists communication but empathy as well.
Chaplains or other full-time care persons of those in prison do well to remember
that, eventually, they cannot really grasp what it means to be in prison.
It is a typical professional deformation when this principle is forgotten.
Testimonials play an important role in such worships. They give inmates a
rare chance of publicly presenting themselves in a different light to how they
are usually perceived and to redefine themselves.(25)
(2) Harvey Cox, Fire from heaven, 133.
Testimonies from both visitors and inmates about their experiences
of brokenness and grace encourage others to admit their own failure
and brokenness. From my experience, the testimonies with the
deepest impact are those that stress the on-going spiritual struggle,
admit the less glorious sides of their life, and do not hide their wounds.
A visitor shared during worship his own history of alcoholism and
what made him overcome it and grow from there. What made his
sharing particularly moving was that he was not looking back on a
remote past but reflecting on issues that he still struggled with.
Although he had experienced God’s grace in being transformed, his
sharing lacked any victorious triumphalism.
A visitor who frankly admits wounds moves closer to the inmates than
somebody who appears surrounded by an aura of glory. The same applies to
ex-offenders who share the stories of their journeys. Seeing an ex-offender
in the role of a visitor, integrated in the life and ministry of the church,
allows inmates to get a glimpse of what is also possible for them. Seeing
how an ex-offender has successfully changed his or her life gives hope.
Finally, we can interpret the worship as a whole and the prayer in
particular, both the individual and the prayer in the one-to-one setting,
as part of a spiritual warfare that transforms the prison as a whole.
A powerful charismatic message describing such transformation
is the story of Paul and Silas in prison: their incessant prayer and
singing caused an earthquake that shattered the prison and brought
freedom to all the inmates (Acts 16:16-40).
Spiritual warfare relates to many inmates’ experience of standing in an
existential struggle against demonic forces. In the midst of all their struggles
for dignity, for recovery, for revival in a most difficult environment, they can
experience something even greater: the presence and power of the Spirit.(26)
(26) Richard Shaull and Waldo Cesar, Pentecostalism and the future of the Christian churches. Promises,
limitations, challenges (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2000), 162.
Revivalist worships, singing that can be heard throughout the prison, celebrations
of joy and sometimes hearty laughter, build the most powerful contrast
reality to the depressing atmosphere that prisons often deliberately create.
As a conclusion, I like to highlight four critical aspects of charismatic spirituality
in prison. First, a Pentecostal-charismatic spirituality that is too rigidly
concerned with a narrowly defined path of sanctification, Christian
perfection, or spirit baptism, even more so if spirit baptism is understood
as manifested by speaking in tongues, does not work in the prison context.
One may have noted that my survey of points of convergence between charismatic
spirituality and prison ministry has only in passing and indirectly touched on
some of the core points of Pentecostal-charismatic theology.
The reason is that such theological elements are not relevant for the prison
context. For instance, speaking in tongues in a public setting is,
at least from my experience, not something that appeals to inmates.
Inmates who spend every day from morning to evening together are
reluctant to risk to appear mad. I remember that when running an
Alpha Course in prison, I had invited a famous charismatic
preacher to lead through the three sections on the Holy Spirit. The
result of her and her helper trying to convey the blessing of the Holy
Spirit to the inmates was rather sobering. Some of the inmates left the
worship room; some stopped joining at all. Some later confided to me
that they felt embarrassed; others reported that they found the whole
Equally, the teaching of premillennialism is of little appeal to those in
prison. Although inmates surely like the idea of being released from their
tribulations, they don’t like the idea of a rapture before having been out of
prison and been reunited with their family in normal life.
A second aspect has to do with the danger of abuse. Although this is
generally a danger in a context of charismatic leadership,(27) the strong
dependence needs that are typical for the prison context exacerbate this danger and
increase the risk of manipulation. People in crisis (as many people in
prison are, at least for some periods) are highly receptive. They are less
defensive, more vulnerable, more accessible to help from outside, more
willing to enter into dependent relationships, and more open to new ways of
coping with problems.
(27) See for instance the presentation of Steve Fogarty at last year’s APAC meeting, “The Dark Side of Charismatic
Leadership”, Kuala Lumpur, 17-18 August 2010.
This emotional state is, of course, also an opportunity for spiritual change.
But the heightened vulnerability and accessibility can also
be exploited when visitors take quick advantage to turn inmates to Christ, or
when they lead people into deeper dependency and into regressive forms of
faith. Such evangelism turns the biblical message of the cross upside down;
it expresses a mentality of conquest and extension of one’s own ‘empire’,
and puts the inmates in a situation of ‘my way or the highway’. Structurally,
it is not much different to Triad recruitment. Insensitive evangelism makes
inmates feel that their relational bond with visitors is conditional on positive
reception of the Christian faith.
Closely related to this aspect is a third point: Prisons are places that, in the
word of one inmate “completely sap people’s energies and strengths”. Even
though inmates in some Asian contexts (more so than in the West, according
to my experience) maintain a facade of normality, one does not need
to dig deep to touch on feelings of overwhelming paralysis and frustration.
J.K. Rowling’s description of the dementors, the guards of the wizard prison,
soulless creatures sucking all joy and hope from those they encounter, comes
very close to the dominant feeling of people in prison. It is a great temptation
for visitors to counter such dominant hopelessness and weariness with activism.
Charismatic spirituality has a strongly activist element, not only in its
evangelistic zeal, but equally in its spontaneity and in its extraversion.(28)
(28) Leslie J. Francis and Susan H. Jones, “Personality and Charismatic Experience among Adult Christians”,
Pastoral Psychology 45/6 (1997), 426.
Such communicative behaviour can indeed be an asset and strength in a context
of general lethargy and can pull inmates out from their apathy and boredom.
There is, however, a danger that the visitors’ activist interaction with inmates
overpowers them and fails to take into account the imbalance between the
two. In that case, it loses its empowering strength; the liberating and lifegiving
power of the gospel is spoiled. Visitors’ interventions should abstain
from any triumphalistic vision of change. Change should emerge from the
striving of an inmate and not be the activist project of a visitor. Charismatic
visitors who come as a spiritual whirlwind with energy and the will to shake
the foundations of the prison often leave an even greater emptiness behind.
Finally, prison ministry – as other ministries to people at the margins of
society – is commonly perceived as a ministry of compassion and as part
of the diaconia of the church. This applies equally to Pentecostal-charismatic
as to other Christian groups’ social engagement. It is true that Jesus
was often moved by compassion to the people when engaging in caring
acts. However, we stand at a different position: When we base our social
engagement on compassion, we are in danger of approaching those in need with
Such an attitude reinstates a separation that is part of the root cause of pain,
as particularly evident for those in prison. Instead, we need again and again
to return to what Matthew remembers as Jesus’ last speech and what he
presents as Jesus’ soteriological legacy: We feed the poor, welcome the
stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and those in prison not out of
compassion, but as spiritual discipline, to meet Christ in them.