October 19, 2015

Private Candles in German Protestant Churches

It is now commonplace in German Protestant churches to find private, non-liturgical candles burning in wordless prayer. These candles, lit by individuals who might spend little time in church themselves, represent a transformation of classical Protestantism that highlights shifts between public (congregational) and private (individual) religiosity, and perhaps between what we might call “institutional theology” and “individualistic spirituality.” If Martin Luther (1483-1546) were to visit a Protestant church in present-day Germany, he might be shocked to see the new forms of spirituality that have emerged there. Seeing the candles, Luther might be relieved to notice that the church had no statues, that the candles were lit before plain walls. However, he might be puzzled that the next Protestant church contains a huge statue of the Virgin Mary looking out onto a similar sea of candles and flyers filled with prayers and poetry. But, perhaps on further reflection, he might recognize in such practices some aspect of the Protestant Reformation that he began: namely, he recognize at the core of such practices an echo of the Reformation’s erasure of spiritual hierarchy and the dissolution of centralized power to grant or deny access to God.


In a time of social and religious unrest, the Protestant Reformation began in sixteenth-century Wittenberg (Germany) as the protest of a theologian and other academics against the practice of selling indulgences. Mainstream Protestantism of the Lutheran variety developed out of this protest. Lutheranism developed as a spirituality of reading and memorizing Bible verses, singing, listening to sermons, and reflecting on interior and exterior life. Theoretically, Protestants consider everyone equally close to God, and believe that people require neither human mediators for access to the divine nor a system for the distribution of holiness: salvation requires only faith. (That Protestant theologians thinking about the selection and pre-election of the faithful wrote very thick volumes and used their arguments as a means of power and guidance of the flock is no secret.) This flattening of the spiritual hierarchy made some religious practices obsolete: believing the sacrifice of Christ to have been made once and for all, Luther and other reformers saw no need for priests to re-enact that sacrifice in the mass, no cause to plead with saints to intercede on one’s behalf, and no justification for the practice of paying those seen as higher up in a spiritual hierarchy) to convey one’s prayers more effectively.

The lack of hierarchy was also reflected in the aesthetic of Protestant churches: the number of altars was reduced and statues of saints, no longer necessary as intercessors and guarantors of salvation, disappeared. Many churches changed from dimmed halls into bright prayer rooms, and the choir became largely useless, except for the occasional communion. The pulpit—always a symbol, its place and its decoration reflecting current understandings of the word of God and the role of the clergy—became the new liturgical center.

In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, dialectical theology sought to purify the Protestant church of worldly contamination by erasing from it everything that did not correspond to the gospel. Again, pure faith was the only answer to God’s call. And again, the theology was expressed in the aesthetic of the church, especially the pulpit. The congregation was placed under the pulpit—under judgment—while the light of the gospel, or God’s grace, fell from above. But, in time, this authoritarian theology collapsed under its own weight. In the 1960s, people demanded new, more personal liturgies, as they sought greater self-expression in religion. Once again, the (re)placement of the pulpit was symbolic: in the 1960s and 1970s, they were lowered, or even removed, as pastors were no longer seen to stand above the congregations, handing down the word of God.

This re-flattening of the spiritual hierarchy was again accompanied by new possibilities of religious expression, including the lighting of individual candles in church. Though private candles had previously been associated with Catholic rituals, bringing light into the darkness of human existence as a symbolic act was close enough to biblical references, and it was not forbidden. Protestant churches developed installations for lighting candles. As with the pulpit, the form and placement of these installations can tell us something about the ongoing negotiation between private and public religiosity in Protestant churches.


Private, individual spirituality in public, Protestant space

As German Protestant churches function primarily as rooms for listening to public sermons, they do not need to be open except during services. There is nothing to be adored, no holy communication except at the time of the service. But, since some churches interest tourists, the congregations open their doors between services. Churches therefore serve a strange double purpose as spiritual hotspots and as non-functional symbols of the congregation’s hospitality and the institution’s openness. The current practice of individual candle lighting must be seen in this context. The churches are public, Protestant spaces; but the motivation to light a candle or to write down a prayer or a sentence is private, and is not bounded by faith or denomination.

We can distinguish three main types of installations for lighting individual candles in Protestant churches. The first is close to the classic Catholic style.

This installation—a sort of spiritual art—is on the floor of St. Peter’s church in Hamburg. It is in a state of constant change, as many visitors write and draw in the sand. There is a prayer on the wall behind the installation, but the theology of the prayer and the spiritual practice of the candles and sand are not the same. Perhaps the provided text is a way for the institution to make a Protestant statement, to serve as a guide in the act of turning candle lighting officially into a prayer, and to juxtapose the transience of writing in the sand with what one might consider the permanence of a plea to God. At the same time, the spiritually private nature of candle lighting and the individual nature of whatever one may write in the sand lets happen whatever may happen there. Quite often, one can see hearts and initials in the sand, presumably created by couples seeking heavenly protection for their love: this tradition speaks in a different spiritual register than the prayer on the wall.

In St. Michael’s church in Hamburg, we see an example of the next style, the cauldron. Here, the candle installations illustrate the difficulty of adapting a liturgical space with its own history and architecture to changing patterns of spirituality. St. Michael’s is a baroque Protestant space resembling a theater, where everyone can see and hear the preacher on the huge pulpit. But, in this picture, we see a cauldron filled with sand in which to place decorated candles. This cauldron and another one just in front of the steps to the choir have been placed in places of no real significance. These are not spaces for prayer, solitude, or meditation—each is a sort of non-place, but within the spatial organization of a church building. Above the cauldron, a table shows numbers corresponding to songs to be sung during the service, but these things are in proximity, not in actual relation.

New forms of spirituality have no adequate place here—the church was not built to accommodate recent spiritual practices, but the need is obvious. This is spirituality seeking a place it has only found in the margins, not in the very center.

The Marktkirche in Hannover gives another example of candles and individual prayers in Protestant churches. In a number of churches, one may find a heavy bronze tree with candles placed at the end of the branches. The tree seems to blossom with fire, possibly in reference to the burning bush that Moses saw; to the grape, a biblical symbol of unity and individuality; or to the tree of life. (It seems to me that the variety of interpretations represents the postmodern openness of meaning.) In the Marktkirche, visitors may write down prayers to be read during the noon liturgy and pin them to the adjacent wall. The connection between the prayers and the tree of light is not obvious, though it may somehow be intended. The tree stands by itself as a strong symbol, and other practices seem to be minor. I interpret this lack of clarity as an unfinished search for adequate forms of emerging expressions of faith.

In the photograph, we also see a specifically Protestant spirituality in evidence. The locked trolley on the left contains the songbooks for the Sunday service: it serves only for public services, not for private prayers or candle lightning. There may be some uneasiness about the mixture of private and public piety.


The ability to light private candles in Protestant churches is one of many new expressions of faith. Installations like the ones examined here contrast the exclusively institutionally expression of faith with a more fluid and personalized spirituality, one that makes accommodations to personal needs and interests. That these Protestant spaces now offer the ability to light a candle is neither completely self-explanatory from the history of Protestant piety nor contradictory to it. It can be understood through the interaction of a fundamentally Protestant impulse and larger social trends towards personalization and individualized spiritual expression.

September 4, 2015

Interview III: Jeanie Hoskin

Jeanie is an American housewife. Due to her husband Jeff’s job, they spent a few years in the United Kingdom. Jeff was transferred a few months ago to Mumbai, where he and Jennie have been attending Pastor Shekhar Kallianpur’s church in Juhu.

In this interview, Jeanie shares her churchgoing experiences in the United States, the United Kingdom, and now in Mumbai. She draws comparisons between the fellowship in the United Kingdom and in Mumbai, and describes her experience of living in a city where Christians are a minority.

For more details, a complete transcript can be downloaded here.

September 2, 2015

Interview I: Pastor Shekhar Kallianpur

These are excerpts from an interview with Pastor Shekhar Kallianpur. Pastor Shekhar is affiliated with the New Life Fellowship Association and conducts an English-language church service in Juhu, Mumbai. His church is one of the most affluent—many Bollywood actors, athletes, and business families are associated with it. Pastor Shekhar’s church is also actively involved in many crusades, projects such as Power to Change, and various prayer activities in public spaces.

In the following interview, he talks about what it means to be a believer, praying for the city of Mumbai and its citizens. He also comments on India’s anti-conversion laws and discusses how he thinks the believer church’s efforts towards transformation are being misunderstood.

For more details, a complete transcript can be downloaded here.

August 27, 2015

And All God's People Said...: Languages of Prayer in a Global Mega City

The film And All God’s People Said… is an attempt to explore and understand the world of the Pentecostal church in India’s most culturally and linguistically diverse and cosmopolitan city, Mumbai. A significant dimension of Pentecostal practice revolves around the deliberate cultivation of multilingualism, stemming ultimately from the belief that God empowers true believers with the gift of tongues. The film focuses on speech, drawing implicit connections between prayer (speaking to God, often before a human audience) and evangelical efforts that seek to communicate across divisions of language, culture, and class.

In a land where identities are ideologically constructed in terms of place, Pentecostal practice unsettles received national and subnational nativist understandings. The Christian population in India is approximately 2.3 percent of the total population; Pentecostal Christians (or “believers” as they call themselves) are perhaps only 0.1 percent, but they are the fastest growing segment of Indian Christianity. Indeed, they are the only segment that is winning new converts, both from mainstream Christianity and from Hinduism, in any appreciable numbers.

In India, the Christian minority is attacked by Hindu nationalists who believe that Hinduism, as the majority religion, should also be treated as the national religion. Anti-conversion laws have been passed in several Indian states in an attempt to prevent the spread of Christianity and other “foreign” religions, like Islam. And All God’s People Said… tells the story of some of those who do not think in such terms. The film explores the lives of Gauri, Aruna, Raj and Shankar, four first generation Pentecostal Christians in Mumbai. All four of them are from different religious, cultural and economic backgrounds, and all have chosen to convert to Christianity, to be part of the Pentecostal church. During this film they share their life stories, the reasons behind their choices, and how these decisions have changed their lives. Through their stories we get an insight into the Pentecostal churches in the culturally and religiously diverse city of Mumbai.

While working on this film I gathered a substantial amount of audio-video footage which ultimately was not included in the film. I have therefore converted the audio-visual data into an online interactive archive. This archive has free access for those who are interested in knowing more about the believer community in Mumbai. The digital archive includes maps to give an idea of locations at which the footage was shot. The archive includes notes on the various locations and allows the researcher to view extended footage of interviews, prayer meetings, and various prayer activities.

This film was made possible through the Social Science Research Council’s New Directions in the Study of Prayer initiative, with support from the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed in this film are those of the participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Social Science Research Council or the John Templeton Foundation.

August 22, 2013

A Life With God in Prayer

As a professor and journalist my primary academic focus is about researching and reporting on how people interact with God. The direct experience of God has been of endless interest to me my entire life, probably since the moment my caretaker told me about prayer, and how it was possible to speak with God by praying.

It was quite a revelation to be told that God was with me, even inside me, and that He was listening when I prayed, either in Church with others via rituals, or by myself, aloud or silently. The idea of God being present and accessible, essentially in every way, was amazing.

In the last few years I’ve gathered empirical and experiential data in the form of stories and methodologies of Christian prayer, all about people’s direct interactions with God. I’ve tried to connect antiquity with contemporary practices, recorded and output in several media: text, oral histories, ethnographic film, and audio. My findings have been published in several media: a mass-market trade book, Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer, a documentary feature film and national PBS television special under the same title, and a national public radio program, “Rethinking Religion: the Harlem Renaissance.” I also have an academic book in the works on hesychia or silent prayer, coming in early 2014 published by Fortress Academic Press.

Recently, while researching and planning to produce and direct a new PBS network television movie, “Sacred,” a filmed anthology of worldwide rituals (WNET, New York), I had the opportunity to be interviewed by monks at Vatopaidi Monastery on Holy Mount Athos in Greece, which was featured in their new online journal, “Pemptousia.” I discuss my doctoral research on the Jesus Prayer, and how I was inspired to create a feature film and book on the subject.

The monks were also quite interested in an article I had previously written for the Huffington Post Religion section on “Why It’s Cool to Go to Church Again.” The monks asked me to update and revise it for their journal, Pemptousia. This is a mass-market glimpse of what some people say they encounter through Church, and through prayer in a ritualized context.

May 29, 2013

More on Prayer Memes and Negotiating Spiritual Meaning in Public Spaces

As one national tragedy follows another, the ubiquitous Twitter prayer meme—the most recent in the aftermath of the tornados in Oklahoma (#PrayForOklahoma)—continues to attract attention from media religion-watchers. I spoke this week to CNN Belief Blog co-editor Daniel Burke about the phenomenon as a marker of changing American religiosity:

The social-media sparring over prayer and God’s will reflect a culture in which traditional notions of religion – and the places where people talk about faith – are changing faster than a Twitter feed, said Drescher, the Santa Clara lecturer.

“We’re watching people re-articulate what it means to be spiritual and religious,” she said.

The full story is here.

While not specifically focused on the spiritual practice of prayer, a recent story I wrote for Religion Dispatches on a the response of a village church in Western New York to an act of vandalism highlights the negotiation of religious meaning in public spaces. I suggest that Grace Episcopal Church, Rudolph takes seriously the built church itself as social media, engaging creatively and compassionately with a local tagger, effecting its own “conversion” to new ways of being church:

But the bigger conversion, it seems to me, is of a small church in a world of changing, arguably declining, religiosity recognizing that the main currents of religious and spiritual meaning-making flow outside its doors. It’s the story of a fairly traditional church actively recognizing that religious doubt, religious critique, and all manner of theological questioning that once would have been seen as belonging squarely within the clapboard walls of a village church unfold in a much wider, much more broadly networked universe.

The initial story is available here. It turns out that, “after school special style,” the family of the tagger approached the church to make restitution on behalf of their son. A follow-up piece is in the works.