What About Candles in Worship?

Someone wrote me to ask a question about the use of candles in congregational worship. As we are approaching a time of year when many congregations use candles, this is a timely question. Often, however, the way we ask a question can significantly affect the answer we arrive at.

I am starting to see candles used more and more in the services. Now, I know that the Bible never says not to use them, however, my concern comes in with how the world views the use of candles today…The only use of candles in the world today is for mystical and new age experiences. What is the church communicating when we turn off the lights and light candles sitting in an unorganized way? The use of candles seems to suggest that we empty our minds to get an emotional high…Candles just give the service a mystical feeling. A feeling that I do not believe to be grounded in Scripture…So what do you think about all this? Should I stand against this as bringing pagan worship methods into the church? Or should I think of this as changing times?

I appreciate this person’s desire to watch out for compromise in our worship of God. We always need to be on the alert for ways the world is making inroads into our thinking. However, before I answer the question I want to make a few comments on the way the question was asked.

It sounds like the questioner has some pre-conceived ideas about why a church would use candles. But we can’t automatically equate certain external forms with heart intentions. People often use candles at weddings, but I don’t think the motive is anything mentioned above. People have claimed that churches who use overhead projectors also offer “talk-show,” man-centered sermons. That’s guilt by association, which is unhelpful, unwise, and uncharitable.

It also sounds like the questioner has decided what effect candles have. “Candles just give the service a mystical feeling.” That may be true in some instances and for some people. But, candles might intentionally be used to illustrate Jesus coming as the Light of the world, or highlight that the Word of God is a light for our path. They could also be used to emphasize that we are God’s people who have been called out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Pet. 2:9). The atmosphere that multiple candles produce can also draw attention to the awe we should experience as we encounter the God of the universe. However that should be balanced by the fact that we are clothed in the righteousness of Christ and can enter God’s presence with freedom and boldness (Eph. 3:12).

I think we have more than two choices in response to the use of candles. We don’t need to stand against this as “pagan worship” because that relationship can’t be established. Neither should we simply accept it as part of “changing times.” Change will surely come, but not all change is beneficial. Every generation is responsible to weigh innovation, new methodologies, and new forms against the authority of Scripture.

Although it could have been expressed better, the concern here is a valid one. We don’t want to use multiple candles simply to create an environment of mystery, without being aware of potential downsides. Candles don’t bring God nearer or reveal his character in specific ways. They might be used occasionally for illustration, but should never become a central element in our worship of God. We can’t expect candles, banners, music, or any other aesthetic element to produce what only God can do through the Gospel, His Word, and the Holy Spirit. An over-emphasis on means can result in distracting people from the object of our focus – the glory of God in the face of Christ (2 Cor. 4:6), most clearly proclaimed in the glorious Gospel.

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7 Responses to What About Candles in Worship?

  1. Kyle November 18, 2006 at 11:15 AM #

    Agreed, but I wouldn’t exactly call candles an innovation. They’ve been used for hundreds of years in both Catholic and Orthodox churches, primarily as a symbolic representation of the “prayers of the saints” Scented candles, for instance, can be a good stand-in for the incense mentioned in Revelation 8:4, which are said to accompany “the prayers of the saints.”

  2. Rich November 18, 2006 at 6:39 PM #

    I once heard Louie Giglio give a message that described an early-church practice of keeping a single candle lit in Christ’s tomb to represent the light of Christ.
    We then recited the Phos Hilaron (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phos_Hilaron) as a single candle was carried in and set on the stage… an interesting use of a candle for a specific purpose.
    The Phos Hilaron was included on the Passion Hyns CD.
    -Rich

  3. Charlie November 18, 2006 at 9:53 PM #

    Thank you for your thoughts on this Bob. I totally agree with you that candles are not, in and of themselves, evil. I believe that your point of candles being used to point to Christ is very helpful. Yet, when I have been apart of the worship services that use candles, no explanation has been given. They are just there. I immediately associate the candles with New Age practices. This is a biasness I have, I guess.

    I do need to make myself clear on one point though. I have not been troubled by uses of candles in weddings and the likes. The worship services that this has come up are just normal worship services (apart from the candles). In these services, there is no light except for the candles. It is very difficult to describe the exact picture of what it looks like. The candles were not in any holders and scattered around the place we were worshiping. Like I stated earlier, they are just their, with no explanation why. I am just standing there, wondering what the use of the candles are. Maybe you have never been in one of these services and do not understand what I am trying to describe to you?

    Anyway, I do want to thank you for answering my concern. sorry that it was not expressed the best way. Thank you for pointing out to me that I need to get the info about the intended meaning of the candles from the worship leader.

    Your last paragraph was great.
    “We can’t expect candles, banners, music, or any other aesthetic element to produce what only God can do through the Gospel, His Word, and the Holy Spirit. An over-emphasis on means can result in distracting people from the object of our focus – the glory of God in the face of Christ (2 Cor. 4:6), most clearly proclaimed in the glorious Gospel.” Amen!

    Thanks again and God bless!

    Soli Deo Gloria
    Charlie

  4. Monte November 22, 2006 at 1:32 AM #

    I wonder if it could be that our world is attracted to New Age religion because western Christian practice has fenced out mystery.
    Could it be that such symbols are a yearning to break out, not of orthodoxy or Biblicality, but of the post-enlightenment, strictly cognitive approach that most of us have grown up with?

  5. Robin November 22, 2006 at 10:18 AM #

    I think it’s a shame that many years of Christian heritage is dismissed as being “New Age”. We lost so much – candles, incense, art, dance, meditation along with a reputation for peace, love and community – what were we thinking?

    It’s true there’s no theology of candles, and there is no theology of lighting, soft seats or wallpaper. Candles enable us, i believe, to create an environment conducive to prayer – it’s pretty and we’ve enjoyed staring into fire forever. Do we as christians need to stand in a blank, white, unadorned room to worship or can we surround ourselves with the creativity of our God and perhaps help people relax :)

    God has given us so many senses to experience and to enter into worship with and yet we seem to use only our ears and voices. Can not a cathedral of candles be a joy to our eyes, heat to our skin and pleasure to our nose as the finest melodies may be to our ears?

    The greatest distraction i have from focusing on God is the noise in my head and the activity in front of my eyes. Closing my eyes leaves me with the noise whereas focusing my sight on a flame soothes both my sight and my mind and helps me draw close to God.

  6. Laurie November 27, 2006 at 5:50 PM #

    The Candlelight Christmas Service has always been a favorite for us. But, let it be noted, always the emphasis is on the world being in darkness (no candles lit), Jesus being sent into that darkness (one candle lit), and then creative ways of spreading the light until the whole room is alight with a beautiful picture of how the gospel has spread in the last 2000 years.

  7. Paul M November 28, 2006 at 9:25 AM #

    Just an obscure reference: During the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church, many churches, in light of those who suffer for the sake of the Gospel, will imitate underground house churches by using one candle as their only light source to read the word as a whole. This isn’t to imitate some mystical seance, but is truly their only source of light (as symbolic as it may be!) for sometimes a large crowd of people. And beyond that, they only have one Word to share, if not only a few pages of the Word! I believe it not only creates a deep appreciation and love for those in countries that persecute Christians who need to meet under those circumstances, but it could also bring a sense of intimacy to the local body of Christ. Not that the candle creates intimacy, but I do envy their intimacy that they experience in those house churches. I believe that it is something that Christians in the US have never experienced because there are so many grey areas in “Americanized” Christianity and their faith in Christ is black and white. If they believe in Christ, they are willing to die for the gospel. In America, there are so many “grey” areas that we can tweak it to please everyone.

    Just a thought on the use of candles…

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