“I know you wonder if all the conversions are real,” Joe said to our church council.
He was right. The number of conversions reported by our prison minister (he was a part-time, contract minister) was amazing. “Even if one-tenth of them are real, this is worth it,” Joe declared.
Legendary are the jailhouse conversions. Skeptics view the conversions as ploys to mitigate the prisoners’ punishment. Or as psychological crutches. And skepticism is well warranted when it comes to prison ministry.
But I think all of us around that table agreed with Joe. What if, indeed, one-tenth of the reported conversions were legit?
We had to admit that there were, at least apparently, lots more folks coming to faith in Jesus behind bars than there were people stirring the waters of the baptisteries in our worship services.
The prison ministry at Bon Air Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia, where I served previously as pastor, had begun years earlier and was one of the ministries in which our church found our identity.
We were told it was (and maybe still is) the largest church-based prison ministry on the East Coast.
Once it was suggested to me that one reason God had blessed our church is because we did so much for people who most likely never will visit our buildings.
Prison ministries can take on any number of emphases. Some churches focus on life beyond the bars. Other churches prioritize the families of prisoners or some other worthy effort.
Our emphasis was discipleship – helping people to the point of spiritual conversion and to spiritual growth beyond that.
The worship services were intentionally evangelistic, and the correspondence courses (spiritual discipleship) were intentional and very popular.
From my experience, this is what churches need to know about ministry to incarcerated persons:
1. If any ministry is biblical, it is prison ministry.
There aren’t many more poignant texts in all of Scripture than Jesus’ words about the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25.
Jesus speaks sobering words about the separation of people into eternal life or eternal punishment. And those who are ushered into glory are those who fed the hungry, clothed the naked, looked after the sick and visited those in prison.
Now, I don’t believe we earn our way into heaven by doing those things. I do, however, believe those are evidences of a life genuinely transformed by Jesus.
2. You might get more than you bargained for. Consider the following:
Getting into the prison often requires partnering with those who have a presence in the prisons. Their theology may or may not fit with that of your church.
It’s difficult to know if you’re making a difference. It’s hard to know if you’re just making the prisoners feel good about themselves and making you feel good about yourselves, or if there is something dramatically and eternally life-changing going on.
We had a big ministry of letter writing. There were strict guidelines for our volunteer pen pals; on two occasions, however, volunteers crossed the line and became involved. As you might imagine, that was messy.
Three times people came to our church after their release from prison and said, “I’m a registered sex offender, and I want to attend this church.”
Of course, the church had to decide how to balance our beliefs about new beginnings with our responsibility for the safety of people who came on our property.
3. The key question is: “Do we believe God is calling us to do prison ministry?”
Every church is not called to do everything. We believed God had called us.
In Luke 4, we find Jesus standing in the synagogue in Nazareth preaching one of his inaugural sermons. He said part of his mission was to proclaim freedom to the prisoners.
That reminds me of one of the closing scenes of the movie, “Flight.” The character portrayed by Denzel Washington is in prison speaking to a group of guys about his alcoholism. In doing so, he says to them, “For the first time in my life, I’m free.”
You and I don’t have the authority to declare spiritual freedom to prisoners. But we have the authority to proclaim a freedom of the spirit to people who might not know life outside the walls for a long, long time.
Prison ministry is a tangible way to be the hands and feet of Jesus. And sometimes the prisoners find real freedom.
Travis Collins is senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Huntsville, Alabama. He was an interviewee in EthicsDaily.com’s 2014 documentary, “Through the Door,” on faith and prisons.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series focused on criminal justice. The first article in the series is:
A Different Lens: Seeking Biblical Ethic on Incarceration by Colin Harris