(Originally Published on 3/30/08)
Thanks to Tim Sheets http://timsheets.blogspot.com/ (See also the links section of this blog) for his request that I relate what I have experienced while engaging in prison ministry. Recently he came across my new blog, http://www.aworkerapproved.blogspot.com/ , and read my profile. He saw that I have three years experience in prison ministry. He is involved in such a ministry himself and wanted to know what I meant by the term "prison ministry" and requested that I relate my own experiences concerning such ministry.
I use the term "prison ministry" to refer to any ministry that is involved with reaching those incarcerated in jail or on parole with the Gospel. Each year I was involved in such an outreach was different from the other two. The term refers to all types of ministry done inside and outside of jails. I never really gave a lot of thought to the term I use to describe these ministries. When Tim asked me to describe my experiences, I thought that I ought to share them with all those who may read this blog. I hope these next three articles will be beneficial not only to those who are involved in similar endeavors but for all who are called to share God's Word concerning salvation and discipleship. Even though there was much material to be covered, it did not take long to write the draft; I found the experience great fun and a blessing to recall how I saw God work during these times.
My first year of prison ministry was from 1999-2000 in my hometown before I went to seminary. For one year, I went to the County Court House where the local jail was located. This facility, which no longer exists, was the first step for those accused of crimes, be they murder, burglary, or car theft, etc. I was recruited for this ministry by someone in my home church. We had two hours, 7-9 P.M., to reach all the men on all three floors of the jail. These men were allowed to be out of their cells but still behind bars while we spoke to them from a little alley way of a hallway. This arrangement precluded any formal preaching. We came to listen, pray, and respond to these men from God's Word. Never before had I seen the power of the Holy Spirit empower the presenting of God's Word to impact lives to such an extent. We relied on nothing but the power of the Spirit to open these men's eyes to what Scripture was saying to them. We used no methodologies or apologetics to speak of. We listened, and the Holy Spirit never failed to have the answer to their questions.
There was one scripture I have always found effective in these settings, Matt 7: 9-12. (This was a verse that was instrumental in my own conversion.) Among its many meanings, it tells us that while all men and women were born in sin, there is a form of goodness in all men. It tells us that Church is not just for the "good people" and that "bad people" are excluded. One guy shared with me that when he had accompanied his girlfriend to Church, many in the Church objected to his presence. One woman claimed that he had a "devil." I used Matt. 7: 9-12 to demonstrate that even as sinners we had a capacity for goodness, yet all, no matter how good, needed a savior; Jesus had to die for our sins. No one is so good that they are worthy of going to Church while others have been so wicked that God wants nothing to do with them. The Lord ministered to that man and all who heard us that evening. Those who were hostile to the Gospel saw for the first time that the Gospel is for all, even for them. And they wanted to hear more. (Incarceration makes people want to talk to someone, anyone.)
During this time I learned that most people in jail have had some exposure to the Gospel. Some nights, 100% of those I spoke with had some relative praying for them or had had some contact with Scripture. Often times the Christian witness they had been exposed to had been faulty: someone had taught them falsehoods or had lived a double life before them. Exposing these men to what the Bible had to say concerning what they had been taught or had observed created in them a desire to know more about the authentic Christian life.
The first people in jail that I led to the Lord were ready to receive the message. The second such person actually asked me when I first approached him, "How can I be saved?" As time went on, I met with more and more challenging situations. One evening, when twenty minutes was all we had left, I approached a young man. He told me that he had twenty-eight different personalities and that he had just tried to kill his mother. He declared that it was too late to pray for him. Speechless, I just listened and waited to see if he said something that could be used as a bridge to the presentation of the Gospel. When he told me that Church did not work for him, I had that bridge. When I asked him why Church did not work for him, he replied that he went every week and he did not change. I asked him what change he expected from Church attendance alone and told him that Church attendance without faith will not change anyone. At the end of twenty minutes, he consented to be prayed for. That incident occurred at the end of my ministry there, so I do not know what had happened to him. I do know that those who were saved often ended up back in jail partly due to the lack of ministry available on the outside.
Not only were the inmates ministered to, the guards and administration of the jail were as well. Some Christians consider the guards and the administration as the "enemy" and all those behind bars as "victims." This attitude could lead to a lack of respect towards those in authority by ministers and create a bad witness. We had a better attitude. We asked them if they needed prayer, and they had the opportunity to hear the Gospel and learn about the Christian life by listening as we spoke to the prisoners. I remember one guard in particular. He was very hostile to our presence in the jail. Once, my knee brushed against the bars and he chewed me out. Yet at the end of that year, he was opening up to us, glad we were there, and asking us for prayer.
(To be continued in Prison Ministry: Year Two.)