(Originally Published on 3/30/08)
My third year of prison ministry took place in the year 2006-2007. This ministry was totally different from the previous two in that while I label it prison ministry, this ministry did not take place within the walls of a prison. I ministered with my local church in Champaign, IL to men in a State sanctioned Christian ministry. This organization is in Rantoul, IL, outside Champaign. Its purpose is to disciple certain men picked by the State for early release. The men live in a renovated motel in a structured environment for a term of ten months. They work around the facility and attend several ministries that educate them in Christian living. Eventually, the men find employment. I ministered to these men twice a week with one of the elders of the church. On Tuesday mornings, the men drove to the Church; on Thursday afternoons, I drove to their place with the Church elder. I taught on both occasions. The men also came to our church services when they could and I was able to preach to them on these occasions. I went through "The Sermon on the Mount" and John 13-17 with these men, among other lessons. Both the church elder and I had to counter certain teachings from some of the mens' more charismatic teachers. My time with this ministry came to an end. They began to run out of men sent by the State, and the ones the State did send quickly found jobs that made them unavailable to be ministered to. Of the ones I ministered to, only one has gone back to jail. (The evidence against him was VERY suspect.) These men have greater community support than those I ministered to in my hometown.
What are some of the lessons I have learned in these three years of ministry? First, while ministering to those incarcerated, do not sugarcoat sin or their need for a savior. Sympathize with them all as well as you can without thinking of them all as victims. Emphasize repentance and the transformed life that is theirs in Jesus Christ. Minister with the Word of God; rely on the Holy Spirit to open up the Word to these men (and women). Remember, our primary task is not just to preach, but to make disciples. While your teaching must be tailored to your audience, while you must teach so you are understood, understand that these men are just as capable of understanding mature teaching as well as anyone else who is truly seeking after God. After a shorter period of time than you might expect, you will be amazed at the truth they have grasped, even some of the truths of the Trinity. When I was in seminary, some of the theology I learned in Systematic Theology I was able to incorporate into my teachings in jail. These same lessons from class and the required reading was instrumental in transforming my own mind and lifting these men out of the spirit of negativity. Here is a link to a previous blog article about how I incorporated Trinitarian thinking into my teaching. http://therighthandoffellowship.blogspot.com/2007/08/close-encounters-of-theological-kind_17.html . The point must be made that these men were able to grasp truth because deep down in their hearts, they wanted God and were determined not to walk away from Him again. I have taught the same truths to other Christians who didn't want to follow God as these men wanted to. These other Christians told me I was preaching over their heads. One last lesson. My life before conversion was as moral as moral could be. No alcohol, drugs, or sex. Some Christians may think this would hinder my witness to men in prison; it might be thought that these men would not give me any credibility because I have not experienced what they experienced. Such thinking is counter to the counsel of scripture and shows a lack of confidence in the power of the Holy Spirit to use anybody to spread the Gospel. Of all the men I spoke to in those three years, not one rejected what I had to say because of my background. In fact, when I described my background, the men were interested in someone who avoided what they did not avoid and yet needed a savior as much as they did. (It is interesting to note that not one person in jail doubted the claims I made about my almost squeaky-clean life before Christ. The only ones who have doubted have been good Christian people.)
Here is a link to Dr. Matt Friedemans other blog where he gives his perspectives on prison ministry: http://inpugna.blogspot.com/2007_12_01_archive.html . (Scroll down to 12/3) The observation that really resonates with me is no.2. It is true. I did not always want to go out to the jails. But I always came back strengthened in my spirit after seeing men be transformed by the Holy Spirit after I delivered a message I thought would be a failure. Even those called to ministry by God have times that they would rather not be pursuing their calling.
Remember, in the Titus 2:7, Paul commands shepherds to perform good works so their flocks can observe and do likewise. It benefits both the minister and those receiving the ministry, and God is glorified in the process.