H. David Schuringa
March 8, 2013
I think you're spot-on, David. I'm not sure how generally "in the know" many lay Christians are concerning the scale of ministry that groups like Crossroads, Kairos, and Prison Fellowship are doing. But at least most of the programs you've named are groups that might ring a bell if you NAMED them to a congregation.
I think there's also a lot to be said for the countless small prison and aftercare ministries that are out there operating on shoestring budgets--often the benevolence of one or two local churches who have been burdened for the criminal populations in their counties--but making big (if unseen) impacts on a fertile field of harvest. I work closely with the all-volunteer staff of Exodus Prison Ministry based in Lubbock, TX, and they serve thousands of inmates nationwide with a free course of study in the Bible (similar, but on a smaller scale, to what Crossroads does), along with literature to address specific inmates' needs as they cope with the unique challenges of prison life. I've also made personal contacts with a halfway house called Simple Acts Ministry in Lubbock that receives and trains newly released offenders, preparing them to come to grips with the harsh realities of the "real world" without compromising the Christian integrity they learned on the inside. Working together, along with local churches who are willing to welcome ex-offenders to participate fully in the life of their congregations, these ministries make all the difference in the world for a difficult-to-serve population.
Ministries like these are not only directly intervening to reduce recidivism, but they are also providing a platform whereby Christ's transforming love can reach into the community to make an even broader impact on the next generation of would-be offenders. When these transformed ex-cons hit the streets, their testimony is gritty and powerful. They are able to sow seeds that others simply can't.
This shouldn't surprise any of us, though. After all, God has a history of using the foolish things of the world to confound the wise.
Thanks for bringing attention to this, David.
I wonder too about the segment of the prison population that selects itself into those ministries, David.
Since no one is forced to take part in Prison Fellowship's offerings, for example, then the fact that some people do take part is an indication of some sort. Are they - as a whole - less likely to engage in criminal activity after a stint in prison, while those who choose not to participate are the ones most likely to be recidivists?
This is actually one of the things that Johnson addresses in his book MORE GOD, LESS CRIME. There's no simple or easy answer, of course.
For my part, I think there is probably some indication that the inmates who opt-in for these programs are at LEAST inclined to try to make something different out of their lives than they have up until that point. Certainly, the ones who stick with it through completion of a Bible study program (which can take years, with delays in prison mail and such) are indicating some form of dedication to change.
But the unanswered portion of the question...and the one that would be difficult to prove one way or the other...is the degree to which a 1 Cor 5:17 experience makes a genuine difference in whether and when inmates choose to opt-in. A lot of in-prison evangelistic ministries really do touch hearts, but the discipleship and aftercare ministries are the ones that assist in perpetuating that kind of inward transformation. Based on my own experience, even though I would freely admit that a significant portion of the inmates who "get saved" behind bars have experienced only a jailhouse religious experience but not genuine Christian regeneration, there are a great many who have indeed been inwardly transformed by the Holy Spirit. Sometimes these prison ministries catalyze that experience for inmates; other times they simply do the important work of taking it deeper and helping the inmates grow from spiritual infancy through spiritual adolescence and into spiritual adulthood.
Either way, it's really Christ doing the work...but of course you can't quote that as a cause for decline in violent crime! :-)
Good discussion that has brought out two typical ways folks try to discredit prison ministry:
1. The Myth of Jail House Religion. Less than 20% of people in prison practice a religion. It's not cool to be a Christian behind bars. It is the largest mission field in North America. But yes, the NT assures us that there will be hypocrites in the church, whether behind or outside the bars. I'm not at all convinced that there are more hypocrites in prison, are you?
2. The Myth that those who participate in faith-based programs would have gotten better on their own anyway. Really? The theological answer is immediate regeneration that prepares the heart to respond positively to the gospel message. If they were inclined to get better on their own, what are they doing in prison?
I interned with Prison Fellowship one summer, and have a lot of respect for the work they're doing. I don't wnat to downplay that. But one thing that's really impressed me is how <i>as a culture</i> we are more committed to forgiveness than we were thirty years ago. I see it all the time in the Bronx, where a lot of people are minorities so a lot of young men have spent time in prison. There are groups (some identified as Christian, others not) running half-way houses, mentoring the children of prisoners who are separated from parents, encouraging companies to hire paroled prisoners, bussing families to prisons for visiting days, and even one group (a personal project I'm involved in) that runs an AA-like group for paroled sponsors, complete with sponsors who you can call up when you are feeling stressed and aren't sure how to handle it without lashing out.
These groups aren't "professional" and a lot of them aren't theologically, explicitly Christian in the same ways PFM and those other groups are. But they are living out Christ's call to not forsake the prisoner and embodying the spirit of forgiveness over judgement that the Gospel calls us to. It's really very encouraging. :-)
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