It’s Monday night, and I’m with a ministry team from our church at a local prison. There are about ten of us there, men and women. Most of them came earlier and helped serve an Easter meal to five hundred inmates—turkey, dressing, green beans, rolls and dessert. I think the meal must have been a hit because the men keep talking about how good the dressing was.
Now it’s 6:30, and the small chapel is filling up. It holds about one hundred men. Another eighty or so are in the Visitation Room across the way, watching the service via a cable TV signal. There’s great energy in the room, a buzz, as the men wait for the service to begin. Our team does this sort of thing regularly so they’re moving around, talking with the inmates. Seventy-five of the men are African-american, and the rest are white. A typical prison population.
As I circulate through the room prior to the service, I get the chance to meet a few of them. Most are younger, in their twenties or thirties, and have come to faith while serving their sentences. They’re excited about Jesus—one man tells me how before prison he was a gang member involved in a long list of illegal activities. Now, he says, he has peace and freedom for the first time in his life. Another tells of his drug involvement that would have resulted in his death; indeed, one of the friends he ran with in those days is from our own community and recently died for that very reason. This young man is now straight for the first time, has finished his college degree and is one of the leaders in the chapel.
The service begins with a musical group from our church. I find it interesting how the style of music doesn’t really matter. The group is singing Southern Gospel music—not the natural genre for the audience! But the lyrics are so in tune with the mens’ hearts and the love of the group that sings is so apparent that the music itself doesn’t matter. The men warm up immediately and join right in. There’s clapping and singing along. Hand raising and “Amens.” During the most passionate song, one man can’t stand it any longer and begins dancing up and down the aisle.
The music goes on for almost an hour, with testimonies and speaking interspersed between the separate numbers. I speak for a few minutes. At the invitation, five men receive Jesus into their lives. Most of the others stand to receive special prayer. At 8:00 we’re done. The men return to their cells. Our people pack up all the equipment and return home.
The larger context of prison ministry puts it into a clearer perspective. There are about 22,000 inmates in 29 facilities in the South Carolina Department of Corrections (52 county jails house an additional 13,000 prisoners). Of the SCDC population, 94% is male, 6% female. 52% are below the age of 35. The racial breakdown is 66% African-american, 32% white and 3% other. The average sentence is 14 years. It costs South Carolina taxpayers $16,000 per year to incarcerate each inmate, more than the cost of a year in college.
More important than the demographic information, though, is the Kingdom opportunity that prison ministry represents. The men and women in prison are in a position—many for the first time in their lives—where they’re ready for spiritual truth. Many are ready to get real with Jesus, and to turn their lives over to Him. They’ve experienced the worst of what the world offers and want desperately to find a better way. Are there hypocrites among them? Of course there are! Just like in every local church. But there are also men and women who are so passionate about finding God that they’ll spend the rest of their lives in that search.
But prison ministry isn’t just about the inmates. It’s also about those churches willing to step into it. Here are the benefits that come to congregations involved in taking the gospel behind the walls of prisons and jails.
- The Bible says we’re to do prison ministry. Visiting and caring for those behind bars is one of consistent themes of Scripture.
- Prison ministry shows how life change really is possible through the power of the gospel. While we see this at work through the local ministries of the church, it’s even more dramatic in the lives of those who have lost everything but have found Jesus.
- Prisoners who find Jesus show such a passion for Him that they are an inspiration to us in the church.
- Prison ministry offers the only real solution to the pressing societal issue of crime and incarceration. An inmate who comes into a life-changing relationship with Jesus is much less likely to be a repeat offender.
- Prison ministry puts local churches into a real multi-racial context. Most of our churches are segregated. Prison ministry forces us out of our racial comfort zone, and that’s a good thing.