Revealed, Reverent, Relevant…The Three R’s

Hebrew Bible

The Gospel going behind bars is as old as the Gospel itself. The letters Paul wrote from prison could be written and mailed today as legitimately as they were two thousand years ago. Back then they were delivered in person and read aloud from house to house. This face-to-face encounter with believers eager for good news is a common thread between today’s prison ministries and the ministries of old. The shoes of the fisherman may have changed a bit over the centuries, but the blessing of peace that falls at the feet of the messenger is still the passport stamp of Christ’s ambassadors.

Sometimes a first-time visitor will mention timelessness as a quality of their prison chapel experience. They’ll talk about looking up during the service as if they had dreamed of the visit years ago. They reacted to hearing the songs and scriptures as if they were water to a missionary seed planted in their spirit.

I had an experience like that in Africa as I approached a well where a woman drew water. One minute I was walking along like my normal, gangly self, and with the next step I felt as if I was in the middle of a live broadcast of the living Bible.

The sensations, or sensationalism, of personal revelation can stir up a lot of conversation and confusion. I don’t mean to pour any gas on that theological fire as much as I would point out that joy is the currency of connection with the saints, whether those saints have gone ahead or wait in the pews in their DOC blues.

When the Sanhedrin arrested Peter and John for healing a lame man in Solomon’s Portico at the temple in Jerusalem, they questioned by what power or what name the apostles acted under since they recognized Peter and John were uneducated fishermen. Peter responded, “Rulers of the people and elders of the people: If this day we are judged for doing a good deed to a helpless man, and by what means he has been made well, let it be known to you, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God has raised from the dead, by Him this man stands before you whole” (Acts 4:9-10).

I like it that Peter characterizes his role in this miraculous healing as merely doing a good deed. I doubt the lame man saw it that way as he entered the temple walking, leaping, and praising God. The act of volunteering to bring the Gospel into prison may be seen on the outside as merely doing a good deed, but from the eyes of the inmates a simple, regular visit can be perceived as miraculous.

Life locked down is already a lonesome thing, so any charitable connection with the outside world can become manna from heaven. But, the temptation to think human connection is the extent of the experience minimizes Christ’s divine exchange as the operative principle of ministry. Peter and John never stopped being simple fishermen even as they became great apostles. Their simplicity confounded the Sanhedrin, comforted the growing church, and confirmed their testimony that they were with Him and acted solely in His name.

Like Paul, we preach one thing: Christ crucified and resurrected. Revealed, reverent, and relevant—the three Rs of ministry. We don’t go into prison to entertain, as entertaining as our attempts to sing may be. Nor do we go into prison ministry to enlighten the inmates as if we were the source of some special insight.

Most anyone can read stories about Jesus from the Bible, and it always helps to hear them. But, to realize that the steps taken to represent Him in prison are ordered by the Lord is a more personal—and pertinent—perspective. On the one hand, Peter and John knew it could have been any one of the apostles that lifted the lame man to healing. At the same time, they must have marveled that it was indeed them the Lord was working through. It is such a time as this that we understand the answer to the prayer to create in us a clean heart and a willing spirit.

Walking across the yard, either escorted by a guard or under the watchful eyes of a sniper tower, the scenery can become mostly internal. The sight of the high walls, razor wire fences, forlorn attempts at landscaping, or even successful gardens tend to provoke a sense that if our lives had gone this way instead of that at some crucial juncture, we might be the ones wearing state dungarees, staring at the Bible thumpers coming down the lane.

Inmates are convicted criminals. Compassion cannot cloud a minister’s appreciation for the choices that led to incarceration. The choice of what to do with the incarcerated time is where the fellowship of prison ministry aims to be productive. Serving a life sentence saved is still serving a life sentence. The difference is in the quality of the service.

I’m not sure if prison administrators chart the positive effects of gospel ministry. One may hear a grateful testimony at a banquet for volunteers or get an enthusiastic handshake when it comes time to renew gate passes, but the real recognition for anything achieved by volunteering will be next to our names in the Book of Life and in the welcome we receive from inmates attending chapel. It’s true some will attend just to break up the routine or to lounge in a padded pew, but most will come because the presence of the Lord in lock up is the best hope for experiencing safety, a faithful sense of family, and being loved.

Will Schmit

Will Schmit is a volunteer outreach prison minister for Lifehouse Church in McKinleyville Ca. He is the author of Head Lines A Sixty Day Guide to Personal Psalmistry and Jesus Inside A Prison Minister's Memoir and Training Manual both available at Amazon Books and The website also includes poetry, ministry updates, and music downloads from Bring To Glory a CD of spoken word with coffee house jazz.

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