When I first came to Tenth in 1995, I was somewhat surprised to discover that the church did not have a prison ministry. I remembered that in the parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus described the good deeds that the early church called “the six acts of charity”: feeding the hungry, watering the thirsty, housing the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting the imprisoned (Matt. 25:35-39). As you will remember, the point of the parable is that those who practice such acts of mercy minister to Christ himself (v. 40), while those who fail to practice them will be condemned to eternal punishment (Matt. vv. 41-46). In one way or another—chiefly through our ACTS ministries and the work of our diaconate—we do all these things at Tenth… except visit prisoners. Hence my surprise.
I later learned that the reason that Tenth did not have a prison ministry was primarily due to lack of opportunity. Our mercy ministries concentrate on the needs of our urban community, and there were no long-term prison facilities near Center City. That has now changed, and with the recent opening of the new Federal Detention Center near Independence Mall, Tenth has the opportunity to begin an exciting new prison ministry called “Setting the Captives Free.”
Under the leadership of Dr. David Apple (director of Tenth’s ACTS Ministries), a group of volunteers is currently being trained to conduct Bible studies, lead worship services, and establish spiritually beneficial friendships at the new facility. The training is being conducted by Prison Fellowship, the national prison ministry founded by Dr. Charles Colson, with additional orientation provided by prison staff.
The need for prison ministry has never been greater. The United States is number one in the world in terms of incarceration rate. Nearly two million Americans are now in prison—a figure that has doubled in the last 15 years. Half of them end up in maximum-security correctional facilities, where they face overcrowding, violence, rape, and homicide. It is not surprising that many prisoners struggle with depression, drug abuse, boredom, and fear. Despite these difficulties, of the inmates who are ultimately released, more than half will end up right back in prison within two years.
It is often thought that prisoners get what they deserve. It is true that, despite all the imperfections of the American justice system, most inmates do time for crimes they have actually committed. But this is no reason to abandon them. Quite the opposite. If the good news about Jesus Christ is for undeserving sinners, then what better place to take the gospel than to prison?
Prison ministry is not easy. At first, most volunteers are apprehensive about going into prison. Usually there are significant experiential barriers that make it hard to establish friendships with the residents. Volunteers may have concerns about their personal safety, and they must always be on their guard against manipulation.
But it is just because prison ministry is so difficult that it is so necessary. It is necessary because it exposes some of the most serious problems facing our nation. The reason we have so many prisoners is because America has such a serious crime problem. Every day some 30,000 assaults are committed on our nation’s streets. Our crime problem is also an economic problem. The total annual price tag on crime in America is placed at around $700 billion. But the ultimate problem is not economic or even criminal, but spiritual. The despair that we find in our nation’s prisons finds its origin in the sins of the human heart. The real captivity is the prison-house of sin. Charles Colson writes, “Prison ministry is on the frontline of church service today, because prisons are the place where we are coming face-to-face with an evil that threatens to destroy us.”
By confronting this evil, prison ministry shows both the church and the world that no one is beyond God’s mercy. “When the steel door of that prison cell crashes behind you,” said one prisoner, “something dies inside. You lose your name. You become a number. No one knows who you are. No one cares.” Prison ministry proves that God knows and cares about those whom everyone else has forgotten.
Prison ministry is also necessary to show that the gospel of Jesus Christ has the power to effect spiritual change. In the words of one volunteer,
“When someone is in prison, they are at the lowest point in their lives. Their whole world collapses into the space between those guarded walls. Visiting week after week, getting to know them, you begin to break through some even tougher walls… walls of bitterness, remorse, anger and despair. The day comes when they have to ask, ‘Why are you here? Why do you care?’ That’s when you tell them about Jesus. That’s when lives change.”
Jesus came to set the captives free (see Isa. 42:7; 61:1), and if he can change the life of a hardened criminal, he can change anyone.
Finally, prison ministry is necessary because Christ has commanded it. This does not mean that you have to visit a prisoner to be saved. But it does mean that a church with a prison in its neighborhood cannot be faithful to the cause of Christ unless it is willing to take the gospel to the prison. I hope that some of you will consider joining this ministry. If you do, then on the day when Christ comes into his kingdom, and the sheep are separated from the goats, you will hear Jesus say, “I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Matt. 25:36b).
[Quotes and statistics come from Setting the Captives Free, a 1993 book edited by Don Smarto and published by Baker Books, and from ministry literature provided by Prison Fellowship. For information about participating in Tenth’s prison ministry, contact David Apple at 215-735-7688 or [email protected]].
© 2021 Tenth Presbyterian Church.
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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Phil Ryken. © 2021 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org