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:: Article - Behind Bars With Jesus Christ ::



Behind Bars With Jesus Christ
By Steve Highlander

When we think about Christians in prison we usually assume that they are in for standing up for their Christian rights. Abortion activists or pastors who refuse to bow to the unreasonable demands of some judge. However, the fact is that the majority of men and women in jails and prison today became Christians after they entered the system.

There is much talk today about overcrowding in prison and the most effective way to deal with lawbreakers. It is popular to paint a picture of prisons as hotels and prisoners receiving a whole spectrum of benefits, but life in prison is far from the picnic it is sometimes made out to be.

Life in prison is difficult. And anyone who really lives for Jesus Christ knows that living a consistent Christian life can be tough sometimes. Christians in prison face a lot of pressure everyday. In addition to the normal pressures of prison life and the struggle to maintain a Christian walk that we all deal with, they face many unique situations that Christians outside the fence don't face.

One difficult situation that Christians in prison must overcome is their past. The vast majority are in prison because they broke the law. Most Christian prisoners I know don't have a problem with 'paying their debt to society.' However, in the prison situation they are constantly reminded of their past. A past, incidentally, that God says has been totally forgiven through faith in Jesus Christ.

The guilty feelings are often compounded by a system that has a tendency to strip away self-esteem. Prisoners are suspect, just because they are prisoners. Prison employees play as many games as prisoners and often the system can pull strings just to prove that it can.

Self-doubt plagues many. Their motives are suspect. It is not unusual for them to be accused of having a "foxhole conversion" or "jailhouse religion" (and some do try to work the system). Or, it is implied that they are playing some religious game to get out sooner. The Christian in a prison setting must have a strong belief system to overcome the daily assault on his or her faith.

Believers in prison face a variety of problems you and I don't face on the outside. A big one is church. On any given Sunday you probably have your choice of anywhere from five to 50 churches you could go to. Prisoners don't. They might have one service a week depending on the facility. Most county jails don't provide anything. Many facilities do try to recruit a variety of volunteers to provide some extra services with different flavors, but the need is great. Truly the harvest is plenteous, but the laborers are few.

Another problem arises for chapel-goers seeking to enrich their spiritual lives. In a typical service of 20 or 30 people you would probably find quite a few different denominations represented. Christians outside the wall have the advantage of worshipping with people who believe and worship in the same manner they do. Not so in a prison setting.

Unfortunately, division is a major problem in the church at large today. While many of the denominations of Christianity have the same basic beliefs, we still are a very fragmented group as a whole. The problem is compounded in the prison setting. Since believers live in close confines and have a limited scope of Christian fellowship, doctrinal differences become major issues.

Providing Christian instruction for a diverse group is difficult to say the least.  Robert Pollan servied as a Kansas Department of Corrections Chaplain many years. He would be the first to tell you that being both spiritual counselor and prison employee isn't easy. He gets to see the best and the worst as God deals in the lives of prisoners. There's the joy of seeing lives really change. Then there is the heartache watching tremendous potential in people destroyed, often for no good reason.

Caught between observing a myriad of rules and security issues and providing spiritual care for prisoners creates a lot of pressure.

"I emphasis the need for unity in the body of Christ. Most prisoners don't have a lot of religious background, but what they do have they tend to emphasize. So I try to de-emphasize differences and emphasize Jesus Christ," Pollan said.

Division is a primary problem for the church behind bars. Many times zealous Christians are more concerned about being "right" then they are about overall unity and the testimony of Jesus Christ. This can cause more harm then good. Those seeking answers or the newly converted are confused and discouraged with the division and religious bickering. But before judging the situation too harshly, consider what your church might be like if you had 20 doctrinal opinions all vying for attention every day.

Pollan relates that the intense concentration of interaction is a key problem. The men eat, sleep, work and hang out together everyday. As one prisoner aptly pointed out, "You try living with 500 guys with an attitude problem."  Our petty differences in church committee meetings start to pale in comparison don't they?

More tension is created when everyone wears the same thing, eats the same thing and carries on pretty much the same schedule every day. According to Pollan, "The need to be 'special' has a lot more to do with the exclusiveness than doctrinal differences."

Another major problem concerning the church behind bars is a lack of leadership and role models. In a normal church setting a person commits their life the Jesus Christ and immediately finds he or she has a church that more or less helps them in their Christian life. There's Sunday school; two or three services a week; home fellowship groups; mentors; and the ever-present pastor or two to check up on you. Most churches have elders or deacons and the faithful brothers and sisters who act as role models for the Christian life. For the most part this isn't the case in prison.

Since a large number of men and women turn to God after they enter the system, contact with spiritual leadership is infrequent. The role of mentor or discipler is almost nonexistent. For the most part men and women in prison are left to the sterile instruction of tapes or correspondence courses. Often the knowledge without the benefit of relationship adds to the problem of division.

While many volunteers from different churches provide Bible studies or services, these are extremely limited in time and personal interaction.

One of the frustrating things for our ministry team was the lack of quality time. Trying to fit worship, preaching, prayer, ministry and personal interaction into an hour is hard. Even though we were doing two services every Monday night for over three and a half years, our team of five or six couldn't give everyone the personal attention that is so desperately needed. Yet it is this personal contact that prisoners need as much as the other elements of the faith.

Jesus said, "I was in prison and you didn't visit me." The Christians in prison are no less a part of the body of Christ than you or I. They have unique needs and situations that require the prayers and concerns of the rest of the Church. Many of the things that you and I take for granted simply are not available to the Christian behind bars. These problems make developing a strong, balanced Christian life harder.  And that translates to more difficulty when an inmate is released.

After several years of observation I find that it is almost as difficult for prisoners to make the transition from prison life to society, as it is to live in prison. Prisoners live for the day they are released. Yet that day may create special problems for them that they are not prepared for.

Transitioning back into society is hard. Family relationships have to be re-established. Marriages, and the problems caused by lengthy prison sentences have to be worked on. Jobs have to be found, and kept. Job applications ask if you have ever been in prison. Bills have to be paid. The stigma of being in prison is difficult to accept and overcome. No matter how hard a person tries or how much their life has changed, some people simply won't give them a chance.

Another unique problem occurs on release from prison. According to Pollan, "Released prisoners usually want to get rid of anything that reminds them of their prison experience, unfortunately this sometime includes their religious experiences."

Many ex-offenders who found a way to walk close to God in the prison setting find it difficult to maintain that walk outside the fence. Old friends and habits force their way back into their life. The freedom to choose again is very powerful, and often leads to bad choices. Christians who have been released from prison need a tremendous amount of support and encouragement from the church. They have some unique needs that often go unmet. Some statistics show that the first 72 hours of a prisoner's freedom is critical in determining if that person will end up back in jail. The church needs to be aware of this problem and respond to it.

Maybe you are asking yourself how you can make a difference. There are a number of ways.

Statistics and personal experience show that most men and women who become Christians in the system do so within a few days of their arrest and incarceration in the county jail. Usually they realize that they have lost control of their lives and are willing to turn to God. A ministry to the county or city jail can be fruitful and well within the scope of any local church.

Letters mean the world to prisoners. Some never get mail. Writing to one or two prisoners can be an effective way to make a difference in someone's life.  One very good friend of mine wrote a poem, which in part said, "To my friends I wasn't worth the price of a stamp."

Maybe getting directly involved with prisoners isn't for you. Prison ministry teams have tremendous need for resources like Bibles and study materials. As with any ministry some are called to go and some are called to make it possible for them to go.

Why not see if your church has a prison and jail outreach. Or contact a local prison ministry to see how you might help.

In addition to more traditional-church based ministries, the Kansas Department of Corrections has developed a program called M-2, (Match Two). They train volunteers to be a friend to prisoners. The M-2 sponsor visits the inmate on a one-to-one basis as often as they want to, but at least once a month. M-2 sponsors are particularly matched with a prisoner of similar age, background and interests to give a common place to start. The need is great.

Prison ministry is difficult. The victories are usually pretty dramatic and the losses frustrating, but all in all there is the satisfaction of helping people with unique needs to find and fulfill their potential in Jesus Christ. Have you considered visiting Christ in prison?


Copyright 2009 Steve Highlander and C3M Ministries, Inc. Permission granted to print and for personal use only as long as the content remains unchanged and the copyright and contact information remain on the copies. For reprint rights please contact the author at www.c3mministries.com.


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