A Call to the Church
Until now, only about three percent of America’s churches have heeded the call to prison ministry – the mandate given by Jesus in Matthew 25:36 … “I was in prison and you visited me.” and the urging of the author of Hebrews in 13:3 “Don’t forget about those in prison. Suffer with them as if though you were there yourself.”
The Church as a body has not responded to this call for transition prison ministry. Churches, in general, do not support those who have entered prison ministry. While churches may give generously to foreign and other missions they often overlook prison ministries. Support for those in prison ministry has come from large parachurch ministries, such as Prison Fellowship and coalitions of smaller ministries such as COPE, Coalition of Prison Evangelists. These organizations and other independent ministries have provided training, materials, encouragement, and direction for the individuals called to prison ministry.
Prison Ministry – Success and Failure
Results inside the prisons have been excellent. Of the 500,000 individuals released from prison in the year 2000, it is conservatively estimated 10 percent became Christians. Ministries are starting to work together for even more effectiveness. Some full-time Christian programs operate in prisons in several states.
Despite the myriad Bible studies and other Christian programs within the prisons, there has been little permanent success. When prisoners return to society, serious failure is the norm, even among those who have become Christians. Overall, sixty percent return to prison within 6 months and 75 return to crime within a four year period. In juvenile institutions, the record is even worse. Recidivism for juveniles is a heart breaking 80 to 85.
The missing link in our ministry to prisoners comes in the critical transition period when they attempt to return to society and create a new life. Most released from prison have no support, no money, no home. They are abandoned by family, rejected by employers. They are viewed as misfits and feared by the average church. Those Christians who in prison may have been attending several Bible studies per week are suddenly separated from all Christian friends and influence.
It is little wonder that they return to their old neighborhoods, welcomed back by their former drug buddies, and are soon caught up in old ways. A few releasees even break the rules purposely to go back. They have learned to survive in prison, but without help, “the outside” is a forbidding place.
Building more prisons is the government’s primary answer to crime. The cost monetarily is enormous and the problem is only made worse as the same people return to prison time after time. As taxpayers, we are subsidizing a system that is an abysmal failure! Cost to “warehouse” a man or woman in prison is $20,000 to $30,000 per year. Add to this the cost of welfare to support the inmate’s family, legal costs, construction of new facilities, etc. An estimates of true costs can run from $50,000 to $100,000 per year per inmate.
Answering the Call
The need is crucial! In the year 2000, over 2 million, one percent of our population, are currently incarcerated. At the present rate of incarceration, 20% of our population born in 1997 will spend time in prison. This is an abomination! It is preventable! The Church of the Lord Jesus Christ can turn the tide! Churches working together in communities to mentor and meet needs can make an enormous difference. If each church mentored one or two individuals, crime as we know it could be radically reduced!
Programs that provide aftercare and mentoring have proved successful. Instead of 70 to 80% recidivism, rates can be reduced to 5 to 15%. The costs of these programs are minimal compared to the costs of warehousing bodies and witnessing their moral disintegration. Our government should be interested in subsidizing the cost of successful programs. The savings to taxpayers will be enormous! The “manpower,” however, needs to come from the Church, since it is only through the power of the Lord Jesus Christ that lives are truly changed.
Transition homes are needed. Few exist today compared to the great need. But the greatest need is for mentoring relationships. These men and women could succeed without a transition home if they were mentored and helped by a church group that cares.
The Church will indeed be blessed in taking on this “outside prison” ministry. As those in prison ministry find, the rewards greatly outweigh the sacrifices. Mentoring will help stem the tide. It is a rare inmate who has had a Godly father; most have had bad examples or no father figure at all. Many have been badly abused and denigrated. Hearts may appear hardened but underneath they are longing to receive the love and guidance that their lives, young and old, have lacked. Such ministry can mutually benefit those in churches who will find great fulfillment in reaching out to those in need.
Mentors need not be giants of the faith. In fact some inmates may know more Bible than their mentors. They have had time in prison to study and learn. It is often worldly skills that they are lacking – practical knowledge such as balancing a checkbook, filling out an application, cooking a simple meal. They need someone to talk to, pray with, someone to help them plan their lives, get a job, find an apartment, buy a car. Within each Church community God has placed individuals and resources that can meet these needs. These resources will emerge as churches band together.
Mentoring and More is Needed
With training from existing prison ministries, church groups can be equipped to do any of the following. Many more ideas will emerge as needs are revealed through ministry.
- Establish Prayer Groups to Pray for Inmates and Ministries
- Correspond with Inmates
- Collect Christian Books for Prison Libraries
- Help Families of the Incarcerated
- Oversee a Bible Study Correspondence Course for Inmates
- Provide a Welcoming Church for those being Released
- Establish Mentoring Programs
- Support a Transition Home
Ministry to those who have left prison, like that of ministry inside the prison, is not an easy job. It requires time, training, wisdom, judgment. But it is God’s plan for the Church and He will honor it and bless it. We hope that this mentoring manual will be an important step in this direction!
DLH – Published in the Good News Connection