Our church’s prison ministry reaches out to several prisons and hundreds of inmates every week. One of our main commitments is a monthly worship service we hold at a large facility on the other side of Columbia. A team of about fifteen lay people from our church invited me to go with them to the service a couple of weeks ago to preach for the service.
We met in a large dining-hall area with about one hundred inmates. The two-hour service began with an extended time of praise and worship, led by a band of inmates that was quite good. One of the leaders from our church followed with a time of personal encouragement to the group. Then I spoke. The invitation time that came next blew me away, as dozens of inmates came forward for prayer, kneeling in the front of the room as our volunteers circulated among them, offering prayer. The service concluded with testimonies and celebration.
It was an incredible night, filled with the whisper of the Holy Spirit. All of us were aware that He was in the room with us. And I came away from it all with a sense that prison ministry has some valuable lessons for us in the local church.
The gospel isn’t just for middle-class white people. The inmates were a mixed bag. I expected to see mainly young, black men because that’s how news reports typically represent the prison population. There were certainly many in that category. But not all. There were many whites and Hispanics as well. I was even more surprised by the ages of the men. Many were young but a more than a few were middle-aged. Several were old and had been incarcerated for most of their adult lives. Most of them came from poverty and will likely return there when they’re released. All of them were passionate about Jesus. More so, in fact, than we usually see in our comfortable, middle-class, homogeneous churches. Prison ministry is a valuable—maybe even essential—corrective to our gospel tunnel vision.
Praise and worship isn’t just a music style. I’m way past the notion that worship styles in church music can be broken down into “traditional,” “contemporary” or something in between. What authentic churches are beginning to understand is that all genres of music can be used of God to lead His people into worship. The inmates’ worship drove that point home. Their worship band sang everything from old hymns to contemporary worship songs to black gospel. The point wasn’t the style of the music but the passion of the worshippers. What a lesson local churches need to learn!
The Holy Spirit drives all genuine worship. I went into the service with a prepared message. But fifteen minutes before I was to preach, I asked one of the inmates what the group most needed to hear. “They need to hear that they’re loved,” he replied. The Lord spoke to my heart then and told me to throw out the message I brought with me and instead to simply read through a chapter of the Bible that spoke of God’s love and offer a few comments along the way. So that’s what I did. And the Lord spoke to us all through it. The Spirit drove the whole service, which is what He desires to do in all the worship we offer.
The amount we love Jesus is usually connected to the amount of stuff we have. All of the inmates seemed to me to have lost everything they once had. That’s the price of breaking the law. Families, cars, houses, jobs, futures were gone for most of them. All they had left was Jesus. They’ve learned first-hand that when you reach the point where Jesus is all you have, you find out that Jesus is all you need. The gospel of Jesus was quite literally what they were depending on to get through each day. Again, in our comfortable churches, the reason our love of the Lord is often so tepid is that we have so much stuff we love more. Jesus warned against that very danger.
Spiritual freedom often flourishes where personal freedom is absent. Christian history abounds with examples of imprisoned believers experiencing new degrees of spiritual freedom. I don’t want to over-dramatize the point; it’s never pleasant to be in prison. But when you look at people like John Bunyan, who wrote Pilgrim’s Progress while in the Bedford jail; Alexander Solzhenistyn’s writings from the Soviet Gulag; Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s letters during his Nazi captivity; Martin Luther King’s Letters from the Birmingham Jail; or Amando Valladares’ account of his prison experience in Castro’s Cuba, Against All Hope, you find that believers often discover new spiritual insights when their personal freedom is taken away. Many of the inmates we met confirmed that principle.
Prison ministry is not for everyone or for all churches. But for those congregations who take it seriously, it has much to teach us about the deeper experiences of grace. That’s why Jesus speaks to it directly when he says, “I was in prison and you came to visit me.” (Matthew 25:36)