Dozens of books have been published proving that the people of a place are the best ministers for that place. Missions around the world now recognize the priority of native believers in the work of reaching the lost.
Why then is it so hard to accept that incarcerated men and women can be empowered as disciples and leaders for the kingdom? Why is it so difficult to believe that the best ministers for prisons might be redeemed prisoners?
This is not a full answer, but I see at least 4 problems at play.
A Missiological Problem: We don’t view prison ministry as missions. We view it as compassionate charity. Missions is evangelizing, equipping, and empowering disciples to be strong and mature in the Lord. Charity is alleviating suffering. We view prison ministry as the latter, when in truth it should be the former.
A Theological Problem: We don’t believe in the equal status of incarcerated Christians. We apply the logic of the justice system, which strips these people of equal status, and treat them as if this is also true of their faith and their churches. Without saying it, we exclude incarcerated Christians from the priesthood of all believers.
A Spiritual Problem: We perpetuate our paternal role in prison ministry because of the sense of fulfillment we get out of it, and the sense of fulfillment we can promise to other volunteers and donors. Our work in prisons often amounts to an easy way to assuage our collective guilt over systemic injustice and a compassionate outlet for our self-serving pride.
A Practical Problem: If we empowered the prisoners to lead, what would we do? Our programs, staff, volunteers, budgets, and marketing all depend on the perpetuation of the status quo. If we could see prisoners as brothers and sisters, as disciples of Jesus, as deacons, pastors, and elders, what would we do?
That is a great question. That should be the question.
The bars of the prisons may be closed, but the doors of the kingdom are open. Men and women who have done awful things are finding freedom on the inside.
What should we do?