Can You Have A Church Without A Prison Ministry?

A prison cell is pictured inside Alcatra


Now that I’m done with school, I’ve found myself flipping through Netflix, Hulu, and every other option I can find on Apple TV to catch up on shows I’ve missed.

The other day I came across a PBS special called Prison State.

It’s a Frontline feature on what is, by most accounts, the deeply flawed American penal system. As I listened to the countless stories of men and women languishing in prison for what in many cases was far longer than seems reasonable, I found myself asking a question I had never really thought about before.

Can you have a church without a prison ministry?

Now, I know lots of churches do have prison ministries – intentional efforts to reach out to inmates at a local prison through jailhouse worship services, Bible studies, educational opportunities, or a whole host of other things.

I also know, at least from my own experience, that this isn’t true for a lot of churches and even in the churches that do have prison ministries, only a handful of church members are actually involved.

I say this as one of those people who usually wasn’t involved. So maybe this is just an exercise in trying to assuage my own guilt. But as I watched the show on PBS several things began racing through my mind.

First, in my own experience, it seems that the primary reason few people at our churches are involved in prison ministry is fairly obvious – prisons are scary and we’d rather not go to there, like ever. Combine this the logistical challenges of working in or just visiting a prison and you’ve got a recipe for church folks never visiting prison folks.

But more than just being scary places, I think we ignore our call to prison ministry because unlike our caricature of the noble poor person, prisoners, we assume, are getting what they deserve. Maybe so. I’m not implying whatsoever that pedophiles, murderers, rapists, and the like don’t deserve to be in prison. But for us church folks, for a people who celebrate and talk about grace so much, isn’t it more than a bit ironic that we refuse to extend grace to some because they don’t deserve it?

After all, what if Jesus took that same attitude towards us and our own sins?

Which is why I think it’s so strange that prison ministry isn’t just an assumed part of the life of the church. I mean, when it comes to our Matthew 25 calling – I was hungry, did you feed me? I was thirsty, did you give me something to drink? I was naked, did you clothe me? I was sick, did you take care of me? I was in prison, did you come and visit me? – we’ve usually got all of those ministries down, no problem……except for the last one. We’ll raise thousands of dollars, use up our vacation days, and travel halfway around the world on a mission trip, but drive a few minutes down the road at virtually no cost to spend a few hours visiting folks in prison?

Not so much.

Now, I know that it probably goes without saying that there is profound suffering in our nation’s prisons. And I know some of those people really, really deserve to suffer. But a lot of them don’t. At least not to the extent that they do for reasons that range from the reprehensible – institutional racism – to the ridiculous – the war on drugs. And as if to pour salt on their wounds, we give them almost no chance whatsoever at putting their life back together. If you don’t believe me, find someone who’s spent time in prison – not overnight in jail for a DUI, but actual long-term prison – and asking them how easy it was to get their life back together after they got out and how many people – the church included – were willing to give them another chance.

Which is why if we do get our act together, our prison ministries must not stop at the prison walls. Once freed, former prisoners face what can feel like an insurmountable number of obstacles standing in the way of putting their life back together – from social stigma to lack of education and training to the inability to secure a job or even housing because of their criminal record. Which means if we do get our act together and answer Jesus’ call to care of those in prison, we must also be active in helping them put their lives back together once they are freed.

And so, for me, it all comes back to the simple fact that, as Christians, we have a clear and unequivocal call from the one we call God to care for those in prison. Which means for all the great things we do with food pantries and clothing drives and visiting folks in the hospital and feeding the homeless, if we stop there, then, to borrow a popular phrase, we’ve got a glaring hole in our gospel that we can’t account for.

So, can you have a church without a prison ministry?

I don’t mean do churches technically exist in the world that don’t have a prision ministry.

I mean, can we be the body of Christ, a people who claim to embody Jesus to the world by answering his call to serve the world and yet completely ignoring the millions languishing behind bars because they make us uncomfortable or because going to visit them might be inconvenient or because we simply believe they don’t deserve our help?

I’m not sure you can. At least not a very healthy one.

Again, I’m preaching to the choir here because I’ve only visited prison twice. Once was with my church, the other a school field trip (Worst. Field Trip. Ever.)

I know there are plenty of churches out there doing great things that don’t have a prison ministry and I know that not every church is down the street from a prison. But we can’t avoid the clear call of Jesus to care for our brothers and sisters behind bars simply because it’s inconvenient and makes uncomfortable.

Sure, most of our churches aren’t down the street from the state penitentiary, but I’m willing to bet there’s a jail within driving distance that, if we really wanted to, we could put together a group and go visit.

But I guess that’s the real catch in all of this.

Do we really want to serve people behind bars?

Are we really willing to count them, like Jesus did, among the least of these and extend them grace?

Or would we rather keep our grace locked up safely behind the walls of the church?

Can we find the love in our hearts to accept folks in prison as people made in the image of God and not just faceless, worthless criminals?

Or are we content keeping them out of sight and out of mind?

Because if that’s the case, if we can’t find the love, grace, and courage to make prison ministry as vital a part of our churches as caring for the sick, the hungry, and the destitute, then it seems to me that we’re going to have a lot of explaining to do come judgment day.