The church and released prisoners: Some Assembly Required
By ‘church’, I’m not referring to any particular type or style of church. Groups of Christians are typically referred to as ‘church’. Abetter translation of the Greek word might be ‘assembly’.
We are people who ‘assemble’.
It is my stubborn belief, which I hold in the face of good evidence, that ‘the church’ occupies the perfect position in society to support and nurture people who have been released from prison.
Ex-prisoners should be part of our assembly.
You might point out that there are specialist organisations that have expertise in that area, not to mention the police; the probation services and, the community resettlement companies; community chaplaincies and all the other second and third sector agencies that work with offenders, and those in addiction, etc..
What can local churches bring to the party?
Actually they can bring a lot.
One of the risk factors that can lead people to re-offend is the lack of a pro-social network and the dominance of criminal and other unhelpful associations. A church is (or should be) a ready-made pro-social community with a firm ethical basis and good pastoral support and leadership. It is a place (we hope) that has a bias towards the poor, where sad and lonely people can be comforted and where everyone stands shoulder to shoulder and faces the same way (more or less literally) without judgement.
There are few, if any, other groups occupying the same place in society.
Of course, it isn’t as simple as that, but you can see what I mean. Apart from any Spiritual dimension, the local church is ideally suited to be a supportive context, where people coming out of prison can find a welcome and begin to rebuild their lives.
To re-assemble themselves, so to speak.
We must remember that it is God who changes people. Our role is to hold the door open, and maybe to hold people’s hands as they walk through it. The work of making disciples to Christ involves a bit of doing, a bit of teaching and some equipping, but mainly it involves us being and walking.
Being who we are and walking together.
Finally, many church people come from a particular cultural background. We tend to expect newcomers to start to become like us — to adopt our cultural clothes, whatever they are. That won’t happen, nor should it. If you find new people starting to look like you after a while, and drinking tea with a cup and saucer, be worried. They have to grow in their own relationship with God, their Father.
We might find that challenging — and that’s not a bad thing.
The Problems with the Church
So churches are great places to send ex-prisoners.
No. Unfortunately. It rarely works out well.
One of the reasons Walk came about was the number of genuine, highly motivated men, many with a Christian faith, who were leaving a particular prison with high hopes and expectations, only to return — broken — six weeks or six months later after failing to engage with churches.
My first experience of this was in 2002 with a young lady called Helena. She came to Christ in prison on an Alpha course. She didn’t come easily; it was a struggle for her, and soon afterwards she was released to a northern city and the Chaplaincy team linked her up with a large and lively church.
She never made contact.
Six months later she took her own life in another prison.
She left a child of three years.
Most local churches are not well equipped to support people who have complex and urgent needs, and sometimes they are not well-connected to the communities they belong to. Our gatherings should be places where men and women can find healing for their hurts and a haven from their fears, but too often they become artificial environments were special people meet on special occasions to do special things in a special language.
And things in church are not often what they seem. Even in informal, ‘non-liturgical’ churches, proceedings play out in particular ways. What might appear informal and ad hoc to a casual observer is, in fact, a highly coded drama. There are particular ways to behave ‘in church’ which are quite alien to outsiders — and what really disturbs people is that we respond differently ‘in church’ from how we do outside. Church — like prison — is an institution.
Is it okay to stand here? Can I talk? Can I use my phone? Can I sit where I like? Can I get a drink? What’s happening now? Can I say something? Are those chairs special?
Please don’t touch me.
But even those things aren’t the real issue. If you go into an unfamiliar place you expect it to be — well — unfamiliar, and we won’t help if we try to make our services user-friendly. The block is not the unfamiliarity, but the fear of judgement and isolation — just as it is for everyone.
Our focus should be on the Lord Jesus Christ — he is our head, our healer and our identity.
Now, practically, not every assembly is going to be able to provide the kind of hands-on support that many released prisoners need. Of course, they can’t.
But every church can be a loving and welcoming community.
And every church should be able to say, ‘We can’t give you the help you need right now, but we can take you to, or tell you about, some people who can.’
And every church must be able to give hope and reassurance. Jesus is our hope.
We don’t need tattoos, or to be able to bench press 150 kilos and listen to rap to create a welcoming environment for ex-prisoners.
It isn’t obligatory to wear our caps backwards.
We must be ourselves, and as ourselves, we assemble to create a welcoming and reverent space where God is glorified and worshipped.
If I have a secret drink problem, or if I’m obsessed with pornography, or if I’m sleeping with prostitutes, will I feel able to ask for prayer and help?
Or if I’m in a same-sex relationship?
Will I still find a welcome and compassion if I let the cracks show?
Some of the people we welcome will try to please us. Others will express their brokenness quite openly, and will sometimes do this deliberately to challenge us.
Will we be offended?
Jesus came to seek and to save the lost and to bind up the broken-hearted. He sets captives free. He breaks chains of every kind so that we can live in genuine freedom. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ.
We have the ultimate message of hope.
So, I maintain that the church is the ideal place for people released from prison, who have offended in some way and are tainted with that stigma. They should find a welcome, meaningful support and a chance to regain a safe foothold in the community — in a community governed and guided by love. In a community, in fact, where everybody is an ex-offender because we have all sinned and fallen short. We are redeemed by Christ.
And as they assemble and journey together with the people of God, they will find help to reassemble the scattered pieces of their own lives.
Next, I’m going to do a series of posts on some of the problems people face as they come out of prison.
Check out my book, Working with Released Prisoners, published by Instant Apostle and available wherever books are sold.
Also, check me out on YouTube.