Why work with released prisoners?

Photo by Tobias Mrzyk on Unsplash

In my last post, I discussed how it is difficult to provide pastoral support to Christians who are being released from prison. Working with released prisoners is an area of ministry that has long been misunderstood or neglected by churches of all persuasions. If you are reading this, it is likely that are interested in finding out more and perhaps to become involved in this area of ministry.

A question: What is your motivation or calling to work with released prisoners?

You might want to take a moment or two to reflect on that…

In this post, I’m going to explore a few possible motivations that are found in the Bible. Maybe you have your own — I’d love to know your story.

  1. Jesus tells us to go into all the world and make disciples

These two verses are much-beloved of evangelicals:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 28: 19)

Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. (Mark 16: 15)

We are in the habit of taking this commission a bit casually. As I hinted last time, ‘making disciples’ is not the same as bringing someone to a decision for Christ. Many people put their hands up in meetings; many will meet Jesus but few will become disciples.

We may think — and I used to think before I started doing this kind of thing — that the Holy Spirit changed people’s lives by a kind of osmosis. You hang around Christian people for long enough and learn the right words, and some of their Christian-ness rubs off.

Who wouldn’t want to be like us, after all?

Not many people, as it turns out

As one church visitor put it on this platform: What you’ve got here is nice. But it doesn’t make me want to ‘leave my nets’.

Making disciples is a deliberate activity, and on the whole, we are not very good at it. There are several reasons for this that I don’t have the space to go into here, but one of them is that there are few disciplers.

As the word ‘disciple’ implies, it involves discipline. In fact the Greek word we translate as ‘disciple’ from can also be translated as ‘student’; someone who is learning.

This implies a relationship between a disciple and a discipler — who might be a pastor or a peer-mentor or a life-coach — or someone else who is willing to take that person under their wing for a period.

There has to be trust: the disciple is giving another person permission to speak into his or her life. That is a big deal, and not something that can be taken lightly. They are making themselves vulnerable.

When Jesus tells us to ‘make disciples’, he isn’t talking about an Alpha Course or a life group — although these might be great starting points. It’s a long-term thing. A commitment. In fact, we can learn a lot about the nature of discipleship from looking at Jesus with his disciples in the first few chapters of Mark’s gospel. For example:

· Teaching in theology and ethics: Mark 3: 20–234

· Teaching in evangelism: 4: 1–25

· Practical demonstrations of power, in some of which the disciples participated: 4: 29–31; 5: 1–43

All of this culminated in the disciples being sent out on their own mission (in chapter 6: 7–12), and then returning for a debrief and some R&R (6: 30–44), which in turn became the Feeding of the Five Thousand, where they became the means of the miracle’s delivery (Jesus said, ‘You feed them’ v.37).

Discipleship has both practical and teaching elements; it can’t be achieved on a Sunday morning or in a one-evening-a-week course. It has to be a lifestyle that we model.

2. Because, in general, Jesus demonstrates a bias in his ministry toward those who are marginalised

In Luke 10: 25–37, Jesus, responding to the question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ told the story of the Good Samaritan.

A traveller on a dangerous piece of road had been beaten up and robbed. He was in a bad way. He was passed by a priest and a Levite (or was it a pastor and a worship leader?), both pillars of the religious community. The person who eventually stopped to help him, and went to some lengths to make sure he was okay, was a Samaritan — his cultural enemy. Think Israelis and Palestinians. Jesus said:

Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbour to the man who fell among the robbers?” (Luke 10: 36)

In other words, our ‘neighbour’ is likely to be the person in the world who makes us least comfortable. Everyone can show grace to their friends, or to people who present no threat, but Jesus also said:

If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same… But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6: 32–36)

Throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus leaned towards untouchable lepers; disreputable tax collectors and prostitutes; uncontrollable demoniacs, unconscionable Roman soldiers and unapproachable women.

And he modelled it himself. The Lord of Glory was born in a feeding trough; an asylum-seeker; a rough tradesman from an unfashionable place; an itinerant preacher of questionable parenthood (see John 8: 41).

So, another question: Who lives on the edges of your community?

3. Because the gospel is specifically oriented towards prisoners

In Luke 4: 18, right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he quotes Isaiah 61: 1. It’s a kind of manifesto for the Kingdom of God.

He declares:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to
proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to
set at liberty those who are oppressed.

There are four clauses here and two of them are about setting captives free.

The first people we definitely know were ‘saved’ by Jesus’ sacrifice were convicted offenders: the thief on the cross in Luke 23: 43 and Barabbas in Matthew 27: 26, whose place in on the cross Jesus took literally.

Jesus, the Lord’s servant, was taken from prison and from judgement (Isaiah 53: 8 KJV).

In Matthew 25: 34f Jesus, on the subject of God’s judgement, links the inheritance of the kingdom of heaven with our actions towards various marginalised groups including prisoners. I was in prison and you came to me (v.36).

In addition, many of God’s servants in the New Testament spend time in prison, including John the Baptist; the apostles Peter, James, John and Paul, along with Silas and Barnabas at different times. Much of Paul’s later ministry was conducted from imprisonment, and when he and Silas were miraculously released from prison in Philippi, and so were all the other prisoners (Acts 16: 26).

While it is legitimate to understand ‘proclaiming liberty to captives’ figuratively — people can be the prisoners of addiction, debt, sickness, exploitation, and many other things, and most of all ‘sin’ — clearly it also has a direct and literal application too.

4. Because Jesus sets captives free

We were made in the image of God (Genesis 1: 27) and given dominion over our environment (Gen 1:28). We were made to be free — to have agency and to take responsibility. When people are incarcerated, an essential element of their humanity is compromised. An important aspect of the gospel is literally to restore this, hence ‘setting captives free’. Jesus makes us free, reversing the effects of the Fall.

Most prisoners in this country are locked up legitimately; they are there for good reason, but the point still holds true. In 2 Corinthians 10, Paul writes about ‘pulling down strongholds’ — meaning false arguments and erroneous teaching — but a prison is a physical stronghold. Some are deliberately built to look like fortresses; to be intimidating. When a prisoner is released, he or she is taken out of that stronghold, but unless they are also taken out of the spiritual and psychological strongholds that confine their thoughts and emotions, they’ll return to prison.

Making disciples in the context of people coming out of prison is a long-term prospect that will require our full attention as we walk with these brothers and sisters that Jesus loves.

***

Next time, I’ll look at some of the particular problems released prisoners face when they encounter the church.

Check out my book, Working with Released Prisoners, published by Instant Apostle and available wherever books are sold.

Also, check out my YouTube channel.

Writer. Christian. Worship Leader. Working with released prisoners.

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