There are about 1.9 million Americans in U.S. jails and prisons. Think of that as what missiologists call an unreached people group. While the prisons have not gone without witness, most American Christians are ignoring this mission field so close to home.
Our prison population is larger than many of the groups being specially targeted for prayer and witness around the world: nearly ten times the number of Anatolian Turks in Iraq and almost twice the population of central Tibet. And unlike some of these endangered cultural groups, the prison population is burgeoning. The U.S. will soon surpass Russia in the dubious race to be the world's leading jailer.
Prison ministry is challenging and requires special training, for although people who have hit bottom can be very open to the gospel, inmates' psychological habits can be highly self-deluding and their relational patterns manipulative.
On July 1, a historic meeting took place that we hope will spell the end to Christian neglect of this mission opportunity. After about a year of exploration, 13 ministries joined in committing themselves and their considerable resources to Operation Starting Line, a grand attempt to present the gospel to all U.S. prisoners over a three-year period.
The idea began with a former inmate who thought how wonderful it would be if Billy Graham were to preach in prisons. He took his idea to Prison Fellowship (PF), which in turn contacted the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. They responded favorably (though they couldn't commit their founder's time to the project). The connections multiplied, and soon the National Black Evangelical Association, Campus Crusade, the Navigators, Walk Thru the Bible, the American Bible Society, Promise Keepers, and others ...1