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 were involved.
The prisons have not been without a witness, but the laborers in PF, Bill Glass Ministries, and other prison-focused organizations are too few to reap the harvest. This new coalition of ministries can provide the muscle to move PF's model to a much grander scale. That model aims not only to bring inmates to trust the Lord for salvation, but to teach the life skills and habits needed to live as a Christian both inside and outside the walls.
Follow-up is essential in any evangelism, but in the case of offenders, getting them fit for responsible, positive living in society is of paramount importance. One recent study found that 40 percent of adults who left Illinois prisons were locked up again. Anecdotal evidence indicates that training for Christian living can seriously reduce an ex-offender's probability of reincarceration. And training in Christian living is the strength that many of these ministries bring to Operation Starting Line.
That July meeting, Charles Colson recently noted, was 25 years to the week after he went to prison. "I never imagined I'd see this in my lifetime," he said.
But what has bowled Colson over —more than the amazing commitment to prison evangelism—is what he called "the breakdown of parochialism." Twenty-five years ago, Colson had little knowledge of evangelicalism's complex and competitive marketplace of ministries, vying frequently for credit and donor dollars. But since founding PF he has seen that scene up close. "There was no turf consciousness in this meeting," he marveled.
We marvel too. Several causes have in recent years bonded evangelical ministries: fasting and prayer (on the spiritual discipline side) and religious persecution (on the activist side). Now comes prison evangelism, continuing the breakdown of turf consciousness. Pray for more such causes—and watch for opportunities where you live to get involved in Operation Starting Line.
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