In 25 years of ministry I've spoken to all kinds of crowds, but never to a more enthusiastic group than I encountered this winter in Newton, Iowa. When I finished speaking, 140 smiling men startled me by jumping to their feet. As if on command, they shouted in unison,

"This is my Bible … a lamp unto my feet … a light unto my path."

With each phrase, they clutched their Bibles and thrust them heavenward. The sound reverberated off the concrete walls.A Promise Keepers meeting? Young Life? No, these were prison inmates at the dedication of the second Christian-run facility started by Prison Fellowship. I was unprepared for such enthusiasm. The facility had just opened, hardly allowing time for the men—many of whom were not Christians when they arrived—to get adjusted. Iowa, after all, is the corn belt, not the Bible belt.While mixing with the men at lunch, I heard none of the customary prison griping, but plenty of excitement over newfound faith. One "lifer" announced he was excited to be in prison:

"I'm spending my life on a mission to win prisoners to Jesus."

I left that day with my spirit refreshed by the almost childlike faith of these men. For me the visit was like flipping through the pages of Jonathan Edwards's Narrative of Surprising Conversions, the classic chronicle of the Great Awakening of the 1730s. The thrill never fades when witnessing God rescuing lives from despair.But the transformation of the prison itself was as dramatic as the change I saw in these men. Over the years, I've visited more than 600 prisons in 40 countries. Most are dreary, often dirty, depressing places. Men and women shuffle around listlessly with vacant expressions and their heads down. Anger, bitterness, and corruption are prevalent; one seldom hears laughter or sees signs of mirth.But in Newton, like the first Prison Fellowship institution in Houston, the environment is totally different. The clean units reflect the pride these men take in their prison. They have a sense of purpose—people are busy with work or classes from early morning to lights out. There is little time for TV or lying around on bunks. They are building community, helping one another, and willingly obeying the rules.Newton and Houston are case studies for how a culture can be transformed. The process begins when the believers band together in a loving fellowship, a "church," really. Then they evangelize, like the inmates who invite people from other wings to revival services. Though in the minority at first, the Christian prisoners take biblical teaching to heart and boldly live it out. Others begin to follow their example and soon they reach a critical mass.In time all of the men, almost unconsciously, have adopted different standards of behavior. The Christian staff helps set the tone, but it is peer pressure that holds this new culture in place. What I saw that day is a metaphor of the church. We tend to evaluate churches by the classic marks: preaching, the sacraments, and discipline. But a fourth might be added: its impact on culture. John Calvin said that the church "can never exist without bringing forth fruit and prospering by God's blessing." He meant that when the church is faithful, it impacts everyone and everything.Historian Christopher Dawson argued that the cult (what and how people worship) is the root of culture. A healthy "cult," by its very existence, creates a strong culture; conversely an unhealthy culture indicates a weak "cult." This is a sobering thought for today's church as we look at the cultural decay around us. It may seem a stretch to suggest that Christians could replicate in their communities what we see in these prisons. But history teaches that we can. The Great Awakening planted the seeds for our nation's independence and set the stage for the abolition of slavery.The Welsh revival in 1904 also transformed culture, as was chronicled by historian J. Edwin Orr. During the 1905 New Year celebration, the Swansea County Police Court—for the first time ever—reported not a single arrest for drunkenness. Police complained they had nothing to do; converted gamblers reformed their ways; thieves returned stolen goods; the courts had no cases to try. Orr reported that it "even affected work, but in a surprising way. So many men had given up foul language that the pit ponies which dragged the coal trucks in the mine tunnels did not understand what was being said to them." God's ways often confound the wisdom of the world. And that is what he seems to be doing in Iowa and Texas by using society's outcasts to show the rest of us how to transform culture.

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Related Elsewhere

For more on prison ministry, see Prison Fellowship Ministries, Bill Glass Ministries, and International Prison Ministry. More information is available about Prison Fellowship's InnerChange Freedom Initiative, including its implementation in Newton, Iowa and Houston, Texas. New Media Index has reported on Prison Fellowship's activities at the Newton Correctional Facility, while the Christian Science Monitorlooked at the ministry's work in Houston.Chuck Colson wrote about morals-based prison reform for First Things magazine in 1993. Leadership University has a posted an article on the effectiveness of Prison Fellowship programs in combatting recidivism. Texas Governor George W. Bush has embraced faith-based prison reform initiatives in the Lone Star State.For a history of Christian ministry in womens prisons, see Christian History magazines article, " Brutality Behind Bars | Women's prisons were hellish places before Elizabeth Fry started working there." For more on Elizabeth Fry, see an article in Christian Reader and Also see a related article at, " Prison Ministries With Women."Recent Christianity Today articles on prison ministry include: Setting Captives Free | It takes more than getting a woman inmate out of jail to turn her life around (Jan. 10, 2000) Prison Alpha Helps Women Recover Their Lost Hopes (Oct. 4, 1999) Go Directly to Jail (Sept. 6, 1999) Redeeming the Prisoners | Prison ministers embrace restorative justice methods. (Mar. 1, 1999) Unique Prison Program Serves as Boot Camp for Heaven (Feb. 9, 1998) Maximum Security Unlikely Setting for Model Church

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(Sept. 16, 1996)Charles Colson's earlier columns include:

  • The Court's in Session (Apr. 25, 2000)
  • The Ugly Side of Tolerance, March 6, 2000
  • Scouts Dishonor, November 15, 1999
  • What Are We Doing Here?, October 4, 1999
  • How Evil Became Cool, August 9, 1999
  • Does Kosovo Pass the Just-War Test?, May 24, 1999
  • Why We Should Be Hopeful, April 26, 1999
  • Moral Education After Monica, March 1, 1999
  • The Sky Isn't Falling, January 11, 1999
  • Poster Boy for Postmodernism, November 16, 1998
  • Evangelicals Are Not an Interest Group, October 5, 1998
  • The Devil in the DNA, August 10, 1998
  • The Oxford Prophet, June 15, 1998
  • Why Fidelity Matters, April 27, 1998
  • Do We Love Coke More Than Justice?, March 2, 1998
  • Madison Avenue's Spiritual Chic, January 12, 1998
  • Colson Archives

Colsons daily radio program, Breakpoint, is also available online.

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Charles Colson
Charles Colson was the founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries, an outreach to convicts, victims of crime, and justice officers. Colson, who converted to Christianity before he was indicted on Watergate-related charges, became one of evangelicalism's most influential voices. His books included Born Again and How Now Shall We Live? A Christianity Today columnist since 1985, Colson died in 2012.
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