Correctional ministry, whether a juvenile hall, jail, or prison, is shallow by design. This is in large part due to the correctional setting itself: limited time frames for ministry availability, lack of quiet and secure meeting spaces (especially for clergy-confidential counseling), an overload of request demand coupled with too few chaplains and volunteers, and finally—and with much consternation—a deliberate lack of support for religious programming by some institutional line staff.
Religious requests by inmates are derisively called “snivels” by line staff who see correctional ministry as naïve do-gooders pathologically coupled with whining and/or manipulative anti-social personalities dedicated to hustling the naïve do-gooders.
Much of this structural and systemic cause for shallow ministry will never be effectively remedied, and therefore in social sciences is a “root cause” for the very reason that is systemic at its core.
However, there is a secondary cause for shallowness that brims with missiological optimism.
This secondary cause for shallowness is the result of decades of perpetuated flawed ministry practices. The good news is these are practices which can be easily addressed for incremental improvement. To better understand this cause for self-imposed shallowness, let’s look at how correctional ministry is normally conducted.
If the facility has a chaplain (and most do not), the religious coordinator will make primary use of church teams. Several local churches will field a small team of volunteers and rotate church services and Bible studies on a monthly basis, usually. These church teams are made up of volunteers who have received a bare minimum of orientation followed by zero training. They are under the authority and supervision of a church team leader, who are themselves untrained.
Therefore, ministry is conducted by well-meaning people who love the Lord and have a heart for those inside, but are vastly ill-equipped for the complex ministry service delivery that the incarcerated desperately need.
These rotating church teams do not communicate with each other week to week. The First Baptist church team coming in this Sunday does not know what the First Assembly of God church team taught last Sunday. There may be repetition or even blatant contradiction between rotating messages.
When I was involved in a revival at San Quentin Prison in the 1970s, the question was asked of a long-term inmate, “What is something I should know in doing this ministry?” His answer, “If one more group comes in and teaches the Prodigal Son story, I am going to throw up. Don’t they know we have heard that story a thousand times?”
The truth is they don’t know because the churches never talk to each other.
Gospel presentations are often rushed and incomplete. As a ministry hour comes to a close, a church group might hurriedly state, “If you want to ask Jesus to come into your heart, just pray this prayer.”
Inmates will pray and come forward. However, if you could observe that same group week after week, you would see those same people coming forward many times. The reason? They do not properly understand who Jesus Christ is, what he accomplished on the cross, what it means to biblically ‘believe,’ and they certainly do not understand what it means to be “in Christ.”
The Apostle Paul stated 164 times that a believer is “in Christ” and yet the average person (after attending countless chapels and Bible studies) has no idea theologically what it means to be “in Christ.” More importantly, they don’t understand what it means for them personally in their Christian formation.
In addition, a church group will use the sinner’s prayer as a prayer of rededication, further confusing the inmate: “Am I saved or not? Do I have to keep asking Jesus into my heart every week? And what does it mean to ask Jesus to come into my heart? How does that work anyway?”
Those inside prison walls, especially those with longer sentences, need personalized discipleship. Discipleship allows the inmate to clearly understand basic, necessary Christian doctrines, and then learn how to apply those doctrines in real time.
Through discipleship, old appetites, habit patterns, and attitudes are addressed and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit is increasingly appropriated by faith for victory. The word of God tells us, “So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16).
The one inside must learn what it means to have the Spirit, be controlled by the Spirit, and how to use all that spiritual horsepower to overcome the world, the flesh, and the devil. Sadly, the church does not make discipleship a priority, nor does correctional ministry incorporate discipleship to create a fully-orbed ministry.
Correctional ministry is too often legalistic. WASP exhortations (“get a job, get your tattoos removed, leave your gang,” etc.) replace critical biblical truths such as our position in Christ. “Get a job” is a much different message than, “When you trusted in Jesus Christ and relied upon his finished work on the cross for your salvation, you were baptized by the Holy Spirit who took you out of the life of Adam and placed you into the life of Jesus Christ. You are now co-united in the life, death, burial, and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
That level of teaching must of course be unpacked, carefully explained, and the disciplee must have an opportunity to demonstrate that they clearly understand.
Correctional ministry usually does not take the necessary time to check the understanding of those being taught. “The sage on the stage” or the “pour and store” methodology of teaching does not verify that a successful sender-receiver communication has taken place.
These are just two ministry deficiencies that can be quickly addressed: (1) replace worn out clichés (“God don’t make no junk”) and motivational speeches (“You can be anything you want to be so don’t let anyone rob you of your dreams”) with the relevant word of God as it applies to salvation and sanctification, and (2) make time to verify that the teaching is clearly understood by the listener and that an application was provided that can be applied in real time.
People who are hurt the worst need the best. Correctional ministry should be the premier ministry on planet earth for that very reason. People in lock up are hurting, lonely, discouraged, fearful, angry, hopeless, in bondage to addictions, traumatized, and perilously close to suicide. In a triage metaphor, those in lockup are the most injured and need the finest response possible.
Unfortunately, they receive a “something is better than nothing” or a “beggars can’t be choosers” level of mediocrity. This should not stand. It is time for correctional ministers to wade into deeper waters because people who hurt the worst, need the best.
Steve Lowe is Founder and President of Pacific Youth Correctional Ministries. As a former probation counselor and therapist and today as a seasoned juvenile correctional chaplain, Steve has provided over 45 years of professional institutional service to California's San Bernadino, Riverside, and Orange counties. As the Founder, President, and Executive Chaplain for Pacific Youth Correctional Ministries, an international chaplain-placing ministry, Steve also assists Christian organizations and penal agencies as a consultant in program organization and development. He has experience as an adjunct faculty member, specializing in criminology and juvenile delinquency.