(Reading time: 10 minutes)
In this “How to Train” series, we describe practical ways in which believers worldwide use our tools to share the message of the gospel.
In this article, we look at how you can use GoodSeed resources to help you reach into first-world prison systems with a clear understanding of the gospel. While the challenges faced in reaching into this unique environment can vary widely, we want to share with you some strategies that long-time users of GoodSeed materials have found helpful as they’ve reached prisoners with the Good News.
We also invite you to share your own experiences with us to benefit others. You can write to us via our contact form.
As Philip walks down the corridor lit by harsh fluorescent lights, he quickly prays to prepare himself for what lies ahead. The prison guards are expressionless as they check him and his belongings. Satisfied that he is clean, they open the heavy gate and let him through.
Another guard leads the way. Philip knows his way around the prison but understands this is protocol. In this higher security facility, Philip is not allowed to bring in any books, papers or visual aids. All he has is what's in his head and the set of DVDs he is carrying with him…
Ministry in prisons poses a few unique challenges that we’re not likely to experience in most other arenas. Those who desire to minister in the prison environment must deal with the demands of high security, limited resource options and an audience overwhelmingly made up of those whose minds and bodies bear the scars of long years of drug and alcohol abuse. In addition, we must take into account the limited Bible knowledge and worldviews the inmates enter the room with.
How can one effectively communicate the gospel under these unique conditions?
Philip is ushered into a spartan room with tables and chairs. At the front is a TV set and DVD player which he quickly sets up. Before too long, a door on the far end of the room opens, and inmates shuffle into the room. Philip looks up and smiles broadly at them. They smile back.
“Hello again,” he greets them. “Shall we continue with our study?”
Prison ministry is hard work. Philip faces men of every kind, men who have committed every conceivable crime—and others which are inconceivable. These are men who have made a string of poor choices and have seen the worst of life. For many, they've hit rock bottom and they don't have any expectation of anything better. For them, this is the end. There is no hope. But, Philip wants to tell them of the hope that God is offering to everyone.
Philip, and others like him, have found the Worldview Rethink course to be ideal for use in prison ministry. Its content assumes nothing, presenting a biblical worldview starting from the ground up in an objective, non-confrontational manner.
The material is flexible, adaptable to a variety of scenarios in which prison workers may find themselves as they go from prison to prison. With a variety of materials to choose from, including DVDs, coursebooks, workbooks and visual aids, workers feel they are able to share the gospel clearly and effectively, despite their daunting surroundings.
Philip shared with us: “This study is beautiful.” He tells the men in the study, “I'm not here to argue with you. I just want to tell you what the Bible says. I'm just sharing.” Philip finds that because the study itself strives to be objective, it disarms the men. They come to class and sit easily in their chairs, listening. They don't argue because they're learning.
In some of his studies, the class starts small. But word soon spreads that it's an interesting learning experience and then it grows and grows. Some classes have 50 attendees. The largest number he has taught was 90 men! Word even gets around to other correctional facilities and Philip now finds himself doing as many as five studies a week in different prisons.
Communicating a clear gospel message can create waves and bring about greater opportunity.
Philip and others have shared with us some basic ideas that helped make their own prison ministries effective.
1. Reach out to the prison chaplain.
Philip has made a point of befriending the prison chaplains, finding it essential to have this key person as an ally. Often, chaplains have assisted him in his teaching, becoming invested themselves in the message being taught and in the lives of the inmates.
2. Keep the sessions short and review often.
Philip learned that the men’s attention spans lasted about 45 minutes before they began to drift. To counter this, he is careful not to draw the sessions out too long and he reviews the material often to cement the main points in the minds of the inmates.
3. Avoid arm-twisting.
The nature of the material is objective, without the feel of proselytizing. Instead, Philip tells his classes, “I believe every word in the Bible, but now you have the chance to know what it says and decide for yourselves whether or not you believe it.”
When you are able to bring in resources. Consider the following:
Use the tools.
Make use of as many teaching helps as you can. If the situation allows you to bring in visuals aids, books and workbooks, then do! The inmates benefit greatly from interacting with the material on as many levels as possible.
Do reviews by using the workbook.
Depending on the prison situation, it may be used in a variety of ways, but being able to ask the inmates questions to ascertain their understanding and seeing where review is needed is invaluable.
Below are some suggestions organized by three scenarios in which prison outreach workers might find themselves ministering.
There are tight restrictions on what you can bring into a maximum security prison. Visual aids are not allowed. Even workbooks and books, stationery and sheets of paper are often prohibited.
In such instances, you have to be prepared to memorize a lot of the content before going to teach. You can do this by familiarizing yourself with The Stranger Videbook or going through one of the Worldview Rethink leader's guides.
1. Use the leader’s guide to prepare your mind ahead of time.
While you won’t be able to bring the guide with you, reviewing the material that will be presented on the videobook, as well preparing your mind with the additional helps in the back, will enable you to address questions that are most likely to arise.
2. Rely heavily on the DVDs.
These are likely the only tools you’ll be authorized to bring with you.
3. Take the time to ask questions to check for understanding.
Although you likely won’t be able to give the inmates their own workbooks, make sure you still take the time to ask the workbook questions, both to ascertain their understanding, as well as to review previous lessons. Make sure you are allowed to bring in a list of questions. If not, you'll have to memorize a short list of questions.
Because of the lower security requirements, you have more options on how to lead a study course. Two options are presented here, depending on your comfort level with teaching, as well as the worldviews of the inmates.
Using the leader's guides for By This Name or All that the Prophets have Spoken
This option enables the leader to gear the content towards the predominant worldview that exists in the class. By This Name is ideal for those coming from a post-modern, post-biblical worldview; All the Prophets is meant for those who are influenced by Islam. While the instructor does most of the teaching him or herself, included with both of these choices are interactive DVDs which offer valuable additions to the content. In many places, the video segments cover key teaching points in place of the instructor covering the same content from the book.
Use the content from The Stranger on the Road to Emmaus
This option uses the content found in The Stranger on the Road to Emmaus. This content is geared for those from a worldview influenced by Christianity. This option allows for the use of the videobook, which takes the burden of teaching off the instructor. All that is necessary for the instructor then is to ensure the students understand the material by reviewing the lessons using the workbook.
With either option...
When working with under-aged inmates, teen offenders or youth in similar situations, the above approaches to leading a study will work well. However, there may be times when a shorter approach seems appropriate.
For teens with a short attention span, or when you have very little time with them, consider using one of the booklets below. These small booklets are very similar, covering the gospel message with a much-abbreviated, creation-to-the-cross approach. For teens who might view a thick book as too daunting, giving them a taste of the gospel with one of these books may be more meaningful.
Give a copy of one of the above books to each student. Your choice of which book to hand out may simply depend on the season. If it is Christmas or Easter time, perhaps the second option would make more sense. Otherwise, we recommend The Story that Matters.
With a group
Plan to cover the material in no more than three sittings if possible. Depending on the attention span of your student, you may even be able to read the entire book in one session.
Once you’ve completed the material, ask your students if they wish to know more. If they do, plan to approach the gospel message using the ideas found above.
Philip shares that the most moving moments are at the end of the study when men come up to him and tell him how the course has changed their lives.
They've come not only to understand the gospel message, but also to the point of trusting Jesus for eternal life.
For Philip, seeing the Lord bring these men to salvation is why he keeps doing the studies. These are men whose lives are in abeyance but, after understanding the gospel, they now have a hope that will sustain them for the rest of their lives. Whenever he's on the road, shuttling from prison to prison, he encourages himself by bringing to mind some of the testimonies he's received.
One inmate had told Philip, “I've broken all ten commandments. But I know that Jesus died for me. I know he has paid the price for me.” It's testimonies like these that keep him faithful to his task.
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