Almost none of the prisoners I’ve spent time ministering to have a hard time seeing themselves as sinners. When I am fortunate enough to have the opportunity to preach or teach in our county jail, I still preach on the subject of sin. And yet, I don’t have to spend as much time on it—like I might need to elsewhere—because the concept of sin is not a hard sell for most men and women behind bars. A simple analogy about sin and the breaking of God’s cosmic law makes the point clearly and uncontroversially.
But there is another doctrine—one that is equally true—that almost none of the prisoners I teach have ever heard of: the Imago Dei.
Preach the Imago Dei
I usually begin my time with a new group of prisoners by telling them something they’ve probably never heard before: “You were created to be kings and queens on this earth.” That usually perks their ears up. When I talk about how we’re all sinners, it’s not a hard sell. But the Imago Dei usually requires a good bit of careful teaching because it’s so contrary to most prisoners’ sense of identity.
When it comes to the issue of personal identity, most prisoners tend to define themselves with a single word. When I ask the inmates to use one word to describe themselves, it’s usually one of the following (depending on the matrix of the room):
- And so on. . . .
In light of this reality, I’ve found it necessary to tell prisoners what God says about them, namely, that they were created to be something more glorious, beautiful, and powerful than what they are now. In other words, they are not, most fundamentally, criminals in cages.
And so, as I go about the business of communicating the gospel to the incarcerated, I always begin in Genesis 2, not Ephesians 2. We start with the original good news of creation before moving on to the good news of re-creation. Prisoners need to see how glorious Genesis 1:27 is in order to understand how bad Ephesians 2:1–3 is. And when they understand that, the gospel will come alive to them in a way that it might not have otherwise.
Preach the Whole Counsel of God
“. . . for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.” (Acts 20:27)
There’s something about ministry to the poor, the addicted, and to prisoners that makes us feel like we only need to talk about love and forgiveness. Haven’t they been through enough? Surely what they need now is consolation, not confrontation. It’s tempting to think such things. But I would argue that one of the most insidious ways of stripping someone of the fullness of their dignity is to give them a truncated gospel.
Prisoners are not in a spiritual category all their own. Just because they are locked up does not make them a ‘special case.’ They need to hear the whole counsel of God, just like the stay-at-home mom, the business man, the machine worker, and the college student. Granted, the weight of emphasis may be different depending on your audience, but the whole gospel must be preached. Let me give you an example of two different audiences that might drive this point home.
Preach to the Audience
One week I was asked to preach to a local Southern Baptist youth group. This youth group belonged to an average, middle of the road, squishy Baptist church. The youth group was a classic caricature of the American evangelical youth experience, replete with:
- Stage lighting
- Student ensemble band
- Silly games
- Moralistic teaching
Most of the kids there have been in church their whole lives. Everyone had all the ‘jewels in their awana crowns’ . . . that kind of thing. I don’t think I was wrong to assume that such a room was likely composed of a mixture of little pharisees, genuine converts, bored non-Christian teenagers who had to come because their parents made them, and a few unchurched kids interested in cute church girls.
So the weight of emphasis on sin in that room should be, I believe, much greater. The focus of my sermon that night was on sin and the fact that even good little church boys and girls go to hell if they don’t repent and turn from their rebellion against God. I spent very little time trying to build up their understanding of the Imago Dei, because very few people in that room had a hard time grasping the concept that they were created to be kings and queens.
But it’s very likely that the sermon I preached to the Southern Baptist church youth group would have been unbeneficial as a sermon preached to a room full of prisoners. I would have still talked about sin and the fallenness of man, to be sure, but the weight of emphasis would have been different.
Another way that you can strip prisoners of their dignity is by preaching to them like children. You don’t have to dumb down the gospel for prisoners. Many of them (if not most of them) are fairly sharp. They may not have the degrees to demonstrate their intelligence, but I’ve rarely come into contact with someone that couldn’t grasp the plain teachings of Scripture. Even the prisoners who haven’t graduated high school (like this author) still possess an intellect that is completely capable of understanding the full panorama of gospel truth.
Must we be careful not to treat prisoners like seminary students? Absolutely. But I’ve found that prisoners usually have the same intellectual capacity to grasp gospel truth as the average member of my local church.
Preach the Gospel
Jesus taught his disciples to pray for their daily bread. Which means that God does in fact care for our temporal bodies. He cares about empty stomachs, electric bills, and rent payments. Ultimately, however, our perpetual need for physical provision points to a deeper reality: We are in perpetual need of spiritual provision. We must pray for bread. And when we do, we must remember that Jesus is the bread of life, and that all who feast on him will be satisfied forever (John 6:35).
There is certainly a place for helping prisoners with temporal needs like life skills classes, relationship workshops, parenting classes, and real-world job training. We should praise God that so many churches have opportunities to offer inmates exactly this kind of training. But none of that matters if those inmates die and go to hell because they don’t know Jesus. We want to give out earthly bread and adorn the gospel, but we must never neglect to give men the eternal bread of life.
Prison ministry is not easy. It does pose some unique challenges. It does require a certain kind of contextualization. But so does ministry to Muslims, and drug addicts, and Mormons, and Buddhists, and so on. We must certainly be wise and discerning in how we communicate the gospel. But we must remember that the gospel is powerful enough to fill the gaps of our wisdom. Everyone behind bars has the same need as you and me: Jesus Christ and His glorious redemption. So be faithful to tell them what they need to hear, and pray for the Lord to give you grace along the way.