Two-Way Ministry

What prison inmates taught me about missions

by Jeff Goins

freedom - prison - bird (KeithBishop)

illustration by Keith Bishop / iStockphoto.com

My first time behind bars was less than a year after graduating from college. I had joined an affiliate music ministry of Youth for Christ, and our band had just left on a winter tour of the Southwest and West Coast of the States. One stop I'll never forget was the Englewood Federal Correctional Institution in Littleton, Colo., a medium-security facility for men and the first of many prisons we visited that year.

Driving our Ford E-350 conversion van up to the security gate, with trailer behind, I discovered that my heart was racing. A dozen questions assailed me, but I choked back the anxiety and passed through three distinct security checkpoints, after which we carried our equipment by hand across the courtyard with the help of a few inmates.

My expectations of cold-blooded killers and low-lit passages (á la Shawshank Redemption) were quickly replaced by the reality of jovial guards, accommodating inmates, and clean corridors. It wasn't until our drummer realized he had dropped something and ran back to pick it up that the disparity of our worlds was made clear. Our guide quickly halted him and informed our group that this was "a good way to get shot at."

Once we had set up our equipment and done a sound check, we waited while the prison chapel filled up with men in orange jumpsuits. Soon an entire auditorium of convicts sat waiting to hear us play songs about Jesus. I picked up my guitar, swallowed hard, nodded to my band, and we began.

Staring out into the crowd of grizzly faces and tattoos, I was more than intimidated. And yet, among them were men who resembled my high school principal, spectacled and clean-cut. After the service, men came up to shake our hands, thank us for blessing them; then they helped us carry our equipment back out to the van. Before we left, a group of inmates circled around us and prayed for us.

I was already learning that this wasn't a place only to "do ministry" but also to receive it. My friend Jimmy, our drummer, put it this way:

I'd never been in a prison before that day, never seen the inside, never thought about what an inmate might be like. The only preconception I had in my brain was that of a Hollywood image of mean killers in orange jumpsuits. My misconceptions were blown out of the water. I was so completely humbled by their genuine attitudes as we led the inmates in an awesome evening of worship. They responded enthusiastically, and encouragingly. The surprising fact is, some of the people in that prison have a better faith life than most of the Christians I know.

At another venue near Denver, we were given a glimpse of reconciliation as we had never seen it before. Halfway through the set, we put our instruments down and allowed our bassist, Lauren, to give her testimony about growing up without a father. She shared this story fairly regularly; however, this time, she added a call to action to any of the fathers in the room to intentionally be a part of their children's lives, in spite of any shame they felt.

I didn't think much about it again until I saw a man with an enormous, ZZ Top-esque beard approach the stage. He called Lauren over to him and told her how he had a daughter around her age and that she had inspired him to contact her. It was soon after that encounter that Lauren was able to take her own advice and get back in touch with her father.

In Seattle, we prepared to meet a group of inmates who called themselves the "God Pod." After putting our ministry "game faces" on, we were ready to blow these guys away with our music. As far as we understood, they were a Christian group of men recovering from sinful lives. Even though we had played these kinds of gigs for months, we still believed we had something significant to offer these men.

Only when we go as learners and observers, expecting Christ to manifest himself—not just in us, but also in the people to whom we're being sent — will we have the privilege of making disciples.

In walked a group of about 30 men singing "Amazing Grace" at the top of their lungs. Their voices filled the room in a beautiful symphony of God's love and forgiveness, and we hadn't yet touched our instruments. Every time we played a song, they overpowered our sound system, microphones, and amplifiers with passionate, vibrant voices that sang of a grace beyond what we knew.

Years later, I became a missionary, and those experiences in prison lent more to my understanding of what it meant to be missional than any book or seminar on cultural relevance. I learned that when we go "on mission" with a hyper self-awareness instead of a healthy God-awareness, we seriously err and fail the Great Commission. Only when we go as learners and observers, expecting Christ to manifest himself—not just in us, but also in the people to whom we're being sent—will we have the privilege of making disciples.

A friend of mine who spent over four years in prison describes it best:

The most important thing is to be real. Keep in mind that most of these people grew up on the streets and can smell a phony in an instant. If the gospel is really true, you are just one broken individual coming to meet another. Let that be the core of whatever you do in prison. Many of these men or women haven't seen their family in years, don't receive any money or letters, and may not be free for many more years, if ever. They are often treated with contempt by guards and given poor food. When we meet someone from the "free world," we don't want to hear that there are a lot of people on the outside who are "in prison," too. We just want you to love God, be real, and share our trials as we praise Jesus together.

Jeff Goins is a writer and a lover of justice.

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