Your Church Is Too Small
by Harold Dean Trulear
What would happen if we considered prison inmates as members of the church rather than just as objects of outreach?
Forty years ago, as part of my Youth For Christ/Campus Life training, I was required to read two books: Your God Is Too Small by J. B. Phillips and How Black Is the Gospel by Tom Skinner. My supervisors assured me these texts would help me consider how my theological vision would impact my ability to work with African American youth in the turbulent ’70s. Your God Is Too Small challenged populist views of God that resulted in a narrow understanding of the world in general and people in particular. Phillips’ tour of inadequate views of God, from “resident policeman” to “pale-faced Galilean,” impressed upon me the need for a vision of God that emphasizes his Lordship—a Lordship that extended to high school campuses marred by social unrest and racial tension.
Skinner’s text raised the issue of inclusion in stark terms. To an evangelical church which had defined the gospel doctrinally, without any attempts to address cultural context, the evangelist proffered a challenge to see how the gospel already addressed the marginality of the African American experience. He argued that ministering to young blacks required not some form of exceptionalist adjustment but rather a full understanding of the good news of Jesus Christ.
Both of these readings returned to my consciousness as I reflected on my work assisting congregations around the country in developing their ministry within the criminal justice system. In congregation after congregation, I encounter a “small God” who loves the church and the saints but conspicuously ignores those outside the four walls of the sanctuary. I observe a gospel whose good news is described in terms of the well-being and prosperity of the church and its saints without seeing the kingdom of God beyond like-minded believers.
This “too small” church sees the kingdom at work in its worship life and the lives of individual believers present, but seldom in the larger “ecclesia.” It bunkers and hunkers down into an “us/them” mentality, with all the blessings for us and little evidence of grace for them.
When I discuss the work of Healing Communities and the ways in which we mobilize congregations around incarceration, this “too small” gospel pushes back in one of two forms: “We already have a prison ministry” or “We don’t have any connection with those who are incarcerated.”
“I was in prison and you came to me.”
Existing prison ministries are too often defined simply as “outreach,” and outreach fails to recognize the existing connections between the incarcerated and the congregation’s membership. It treats prisoners as “them,” despite the fact that prisoners’ mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, grandparents, children, and other kin fill our pews Sunday after Sunday. A student once asked me how to preach to families of the incarcerated. I replied, “You already do—you just don’t recognize that they are present.” Silenced by shame and stigma, these families tacitly accept the sharp divide between “us” and “them” that reduces their incarcerated loved one to an object of outreach rather than as part of the kinship network.
We act as if God is not big enough to be already present in prison and therefore must be taken there by prison ministry specialists (as well as some well-meaning volunteers deemed fit to preach to prisoners but unqualified to preach on Sunday morning). While the good news for church members includes a long list of kingdom entitlements, from emotional well-being to material security, the good news for inmates boils down to a “born again” experience designed to help them endure their sentence with patience and humility.
In Acts 1:8 Christ exhorts us, “You shall be witnesses unto me in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.” Too many churches put inmates in the “uttermost” category, but if your son is incarcerated, his prison is not the “uttermost part of the earth,” it’s Jerusalem! It’s home!
Too many churches put inmates in the “uttermost” category, but if your son is incarcerated, his prison is not the “uttermost part of the earth,” it’s Jerusalem!
Prison ministry has its place, but if our engagement of the prisoner, the families of the incarcerated, and those returning from incarceration confines itself to evangelism of the inmate, the “them,” then our God is too small and our gospel is sadly restricted. Our big God is already at work in the lives of those living within the prison walls, and church volunteers should go expecting to meet him there. We don’t have to work to make the gospel relevant to the inmate and his/her family; it already is. It is we who have to understand that incarceration is central to the biblical narrative and the work of the gospel, from the long list of justly accused—Moses, David, the dying thief—through to the unjustly imprisoned—Joseph, Jeremiah, Daniel, John, Jesus, Paul.
What would happen if we considered prison inmates as members of the church rather than just as objects of outreach, if we viewed the prisoner as one of us, part of our own body? Let’s try it. Let’s kick out the walls of our church, enlarging it to include our brothers and sisters behind bars and their loved ones who are sitting in our own pews week after week. Let’s try it and find out.
Harold Dean Trulear is director of the Healing Communities Prison Ministry and Prisoner Reentry Project of the Philadelphia Leadership Foundation. He is an ordained American Baptist minister and serves as associate professor of applied theology and director of the doctor of ministry program at Howard University in Washington, DC. He is on the pastoral staff of Praise and Glory Tabernacle in Southwest Philadelphia and serves as a fellow at the Center for Public Justice in Annapolis, Md.