As I mentioned in an earlier post, I had been involved with prison ministry for 15 years before starting the jail Bible study. I’ve also been a small group leader at church, a high school Sunday school teacher, and led various Bible studies over the past 4 decades. I’ve read the entire Bible cover to cover more than two dozen times – actually I stopped counting after two dozen. All of that was still inadequate preparation for what was to come.
I’d met with a few of the jail chaplains and they decided to try me out leading a Bible Study. The fact that I was leading came up on rather short notice. I used one of my favorite sections of scripture:
23 Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. 24 So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. 25 Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian. 26 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
While the study wasn’t a total failure, i.e. a riot didn’t break out, it really wasn’t that effective.
The chaplain gave me some coaching afterwards that was helpful in avoiding that mistake in the future:
- The guys come from a wide variety of spiritual backgrounds. On one extreme some are preacher’s kids and have been raised in the church. At the other extreme are those who have never been inside a church, have never even touched a Bible and know absolutely nothing about it.
- The message needs to be relevant to each person in that room regardless of where they are on that spiritual continuum.
- There will likely be a different group of people each week, so the lesson has to be self-contained, i.e. I can’t refer to an earlier study since they probably weren’t at the earlier study.
- The parables of Jesus tend to provide the best material. Even those who have never heard the stories before can offer their opinions on what the story means. The parables are accessible to all irrespective of their spiritual background or education.
Preparation means having lessons that are distilled down to the essence of the gospel of grace.
I try to make the studies as interactive and participatory as possible. Over the years in prison ministry I’ve seen that the most powerful times when God has spoken were times when it was one inmate speaking to another. Here is an example from a few years back at a prison in the Midwest.
It was a Prison Fellowship weekend and I was a small group leader. There were 8 guys in our group. One of the group members was a white guy in his late 40s who had been in prison for just 3 months. He was serving a 15 year (minimum) sentence. His circumstances were weighing heavily on him. No male in his family had ever lived past age 55 so there was a very real prospect that he was going to die in prison. He was considering suicide just to get it over with.
One of the other guys in the group was a black man in his late 20s who was serving life without parole. In that moment age, race, gang affiliation, and everything else fell away as he said, “This is not the end of the line. Your life can still have meaning, even in a place like this.”
Those words were far more powerful coming from him — a man serving life who knew that he was going to die in prison – than they would have coming from me. In that moment that young man was saying to the other man the words of Jesus, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”
I prepare each week, and each week I know anything that I might say will be of little value to these guys. But my presence provides an opportunity for them to meet together. I’ve learned to watch for God speaking to them, and for the words of hope that they say to each other.