Why Your Next Pastor May Be an Ex-Prisoner
Christian Post Guest Columnist
Mark Earley and I recently visited a large prison, located in an arid, dusty part of southern California. Entering the prison yard, I stopped, stared at the drab surroundings, and was struck by a question: Why, in this, the richest nation on Earth, do we cast 2.3 million citizens in holes like this? It’s madness.
So is this prison’s approach to drug rehabilitation. The chaplain told me inmates may talk about a “higher power,” but not God and certainly not Jesus. “Do these programs work?” I asked. He shook his head: “Maybe 20 percent of the time.”
So we’re giving addicts a combination of therapy and watered-down spirituality and putting them back on the streets. No wonder two-thirds end up back in prison.
These thoughts gnawed at me when I spoke to several hundred excited inmates, many apparently serious believers. On impulse, I asked them, “You fellows are the experts. Why is it that we as a nation are packing millions of you into places like this? What’s wrong?”
Several shouted out one word: “Sin!”
I was stunned. Most experts would blame poverty, race, or a dysfunctional childhood. But these men know the truth. They know the reality of evil and human sin, and they accept responsibility for their actions because Christ has convicted them.
Their attitude—and that of prisoners like them all over America—is why I believe so strongly in the vision Mark Earley has cast for Prison Fellowship: to raise up people from the prisons to become the Church’s next generation of leaders.
Seem unlikely? No. These inmates really understand what amazing grace is. Whenever that hymn is sung behind bars, the inmates stand, tears flowing down their cheeks. They know the depths of sin, but they also know that grace abounds all the more. Locked in a prison cell, they are truly broken, truly helpless—and that’s when they can put full trust in God.
A famous pastor once said that nobody is fit for the pulpit who has not been broken badly in life. He’s right: Only when you have been broken can you empathize with others; and only then do you recognize that only God can put you back together. Understanding costly grace, prisoners make great leaders.
Our Centurions program has a parallel purpose—raising up worldview teachers who can think Christianly about all of life. We have graduated three classes of one hundred Centurions from our year-long program—and they in turn are spreading the message. Among them: John Nunnikhoven. He’s teaching worldview to Vermont legislators and also volunteering for Prison Fellowship, bringing inmates to live in his own home. John embodies the twin goals of Prison Fellowship—to defend the truth and then demonstrate the truth as we live out the Gospel behind bars.
These two goals—equipping people to contend against the false values of our culture and to make the invisible kingdom visible—is exactly what will renew the Church. I have a passion to see this vision realized, which is why I am devoting every waking moment to this ministry. And that’s why we have no reason to despair about America’s future. I see men and women who will step forward as the leaders of a new and revitalized Church.