Are progressive Christians failures at prison ministry?

Jun 20, 2014 by

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A few weeks ago Zach Hunt over at his The American Jesus blog asked the question: Can you have a church without a prison ministry?

I’d say, no, you can’t. See: Matthew 25.

And yet, many churches fall down on the job, especially progressive churches.

Last week I was visiting with my friend Richard Goode at Lipscomb University. Richard and those associated with him at Lipscomb have done some amazing things in prisons.

As Goode and I were talking about our respective experiences in prison ministry we noted the following: there aren’t many progressive Christians or churches engaged in prison ministry.

For example, churches send prisons all sorts of print literature. Pamphlets, books, newsletters and magazines. Prisons overflow with this reading material. But the theological quality of this material is generally awful. If the material is not theological kooky it is decidedly fundamentalist.

I look through this stuff each week as the inmates pick up things to read on their own and it just kills me. Why aren’t progressive churches sending reading materiel to prisons? In my prison there is a whole wall of free reading material and all of it is being sent in from fundamentalist churches.

In addition, the people who do prison ministry where I am (and Goode reports the same trend in his context) all come from conservative or fundamentalist churches. To be clear, I’m not lamenting this. I love the volunteers I work alongside. These are guys following the commands of Jesus in visiting the prisoner. So I don’t care all that much about if I’d agree with most of the chaplaincy volunteers about God or the atonement or social justice or whatever. The common work is what unites us.

My concern is that the theological conversation isn’t all that diverse in prisons. Given that progressive Christians have by and large abandoned prison ministries, the theological education provided for the inmates is very narrow. Progressive Christian ideas are almost wholly absent.

Why are progressive Christian churches not more involved in prison ministry?

Maybe it’s a demographics issue. Progressive Christianity tends to be pretty intellectual and formally educated. Prison populations tend to have less formal education. So I wonder if that educational divide is a part of the problem. Can formally educated progressive Christians communicate their faith to more informally educated populations like those in prison?

Another thought. Progressive Christians, perhaps because of their formal education and biographies with churches (i.e., getting burned by them), can be pretty cynical. It’s one of the things I dislike about progressive Christianity, its temptations toward cynicism. And cynicism doesn’t work well in prison. Prison is a pretty depressing place. You need to speak words of hope and do more than rant about penal substitutionary atonement or suggest that the inmates “give up God for Lent.”

But whatever the reasons — too educated? too hipster? too cynical? too doubt-filled? — as best Richard and I can tell, progressive Christians are failing our prisons.

Richard Beck is professor and department chair of psychology at Abilene Christian University. He is the author of Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality and MortalityRichard’s area of interest — be it research, writing or blogging — is on the interface of Christian theology and psychology, with a particular focus on how existential issues affect Christian belief and practice. Richard’s published research covers topics as diverse as the psychology of profanity to why Christian bookstore art is so bad. He blogs at Experimental Theology, where this post originally appeared.


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  • Harvey Yoder

    I totally resonate with this piece, and recommend the Prisons and Punishment site on Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/pages/Prisons-and-Punishment/395620483880836

  • Lisa Schirch

    At my progressive mennonite church, there are a number of people working with people in prisons. But it is less about converting people in prison than it is about issues of justice. Virtually everyone in my church is involved heavily in every sector of service to people in homeless shelters, at soup kitchens, in prisons, in domestic violence shelters, to our nation’s leaders, to people in war-torn countries…. So I do not resonate with this suggestion that somehow progressive churches are elitist or too busy with intellectual matters. I do think the issue is that progressive Mennonites tend to think that our actions speak louder than our words. We tend to believe that people will know we are Christians by our love, not by our pamphlets. I do agree that progressive Christians could do more to share this message of love with people in prisons. Perhaps those who hand out pamphlets speak more about judgement and sin than about grace and love.

  • Dannie Otto

    First Mennonite Church of Urbana-Campaign, Illinois has a number of people actively involved in the Education Justice Project at the Danville Illinois Correctional Center through the University of Illinois. I consider FMC a progressive congregation. I agree with much of what Lisa Schirch said below.

  • berryfriesen

    Norman Lowry is a prisoner of conscience at a state prison in Dallas, Pennsylvania. He is serving seven years for actions against a military recruiting center in Lancaster. Several of us visit him regularly, and we send him books and share writings about the Bible and the faith of Messiah Jesus. He distributes these books and writings to all who are interested and reports much lively conversation among inmates and guards. Fundamentalist christianity is the usual fare for inmates, and when another understanding of God’s purposes and Jesus’ ministry is introduced – especially through an articulate and loving presence such as Norman’s – it attracts interest and attention.

    Norman is friend and counselor to many. He understands himself to be a part of the body of Christ in that prison, reflecting the honesty and compassion of our Lord. He perceives literal imprisonment to be metaphor for our situation on the outside where we are in bondage to the lies and deceit of the powers who reign over us. He is glad to live among those who recognize their predicament and thus are open to the liberating message of the gospel; it is the company of such persons that Jesus also sought.

  • Rainer Moeller

    One of the reasons seems to me that progressive Christians tend to be pharisees. The want to organize a movement of the “holy” or “just” people against the sinners. So, they don’t easily identify with sinners (and that’s why they don’t look up for atonement).
    And so they would reserve their interest to the innocent or undeserving prisoner. But let’s be honest, most of the prisoners will not be innocent. And a lot of them will not even feel innocent.
    Then most progressive Christians will prefer quick inner-worldly improvements. But for a long-time prisoner a message about a happy afterlife after death may be more appropriate.