When I was in the fifth grade, my teacher called a conference with my mother and warned her about me, saying, “If that boy does not change his ways, by the time he’s eighteen, he’ll end up in jail.” Her statement was prophetic. Well, almost. At the age of fifteen, following my conversion to Christ at a summer camp in southern Wisconsin, my life changed dramatically, and no, I did not go to jail. I had cheated the prophecy by three years.
However, years later, God used a combination of corporate budget cuts, negative economic effects of 9–11, and collateral consequences of the Enron debacle to land me in jail, not as an inmate, but as a chaplain. As I look back on my teacher’s warning, I can see the humor in it, as God wove the tapestry of events together in almost unbelievable detail. The exciting part is that He is not finished yet. I will share some of those details later in this article. However, I digress.
The Sovereignty of God and “Jailhouse Religion”
Inevitably, when I speak about the jail ministry, someone will bring up the subject of “jail house religion.” That is, they will—at times condescendingly—point out the hypocrisy of inmates picking up a Bible upon entering the jail, then leaving behind both their Bible and their “religious” experience when they are released. This criticism implies that ultimately, I was wasting my time ministering to inmates because their conversions in confinement are not genuine.
This argument is indeed a straw man; there are certainly false conversions, but this point is irrelevant. As someone has said, “The only thing worse than ‘jailhouse religion’ is ‘church-house religion.’” False conversions occur “on the outside”  as well as in the jail. In no way, however, does this negate the fact that God is clearly at work in our correctional facilities, just as He is elsewhere in the world. His sovereignty assures us that He will effectively call His elect, no matter where they may be found, including the local jail.
In discussing God’s sovereignty, R. J. Rushdoony wrote, “One who is above all, is independent and unlimited by any other, and has independent and original authority and jurisdiction can only describe the God of Scripture.” 
Reformed theology clearly declares God’s sovereign role in man’s salvation. The Westminster Confession of Faith states that effectual calling “is of God’s free and special grace alone, not from anything at all foreseen in man, who is altogether passive therein, until, being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit, he is thereby enabled to answer this call, and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it.” 
Describing the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration, the apostle closest to Jesus quotes our Lord in John 3:8, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (ESV).
In His sovereign wisdom, at this point in the history of our nation, the Lord has chosen jails and prisons as a major environment in which He is effectually calling His elect. According to Lennie Spitale, himself a former inmate and dynamic leader in prison ministry,
I do not know of any more fertile ground for the gospel in all of the United States than our jails and prisons. I make that statement unequivocally and without reservation. If you are looking for a more fruitful harvest field, apart from leaving the country, you will be hard pressed to find it.
The Humbling Process of Incarceration
The sovereign working of God is hidden from our view, but we do have the outward fruit of His unseen work. This consists of the genuine conversions we have seen in the jail environment. From our human perspective, there are logical reasons for the “effectiveness” of jail and prison ministry:
Think of the following scenario: Where else can you find so many for whom the façade of self-sufficiency has been stripped away? Where else can you enter a place that is filled from top to bottom with people who know they have done wrong and, in most cases, readily admit it? Where else can you find so many who are genuinely sorry for what they have done? Where else can you find so many broken, hurting, lonely people all collected together in one small space? Where else can you enter a community where so many of its members have been humbled? (I am not saying that they are all humble; I am saying that they have been humbled.) Where else can you enter an arena where every unbeliever understands that your function is to talk about God? And further, that they expect you to bring him up? 
Mr. Spitale’s description of the humbling effect of incarceration is a logical explanation of how God uses the particular circumstances of the correctional environment to soften hearts and reach His elect. These circumstances include the process of being arrested, going to jail, and adjusting to the daily routine as an inmate; they provide a good example of the humbling aspect of incarceration.
The following hypothetical case will illustrate the point. Joe was considered a good father and business man. He was well known in the community and took his family to church on a regular basis. But he had a problem: a secret addiction to Internet pornography. He had been struggling with it for several years, and it finally took a turn for the worse when he set up a clandestine meeting with a minor, for illicit purposes.
What Joe did not realize was that the underaged girl he had agreed to meet was not who he thought. “She” was a male law enforcement agent who had been monitoring his illegal Internet activity and arrested him at the agreed upon meeting place. He had gotten caught in a “sting” operation. He was immediately taken to jail. His sense of shock, shame and embarrassment was overwhelming.
After his arrival at the jail, he was stripped of all his clothes, and searched. Without describing the search in detail, suffice it to say it left him feeling humiliated, and even violated. Then he was issued an orange jumpsuit and flip flops. His once good reputation at home, in the church, and in the community was now irrelevant. He had become one of many pebbles on the beach; he looked like all the other inmates in the jail. The playing field of his life was leveled. As he sat in the noisy jail cell, surrounded by a cacophony of unfamiliar sounds, breathing in the odor of humanity, packed in like sardines, he began to reflect on his life and actions. Grief and remorse gripped him like a serpent, and he held back a torrent of tears, afraid of how his fellow inmates might react.
The good news was that Joe was now exactly where God wanted him: he was humbled; he was ready to deal with his addiction. Best of all, Joe was now ready to receive the ministry of God’s Word in his life. This is what makes jailhouse ministry so fruitful for those who choose to serve in this environment.
In this respect, ministry to the incarcerated is very easy, compared to evangelism on the outside. I used to say that ministering in this environment was like fishing in a stocked pond. However, sometimes, it gets even better: the fish just jump into the boat. It does not get any better than that. That is what makes ministry in this environment so unique.
Jail and Prison Ministry in Caesar’s Household
The humbling effects just described are one part of the picture. However, there is another aspect that greatly affects the ability of chaplains and volunteers to minister in such an environment. This has to do with the rule of “Caesar” in our justice system, and the role of the Christian chaplain in the corrections environment.
A 2006 U.S. District Court decision  and subsequent Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals decision  affirming the decision of the District Court, have all but nationalized jail and prison ministry. These cases created a new definition of state (“public”) funds, to include fees paid by inmates to the facility (an agent of the state), for benefits such as telephone and canteen use. This new definition of state funds was the justification for state control. The primary issue in these cases involved the funding of Christian ministry with public funds. However, the practical outcome was twofold: the restriction of Christian ministry in jails and prisons, and the inclusion of every type of non-Christian religious influence imaginable.
The manifold effects of these two federal court decisions are beyond the purview of this article. However, from a theological-jurisdictional perspective, simply put, Christian chaplains and volunteers must realize they are ministering in occupied territory. All religions are given virtually equal status under the law, and facilities are required to make reasonable accommodations for the various religious views represented by the inmate population. Thus, they minister under the rule of Caesar, where “proselytizing” is illegal, and great care must be taken not to “offend” non-Christians. They must do all this while at the same time maintaining their integrity and keeping their consciences clear before God.
As a professional chaplain, part of my legal duty was to “facilitate” various religious requests. Although I was not required to participate in or fund these requests, I had to make reasonable efforts to assist inmates in fulfilling their legally protected religious practices. These duties may include obtaining donations of reading materials, recruiting volunteers from the various religions, and establishing individual or program ministry, based on inmate requests. In short, I assisted them with their religious expression, be it Christian or not.
At times I struggled with this before God. However, I found some comfort in the following passage from 2 Kings 5:18–19a:
In this thing the Lord pardon thy servant, that when my master goeth into the house of Rimmon to worship there, and he leaneth on my hand, and I bow myself in the house of Rimmon: when I bow down myself in the house of Rimmon, the Lord pardon thy servant in this thing. And he said unto him, Go in peace.
Despite the negative view of Naaman’s statements held by several commentators, I agree with The Wycliffe Bible Commentary: “Naaman was not to be regarded as worshiping the god [Hadad]-Rimmon,” but rather, “Naaman showed a tender conscience about appearing to worship idols, and he received assurance that God understood his heart.”
By virtue of his position in the Syrian state, Naaman was required to facilitate the religious practice of his superior, in assisting him in kneeling as he worshiped his false god. Elisha’s response, “Go in peace,” assured Naaman that God saw his heart, and did not hold him accountable in providing the required assistance.
As a Christian chaplain in the secular humanist state, I had similar requirements. Adherence to those requirements was part of my job description. Thus, great wisdom is necessary to minister in such a way as to assure the continued presence of Christian ministry. Although some may disagree with me on this point, until such time as God’s people take dominion over the justice system, we must follow Caesar’s rules, or be excluded from correctional ministry. As in the days of the early church under Roman rule, however, we must remember that God is faithful, and His Word is not bound (2 Tim. 2:9). Despite the human limitations imposed on ministry behind bars, God is in no way limited in bringing His elect unto Himself.
Reconstructing Inmates’ Lives Behind Bars
We have seen that God indeed calls His elect from among the incarcerated, and that Christians must minister with wisdom in occupied territory. How, then, can we summarize the essence of jail ministry? In a word: discipleship.
This brings us full circle from an earlier point, in that there is no substantive difference between discipling those on the outside and those who are incarcerated. God works His will in the lives of His elect through His Word, faithfully taught in its entirety, and applied to every area of life. The uniqueness of ministry to the incarcerated, as to its apparent effectiveness, results primarily from the nature of its particular humbling circumstances. God prepares hearts for the harvest, and the workers reap the results.
However, evangelism is only one element of the overarching enterprise of discipleship. Matthew 28:18–20 clearly makes the nexus between discipleship and teaching of the Word: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations … teaching them” (NIV).
In my own calling to this ministry, the Lord emphasized teaching. In the midst of an eighteen-month employment crisis, I was reading my Norwegian Bible daily. One day, unexpectedly, the Lord spoke to me through Ps. 51:12–13, which states, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you” (ESV).
I knew I wanted to teach, but the Lord had not yet revealed to me who my students were supposed to be. However, as I was meditating on this psalm, I realized that the word in the Norwegian language for “transgressors” literally means “criminals.” My next thought was rather amusing, Where do I find a bunch of criminals, other than the U.S. Congress? Oh yes—in the jail! It was at this moment I began to realize where God wanted me to teach, and to whom.
Where circumstances allow, discipleship may take place through a Christian program or in some type of chapel where groups of inmates can meet with chaplains and volunteers. This is ideal for reaching larger numbers of inmates. In other jurisdictions, discipleship may consist more of one-on-one mentoring. Either way, there are opportunities for lives to be reconstructed according to the Word of God.
Deut. 33:10a states, “They shall teach Jacob your rules and Israel your law” (ESV). According to this passage, “God appointed the Levites to guard God’s law and to teach it.” It was very appropriate that I should teach God’s law to students who have not only broken God’s laws, but man’s laws as well.
This meaning, purpose and goal of jail ministry is enriched even more by an understanding of the primary meaning of the Hebrew word for law, “torah,” which is teaching, or instruction. I was most privileged to have the blessing of instructing criminals regarding God’s law: His teaching, His instruction. The end result was seeing lost sheep being saved (Luke 19:10) and watching sinners return to Him (Ps. 51:13).
Conclusion—Jesus Is Behind Bars
After nearly fifteen years as a jail chaplain, there is a statement I have heard from multiple inmates that has summarized the uniqueness of this ministry more than any other I have ever heard. It goes something like this, “Going to jail is the best thing that ever happened to me, because that is where I found Jesus.” How often have you ever thought about the idea that Jesus is in jail? Probably never, but He most certainly is.
Reconstructing inmate’s lives behind bars is one of the greatest opportunities of our time. When this discipling is done with a comprehensive worldview, where God’s Word is applied to every area of life, we will see God’s Kingdom expand exponentially. Let us pray and work for that day.
- This is a phrase used by inmates to describe life outside the jail and prison walls.
- R. J. Rushdoony, Sovergenity (Ross House Books, Vallecito, CA, 2007), p. 1.
- Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter X, para. II.
- Lennie Spitale, Prison Ministry: Understanding Prison Culture Inside and Out (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2002), p. 190.
- ibid. (italics in original).
- Americans United for Separation of Church and State v. Prison Fellowship Ministries (432 F.Supp.2d 862 (S.D. Iowa 2006); see also (http://howappealing.abovethelaw.com/AUSCSvsPrisonFellowshipMinistries.pdf).
- 509 F.3d 406 (2007).
- In this context, to proselytize means to attempt to convert an inmate against his will. However, as happens so often, an inmate will ask someone to talk with him about God. Chaplains are then free to share the gospel with that inmate.
- See, for example, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, Vol. II (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Company, n.d.), p. 736 and C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, Vol. III (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, reprinted November 1983), p. 320.
- The Wycliffe Bible Commentary (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1979) (italics added), p. 346.
- R. J. Rushdoony, Deuteronomy (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 2008), p. 501.
- The second most significant statement is this, “Going to jail saved my life.”
- Steve Christenson
Steve Christenson was born in Madison, WI and graduated from East High School. After two years of liberal arts studies at the University of Wisconsin, he attended Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, where he earned his B.A. in Theology and Greek. Following his first year at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, IL, Steve served as an associate pastor intern in Seattle, WA. Concluding that "the ministry" was not for him, he pursued another calling.
Sensing God's call to study law, Steve moved to Virginia Beach, VA to attend Regent University. While a law student, he served as an intern with the Norfolk Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court. At the conclusion of the internship, he submitted a proposal to the court regarding the implementation of a new DNA testing procedure, which was adopted by all the juvenile courts in Virginia. At his graduation from law school in 1998, the law faculty presented him with The Distinguished Professional Achievement Award in Public Law. Steve's legal practice in criminal defense and juvenile and domestic relations took him into the jails, detention homes and city projects. He soon found himself ministering to his clients, who were very receptive to spiritual matters.
Within a few years, Steve realized that the Lord was calling him to the ministry, not in the local church, but in the local jail, as a chaplain. He became a chaplain at the Virginia Beach Correctional Center with Good News Jail & Prison Ministry on September 16, 2002. Steve became the Senior Chaplain on February 16, 2003, retiring from jail ministry in 2018. Steve lives in Spartanburg County, South Carolina, with his wife, Darlene, who retired after fifteen years as Chaplain to Women.