Some who are reading this may be afraid of people who have been in prison. If we read Acts 9, we see there that fear overcome by faith. In Acts 9:10–16, we read the conversation between Ananias and Jesus. Jesus is sending Ananias to the murderer Saul, and Ananias is afraid and doesn’t want to go. He knows of Saul’s reputation and how many people Saul has hurt. However, his faith is stronger than his fear, and he ultimately obeys the Lord when He tells him to go and lay his hands on Saul (vv. 17–18). However, the story doesn’t end there. Later in that same chapter, Saul goes to Jerusalem, and in verse 26 we read: “He attempted to join the disciples. And they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple.” However, Barnabas steps in and tells them that Saul’s profession of faith is real, and then the people’s fear is overcome by faith. The lesson here is that we ought to accept a person’s conversion as real until and unless he shows us something different. If a person comes into our congregation and he came from prison, we ought not to make him “prove himself” to us. Rather, we must trust that he is converted and wants to worship in a church that teaches the truth. Of course, part of the way an ex-prisoner will show the reality of his conversion is in his willingness to be open about his sin with church leaders and to submit to any policies the church has in place related to the offender’s crime. For more on that, see below.
Along the lines of “proving themselves” is the anticipation of relapse or fall into sin. This, again, is an area where the church tends to treat felons differently. Many times, when a felon sins, it becomes public because the police or other authorities are involved. This isn’t typically true for the average person in the pew. Sure, we all sin, but we don’t all face the same consequences. Nor do we all know how to deal with every sin. We need to ensure that we have a biblical view of discipline and shepherding in order to rightly serve the returning citizen as well as the other folks in the pew.
One question I get from pastors is: “Mark, we are excited to have this former prisoner in our midst. Should we tell the congregation about his background?” My counsel is almost always the same: “Do you normally tell the congregation about the worst sins your new members or visitors have committed? Do you normally ask new members to talk about their sins?” You see, ex-prisoners’ lives have been on display in court documents, online, in newspapers, and on TV. This isn’t true for the average sinner in the pew. We aren’t usually in the habit of looking at each person around us and wondering about what particular sins they struggle with. Talk with the former prisoner. If he feels comfortable talking about his background and salvation story, then by all means let him glorify God with a testimony. If he doesn’t feel comfortable, it is best not to push him into it.
Perhaps the most important thing church members can do is “normalize” the experience for a former felon. For the layperson, this means inviting him to your home or out for coffee. Exchange phone numbers with him. Befriend him. For the officers of the church, it means getting to know the person. If he is on some sort of supervision such as parole or probation, talk to the person and get his OK to reach out to the parole/probation officer. This is an area where church leaders can be advocates for people in a criminal justice system that is severely broken.
Another question I often am asked deals with how we should treat those who have committed sex offenses (registered sex offenders). Given the high recidivism rates of these offenders, extra wisdom is needed to care for both these individuals and the congregation.
My advice to churches regarding registered sex offenders is manifold. First, I ask if the church has any child protection policies already in place. If not, I tell them that they need to develop some.
Next, I tell them to get to know the person. Ask questions that will help your church minister to the offender and to the congregation. What was the nature of his crime, and when did it happen? Did it involve forcible action against another person, or was it something like drunken streaking? After the leadership of the church talks with the person and finds out the circumstances of the crime, they should develop a plan that works with the person so that he can enjoy worship and fellowship but that also protects the congregation if necessary. This will include talking to other churches that have offenders in their midst and working with the person’s parole officer. Invite the officer to the church and allow him to see the layout. Ask if any areas are automatically off limits. Find out what is allowable and what is not.
Leaving Prison and Joining the Church
What is it like to walk out of prison after ten, fifteen, or twenty-five years as a Christian? It is both joyous and fearful. Think for a moment about the things that have changed in the past ten or fifteen years. How would you feel if you had to step into the world without seeing the change from phones mounted on the wall to flip phones to smartphones? There are thousands of things such as these that change over time, both monumental and trivial, and many prisoners miss those changes and are forced to catch up with the outside world the minute they step out. You can love your neighbor by helping them. Ex-prisoners feel the joy of being free from the prison environment, but they fear not being accepted in society and the church.
Finally, in loving the returning citizen, I would encourage you to treat him differently than the world treats them. The world says: “You can’t live here. You can’t work here. You are not welcome here. You cannot vote here.” If we are honest, discrimination against felons is acceptable in the world. Brothers and sisters, it cannot be acceptable in the church. If we believe that the blood of Christ cleanses us from all unrighteousness, then this includes felonious unrighteousness. Jesus calls us to “love your neighbor as yourself,” even if that neighbor happens to have been incarcerated, as I was.