I sometimes hear people speak disparagingly of “jailhouse religion.” They define it as “getting religion” when in a crisis situation. The same thing is said in the context of “foxhole religion.” It boils down to people who find themselves on their bellies in the muck and mire of life with no place to go for relief. In those situations they turn to the God of the Bible and experience conversion. Peace comes in the midst of the hurricane-force winds of life.
I have heard it said that kind of conversion is meaningless. In fact, some suggest that witnessing in jails and prisons is not a good idea because inmates who make professions of faith don’t really mean it. They say crisis conversion does not stick.
I would kindly but vehemently disagree. My experience across the years tells me that crisis ministry is of utmost value. God often allows us to go through crises to get our attention and to provide an opportunity to turn to Him. Such circumstances open the door for the people of God to display the grace and love of Jesus to those in desperate situations.
The testimonies of people who have met Jesus in a crisis are powerful. A few weeks ago, it was my privilege to speak at a banquet for volunteers involved in the jail ministry of Oklahoma County. Volunteers in this ministry, like many others across Oklahoma, share the Good News of Jesus with prisoners an amazing number of times every year—and the number of prisoners who come to faith in Christ is significant.
I listened to the testimony of a young man who carried my own name—Anthony. He had been involved in multiple acts of evil when he hit bottom and turned to Christ in the midst of his crisis. Anthony, who now goes by Christopher, had his life radically changed because of the ministry of volunteers in the jail who presented the claims of Christ. His jailhouse religion became a living faith. He was lost, but now is found—was blind, but now he sees.
Chuck Colson is one of the most prominent persons to have experienced jailhouse religion. A member of the staff of the President of the United States, Colson was sent to prison for crimes committed in the political arena. While incarcerated, he heard the claims of the Gospel and surrendered his life to Christ. Today, he leads Prison Fellowship and is an outstanding Christian author and speaker.
The testimony of transformation in the Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana is a story worth telling. Prisoners, some serving life sentences, have come to faith in Christ. New Orleans Seminary started a seminary within the walls to train prisoners who felt a call to ministry. Graduation exercises are held inside the prison, where many prisoners have become ministers and servants. Their lives have been so transformed and their ministry so powerful that they are willing to sacrifice trusteeships or privileges earned through good behavior at Angola to transfer to other Louisiana prisons to serve as inmate-missionaries.
You have a part in seeing people come to Christ in prison because your church gives to the Cooperative Program and the State Missions Offering. But I must challenge you to go a step farther. What is your church doing in your town or county to reach prisoners with the Gospel? Giving is important, but your church on mission in the jail is of even greater consequence. Does God want you to become a volunteer for jail or prison ministry? You can make a difference in society and for the Kingdom.
Is jailhouse religion the real thing? Only God has the true score card. But it seems to me that faith is alive in the jailhouse. I am glad Oklahoma Baptists are presenting the Gospel in jails and prisons across our state. Lives are being transformed by the power of the Gospel of Jesus!
Anthony L. Jordan is executive director-treasurer of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.