Are Progressive Christians Failures at Prison Ministry?

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. For example, check this out.

As Richard 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 Richard 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 the 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.

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33 thoughts on “Are Progressive Christians Failures at Prison Ministry?”

  1. Good thoughts, Richard. I think extreme discomfort at the idea of entering a prison is at play, too. Before I returned to a church of Christ, I attended a Disciples congregation for several years. Some years ago, I brought up the idea of starting a prison ministry. There was only one response from a man in the congregation (and it was extremely cynical, basically a warning that the prisoners would only take advantage of us) while several women replied. None of them were interested in actually going to a prison, so they wound up starting a ministry at the bus station, giving nice clothes and toiletries to the women being released from the Henley and Plane units.

    I was thinking the other day about a different way to do a prison ministry, one that takes Jesus' words literally, "You visited me in prison." The idea is that a church that already has a prison ministry can have one of their people coordinate with the unit chaplain to set up just a simple visitation with inmates that normally never get a visitor. No classes, no preaching, just simple interpersonal connection.

  2. I agree with your conclusion. As far as causation goes, I would also add that there is a lack of urgency in progressive theology. If we were really convinced that there was eternal fire in store for anyone who wasn't "saved," we probably would throw everything we could at places like prisons- volunteering, printing tracts, etc. But we don't believe that, so these efforts are de-emphasized. As long as the consequences of inaction are perceived to be temporary and action is difficult, we don't act. I think there are other potential sources of urgency, but we handily avoid the subjects: preventing human suffering and recidivism, for example.

    Also, I would say this same issue exists in inner-city outreach ministries most of the time (social gospel found largely in the African-American tradition aside). Maybe it's time for a Progressive Christian Worker movement, a la Shane Claiborne and new monasticism.

  3. Have you considered writing a guide for progressive christian ministries? Or perhaps a devotional book that could be used? Or if one exists, can you point us to it?

  4. I think Zach's piece nails it when he says prison is a scary place, and I think it is more than just physically scary - it is theologically scary too. Many progressive pride themselves that their highly intellectualized theologies are 'better' than the grass root theologies of the more fundamentalist and especially charismatic churches (look at me, defending the charismatics! This is your doing, Richard....), but their theologies were developed among and largely for the privileged whereas those they look down upon were developed in the communities where most of the these men and women in prison grew up. [and where I grew up - I have a family member who is currently incarcerated, and know too many who have been or have died in prison] Exposing their theology to inmates poses a very serious challenge. What if it doesn't hold up when exposed to the very people Jesus ministered too? What if it turns out not to be the 'ggod news' they think it is to those who need it most? What then? It is much safer to write blog posts to those equally as privileged about how you have a better theology and talk endlessly about minutia, or spend $250 a pop to go camping with other progressives in the mud - fiddling while Rome burns. If your theology is 'better' prove it where it matters most, where hope is the least. I think this and Zach's piece is a huge challenge to the progressive christian community - one that I appreciate you both for highlighting. I hope others take up your call.

  5. I also think that there's a tendency in progressive Christianity to privilege voting for Democrats over local church ministries. That is to say, a lot of progressive Christian that I know equate "social justice" with voting for a Democrat during a Presidential election. To be clear, I've no problem with that. But what this means, practically, is that progressive Christians, by and large, aren't engaged in local ministries reaching out to the poor or to the prisoner.

    A lot of this is, I think, due to the troubled relationship many progressive Christians have with church. Trouble is, if you've disengaged from church you've unplugged from a lot of the local ministry infrastructure (things like food pantries and prison ministries).

    My biggest concern and worry is that "progressive Christianity," being disconnected as it is from local church ministries, is largely a social media and electoral phenomenon.

  6. That's a great idea. Plus, a lot of people and churches have letter writing ministries with prisons.

    Another thought. There are ways to get more people involved that are low-threat. For example, during our bible study we bring in prayer slips. The inmates fill these out with prayer requests and we bring them to some women in the church who are devoted to praying over these requests each week. All the men know is that there are "the prayer ladies" who are praying over them each week. Seems like a pretty small thing, but it's a huge deal for the inmates. If we forget those prayer request slips they get really bothered. They don't want to be forgotten. They want to be remembered by someone--even anonymously--on the outside.

    All that to say, there are ways to get lot of people involved without actually going into the prison.

  7. Thanks, Richard. Wanted to share this with you about my experience in Nashville's death row at RMSI:

  8. My wife regularly tells me the woes of finding volunteers just to look after a few babies in the nursery. Baby boomers say, "I raised my kids, I'm done." Suzetta can hardly find adults who are willing to teach bible classes and the same is true for other ministries as well. So way in hell anybody's going to do that. I may sound cynical, but there is a crisis relating to service in churches today. And many churches biggest concern is, Where we gonna put the coffee bar?

  9. Great post. Great points. Do you think a woman can go into a men's prison and have an effective ministry? Is this even allowed? Is this more a problem of how for centuries the bulk of lay people doing the harder volunteer jobs at church are women? If I knew of a women's prison where I could be helpful, I would go but I always assumed I couldn't do anything at a men's prison.

  10. I also think progressive christians are good at giving to causes that benefit the poor. You're right that we are selfish with our time, but when we see our conservative churches dragging their feet on certain social issues, I do think we are quick to open our checkbooks. It's never enough, of course, but that's not something people go around telling everyone they are doing. You never know what the right or left hand is doing or whatever that verse is...:)

  11. I don't really identify as a progressive in the sense you are using it, but I've had a chance to be around some people that fit your description during more recent years. Here are my observations:

    1. A lot of progressive/mainline churches are sinking under bureaucratic weight. They fail at almost every kind of outreach ministry (except a few very longstanding ones that are "pet" projects of people with influence) because almost all of their time and resources are spent on self-perpetuation and perpetuation of elaborate denominational infrastructures.

    2. While I think you are right about overall levels of education, the level of Bible and theological education among the laity in most ML/progressive churches is poor. This makes it hard for lay volunteers to pull off a model for prison ministry that is similar to what evangelical churches do.

    3. Because progressive/ML churches tend to want their Pastors doing spiritual counseling, administration of sacraments, etc. (with laity relegated to support roles), there are less people available to do some of the things that happen in prison ministry. And they tend to be very busy with other things.

    3. In thinking about what a progressive church prison ministry would look like, I believe there would be a preference for emphasis on therapeutic assistance more than theological education/training. This again requires specialists and money - both of which are scarce resources.

  12. I think women would end up doing most of their work in female jails and prisons. Most of my friend Richard Goode's work (see link in the post) is with a female population.

  13. Of the six questions asked at judgment, the two most difficult for folks are about visiting prisoners and welcoming the strangers (immigrants, aliens). Late in life I've decided to personally do more about each one. One must go through a process to be approved. Since I spent 12 years in individual and group counseling at a mental health center, I had accumulated a vast amount of tools and approaches to use in dealing with A and D, personality disorders, handling stress in daily life, learning how to cope with life's daily issues that would prevent them from landing back in jail, and how to lead a productive life on the outside. The sheriff told me they had plenty of "preachers" who wanted to come and needed someone with my credentials using a different approach. Once a week I have a session with the women and one with the men (around 9 in each group). A term covers two months or 8 sessions. They come to the group room handcuffed and the door is locked. For the most part, they can't believe that someone actually cares about them as human beings with potential for a better life. I've not had any problems; participation, insight, and attention have been excellent. When the need for a reliable support system is discussed, the church is emphasized as one possibility. I complete a written statement about them signing up for this group and an assessment which goes into their file. Of course they want a judge to be impressed with what they've done while in jail, but I truly believe they are benefiting from these sessions.

  14. Below is a link to one progressive ministry in prisons that I think is very promising. My son is in prison in Oregon and the ministry that he attends is the one started by Chuck Colson. I know there are others. I will ask him about them.:

  15. Well, I don't like to talk categorically about the personalities of progressives or conservatives (cynics worship among both communities), but here are a few thoughts:
    1. The largest organization that recruits the religious for prison work is Chuck Colson's Prison Fellowship Ministries, which skews conservative. My liberal Lutheran church has never been approached by PFM, and even if it was, there would probably be skepticism from my congregation. It may be that progressives are simply not being asked enough.
    2. Progressives tend to think about systemic criminal justice issues--emphasizing "Restorative Justice" over evangelization. They tend to be the groups on the capital steps advocating for reducing solitary confinement, and eliminating the death penalty and mandatory minimums. By and large this work doesn't produce literature for prisoners, which is why conservative literature dominates prison libraries.
    3. I think a lot of progressive prison work can be organized which emphasizes interpersonal visitations (which are shown to reduce recidivism) over evangelization.

  16. I'm sorry, but this is not my experience at all working for a faith-based non-profit in the Pacific Northwest. One of our greatest difficulties has been encouraging our more conservative congregations to be/remain involved. We have had congregations refuse to volunteer at our food pantry because of the organization's advocacy against the death penalty.

  17. "I think there are other potential sources of urgency...preventing human suffering and recidivism, for example."
    This is precisely where one gains the most traction within progressive churches--namely those issues which emphasize repairing systemic breakdowns.

  18. I have, but it would mainly be a collection of my reflections that I've regularly shared here. Those can be found on the sidebar under "From the Prison Bible Study."

  19. I agree that progressive Christians attend more to systemic issues. It's the great strength of progressives and, in my estimation, our great weakness. I think progressives fail far too often to attend to the interpersonal. The end result is a politically engaged group of people who aren't all that Christ-like.

    Regarding #2, why wait to be asked? That's sort of my point, progressives sitting around on their asses.

    Regarding #3, I lead a bible study at a prison and, more than anything, that study is a visitation. A time to chat, visit, share personal concerns, and sit in some air conditioning during the Texas summer. In my mind, the bible study is more excuse than evangelism. And I tell the inmates that all the time. I say things like, "You might be an atheist and have simply signed up for this study to enjoy the only air conditioning. And to you I say: Welcome! That's exactly why I'm here."

  20. For all the talk about social justice from the progressive circles, this is a rather interesting phenomenon.

  21. R, I appreciate your comments very much. I too have a family member in prison, and from what I can understand in his letters the fundamentalist service he attends each week has been a tremendous help in his life, even being greatly responsible in saving his life. And though I consider myself a progressive, theologically, socially and politcally, I tend to take each blessing as it comes. I am the type who says "Amen" to the fundamentalists who give the prisoner something to wake up for each day, yet very concerned about prisoners who may come down judgementally hard on others in the prison population that some ministries may have deemed "unclean", especially those who are weak and vulnerable.

    I like what relecha says in her comment above. Progressives are very concerned for the poor and give generously toward their needs. What i see from conservatives regarding the poor is the attitude, "Well, if they would just be more humble and stop demanding so much, then we would help them". In other words, "Act like the poor in Bible movies". And Richard is right, Progressives need to follow Jesus' lead into the prisons and, this is my take, prepare and serve their theology so that it is palatable to hungry hearts. Maybe in time we will see more cross over from both sides. That is my prayer.


  22. In your part of the country aren't most Christians of the conservative or fundamentalist stripe?

    We attend the one and only Episcopal church in Fayetteville, AR. There has been an active jail ministry for women for years and the congregation is extending that to include a post-prison program (fashioned after this

    In the 90's when I was a member of a relative "progressive" CofC in Fayetteville I worked with others doing ministry at the county jail. It's difficult. It challenges a congregation to the core when felons get out and begin attending church. As long as they're in jail the congregation is ok with jail bird ministry. It's a game changer when they actually start coming to church.

  23. President Obama is a progressive christian who is literally setting captives free as opposed to visiting them while still in prison. Progressives voted for him.

  24. That is the rhetoric of left versus right christianity, (was it on this blog or another where his declared that many 'progressive' christians think that voting democratic is enough) but go to where the ministry is actually happening - in prison, in the ghettos, in the inner cities, the rural centers of poverty, and tell me who is actually there. It is not white, upper class hipsters with fancy seminary degrees and 'progressive' theologies - not the bulk of them anyway. It's the Fundamentalists, the Charismatics. After all the cheap talk ceases, who is actually doing the 'work of the Father'?

  25. I usually like to absorb your thoughts without comment, but this strikes a chord because I'm catching up on your blog as I sit outside a courtroom (I would be inside, but I have my 3 kids with me who aren't allowed to go in). I'm here with a young woman who I met 5 years ago through mentoring at a ministry to women exiting the sex trade. After she dropped out of that program, she spent the next 3 years in prison. She participated in a prison ministry while there, but I was her only visitor. I don't know what effect the prison ministry had on her life, but I do know it's been good for her to have a long-term friend to walk with in dark places and tell her the truth and care whether she lives, dies, relapses, or recovers. I don't like labels, but I would probably qualify as progressive on some level. My church is hard to label, but we have an overall progressive bent. We have no prison ministry, but there are those of us who have visited people in prisons. This is anecdotal and doesn't disprove your observations, but doesn't fit your assumptions either. The truth is probably that this post of yours is justified, but there are exceptions.
    I also think you are onto something in your observation that progressive theology is a tough fit for prison populations. My doubts and complexity of faith make my friend uncomfortable, and she prefers the language of charismatics and fundamentalists when talking about God. She understands harsh judgement and clear rules more easily than unconditional love and acceptance, and she has no margin to hold uncertainty. The uncertainty and ambiguity of my progressive-ish theology is confusing, even to me, and wouldn't make for a very good tract to distribute in prison. I face a similar challenge when it comes to raising my children and teaching them about faith. In the same way conservative churches are doing a better job organizing in prisons, my conservative relatives are doing a much better job raising kids who know what they believe and shout it to the world. As for me and my house, we will sit outside this courtroom confused, but hoping it all has something to do with Jesus.
    (please excuse the format, typos, and lack of coherency from typing this response on my phone, but I really wanted to join in this conversation - however imperfectly)

  26. A strength of being progressive is being open, not having all the answers, not needing to be cuddled by a structure. That is why, while I cringe at fundamentalist theology and penal substitutionary atonement, in prison it works better. God is at work through conservatives. Many inmates need strong boundaries. Being conservative can be a good, lifesaving place. I write this as a progressive.

    In another comment, I feel my challenge named. I'm low on serving the alien-immigrant-stranger-Jesus and the prisoner-Jesus

  27. Here are some progressive Christians who've been rocking at prison ministry - for years:

  28. Paul, many, many evangelicals voted for him too - otherwise he would not have been elected.

  29. I served as an AVP trainer for 3 years and lead workshops in numerous prisons and jails in Colorado.
    I also participated as a "one on one" volunteer through New Foundations Nonviolence Center to visit persons detained at the Denver County Jail for 4 years.
    I currently visit persons detained at the Boulder County Jail.

  30. A bit late in joining this discussion, but 2 quick thoughts/questions:

    A: Have you come across Bob Ekblad?
    (e.g. good interview here: ... as he seems to combine a progressive understanding of The Kingdom of God, and Evangelical zeal for The Gospel, and a charismatic heart for God's intervention in people's circumstances, bodies and lifestyles.

    B: "Why aren't progressive churches sending reading materiel to prisons?"
    My (simplistic) observation would be that most theological traditions develop on 3 levels:
    1: High/Academic Theology,
    2: Popular Theology,
    3: Distilled communication to those outside the faith or tradition.

    Think in terms of authors in different traditions and you'll see what I mean, most fall into 1 or 2.
    A few fall into 1 and 2, like NT/Tom Wright, but most fall in one or the other, with those in 2 drawing on those in 1, and making their works and themes more accessible to the normal non-academic reader.

    At level 3 you get tracts and handouts, like the Alpha material or the very old 'Journey into Life' and most of this, as you saw in the prison visit, is conservative evangelical fundamentalist.

    Few have tried to write books, leaflets, pamphlets and tracts from less fundamentalist traditions,. with the risk that we are in reality in a closed room talking to each other.
    Do we need more writing like this by Tom Oord:
    ... and do we need a progressive christian tract writing project to generate a bank of suitable material, rather than just observing its absence?

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