When you read the biblical command to visit those in prison, do you jump in your car and head for the nearest jail? Not likely. Most Christians are a little edgy about getting up close and personal with somebody behind bars.
But the command to visit those is prison is just that: a command, not an optional suggestion. And in today’s climate, when Congress has announced a war against crime, the Bible might just be giving us the best weapon possible.
Think of it: Most crimes are committed by repeat offenders, people who may commit hundreds of crimes over a lifetime. If they’re caught, the odds are that they’ll end up behind bars again before long. About two-thirds of all released prisoners are arrested again within three years.
That means if you and I can reach offenders while they’re in prison, we can break the cycle of repeated crimes and repeated arrests. If we help turn a criminal away from a life of crime, we could be preventing hundreds of future offenses.
Today there are more than one million offenders behind bars in America, more than at any other time in our nation’s history. This represents a huge home mission field for Christians, a captive audience that desperately needs the Gospel.
Prison Fellowship has organized an army of volunteers-55,000 strong across the U.S.-that ventures behind bars to hold Bible studies, marriage seminars, and mentoring programs for prison inmates. A 1990 study conducted at Loyola College found that prisoners involved in Prison Fellowship programs were 22 percent less likely to be rearrested. Even those who were rearrested were charged with less serious crimes.
This past fall Prison Fellowship conducted a blitzkrieg against crime. We took the entire state of North Carolina by storm in a campaign called the Starting Line. In prisons across the state, we organized evangelistic programs featuring Christian musicians, athletes, and celebrities. In just 10 days, we reached 75 percent of the state’s prison inmates.
How effective was it? No one can see into the human heart, of course. But in terms of changed behavior, a Prison Fellowship survey uncovered startling results. We surveyed prison wardens, chaplains, and other correctional experts who had direct contact with the Starting Line campaign.
Eight out of 10 felt the campaign had a positive impact on prisoner morale and religious values. Six out of 10 felt it improved relations both among prisoners and between prisoners and staff. More than half felt that the Starting Line had a positive impact on prisoner discipline.
In the current wave of concern over crime, Christians ought to be entering the public policy arena to offer biblical answers to crime. Our federal lawmakers will reconvene soon, with the hope of crafting a bill that will stop crime in America. But that’s a utopian hope. There are limits to what any government can do.
But there are no limits to what God can do. The best strategy for reducing crime in America is to bring the Word of God to those caught in a cycle of crime.
In the war against crime, God’s Word is still the best weapon.