Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Prison Volunteers and the "Outside" Church

I’ve noticed a tendency among prison volunteers to sneer at the church “outside,” and to prefer the church “inside.” (This refers to the church "outside" prison walls and "inside" prison walls.) While I completely reject it, it is in some ways understandable, although for the most part I think it results from illusion.

First, on the positive side. I don’t have a huge sample size, but I’ve visited maybe eight prisons in Iowa, Nebraska, and Texas as a prison volunteer. All of those prisons had what I would characterize as a vibrant church on the “inside.” By that I mean several things.

First, “he who is forgiven little, loves little" (Lk 7.47), and he who is forgiven much, loves much. Many Christian inmates particularly recognize that they have been forgiven much. Many can detail desperate lives of sin before receiving Christ's grace. As a result, like the woman Jesus spoke of to the Pharisee, they love much in return, and they are often very open about it. Christians on the outside often have not been forced to face their own sinfulness in as dramatic fashion as prisoners have. On balance, I’d say that Christian inmates express a deeper, more desperate, love of Christ than Christians on the outside. As a result, volunteers often find Christian inmates overall more vibrant and expressive than Christians in outside churches.

Secondly, in my (limited) experience, worship in prison churches often reflects the worship of African-American and Pentecostal churches. Loud singing (1 Chr 15.16), hand clapping (Ps 47.1), hands raised (Ps 141.2), shouts of exaltation (Ps 47.1), and etc. Volunteers often compare this favorably to the quieter, often more sedate, worship in their own churches. I personally love worship services that follow ancient liturgical patterns, and in which Psalms are chanted and the pastor sings the liturgy responsively with the congregation. That being said, the Psalmist says “oh clap your hands all ye people,” and “lift your hands to the Lord,” and “shout to the Lord” and etc. I find little wrong, in principle, with loud, rocking worship services. They seem an honest way to express the joy of receiving Christ's forgiveness.

These two things seem most often to be the attractors of the prison church. On the negative side regarding the outside church, prison volunteers often express frustration at the lack of interest in prison (and other “Matthew 25”) ministries in their churches. They often take that as a sign of spiritual weakness. Volunteers can sometimes have a holier-than-thou attitude as a result of what they do and what most others in their churches do not do. This is unattractive no matter the reason.

In any event, I understand the attraction of the inside church. Nonetheless, I get very irritated with fellow volunteers who sneer at the outside church as being something less than the church on the inside. I take issue on several accounts.

First, in some ways it’s easier to love prisoners because they’re so needy. In some ways it’s more difficult to love the prickly church lady down the pew. But I don’t really see that we have a choice. Indeed, perhaps this falls into the category of “loving those who love you.” The guys inside are usually very expressive of their appreciation for volunteers who come in to fellowship, worship and study with them. I dare say that if the outside church expressed that much appreciation to every person who walked through its doors, that many of us would feel very warm toward our outside churches as well.

Secondly, the context in which volunteers interact with prisoners is typically very artificial. The fact is that no prison volunteer that I’ve ever met has 24-7 access to the inside church. Instead, we usually spend a couple of hours a week with the guys. The guys typically look forward to the volunteers’ visits. I’ve had a number say that when they interact with outside volunteers, they forget, for a while at least, that they’re in prison. So the guys are usually on their best behavior with the volunteers. I very much appreciate this, but then it makes the guys easy to love. It’s quite another thing to live with the irritating habits of your Christian “celly” (i.e., the guy you share your prison cell with) and respond continually in love. On the other hand, on the outside, we interact with Christians who are not on their best behavior when we see them. Further, it’s a definite reality check that many, if not most, of even the “strongest” Christian inmates will return to prison within a few years after their release.

Finally, and most importantly, Christ died for the church, both for Christians inside and outside. No Christian has a right to despise one part of the church which Christ died to save. If it is harder to love the church on the outside, so be it, we have no choice but to do so, for “by this the world will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”


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