Are you finding it a challenge lately to find souls interested in sitting down together to look into the scriptures? What if I told you there are actually groups of people most likely near you, who don’t get out much, but would absolutely love for you to come share what you’ve learned so far about what life is about (Ecclesiastes 12:13) and how to be transformed by the renewal of ones mind (Romans 12:2)? Though very few consider the opportunity I am about to describe, preachers like Gregory Whipple find it to be the most satisfying work they’ve ever done. He’s met plenty of other preachers that agree, including fellow preacher Daryl Townsend, who testifies, “I've knocked on doors before, used Bible answering machines, tried Bible correspondence courses, and so on, but I've never had this happen where people just come up to you and ask, ‘Hey, could you possibly schedule some time to see me next week? I really need somebody to talk to me about the Bible.’ If they have questions about the Bible, how can we say no? … You should hear some of the questions I get! This is the training ground for young preachers because you're going to get asked every question…We have a sign-up sheet, I pass it around and they sign up for a slot. It's kind of like a doctor's office. You make an appointment, but there are more men than I can see and talk to at this … prison.”
Prison? What’s that like? “Showing up to a place where people want to study the Bible with you was like nothing I’ve ever experienced”, says Daryl Townsend, whose been doing this kind of work for decades. Since Gregory Whipple joined forces with him, Gregory alone has taught over 5000 classes in over 7 different correctional institutions and is currently teaching between 200-400+ men each week within his 12-16 weekly studies, including a few outside the prisons. In Daryl’s Thursday night Bible study at the prison, he’ll often have 35 to 45 men attend. For most of these men, these classes may be their first exposure to the life-building principles our own fathers are supposed to teach us throughout childhood. Some years they might baptize around 60 souls into Christ, and other years around 30, though the fruit from this spiritual labor is of course immeasurable. Of course, it’s one thing for a new convert to live for Christ in prison and quite another to live for Christ outside those walls where temptations are again much more readily accessible, thus only about half of these new Christians stay faithful. Even still, since there are so many men who have clearly benefited from this work, both these men remain dedicated to this fruitful labor, deeming the successes to be worth the heartache of the losses.
To prevent some of those losses, inmates who obey the gospel are often offered at least six months of housing at one of Daryl’s own personal transition houses, especially if Daryl has seen noteworthy changes during his time working with an inmate, and the inmate sees the value of financial accountability, spiritual growth, service opportunities, a curfew, foregoing female relationships, being involved in a local congregation, and attending Daryl’s various Bible studies at the transition house.
When I asked Gregory about what Bible topics seemed to be yielding the best result, I learned that initially Daryl often uses a flip chart called The Scheme of Redemption and finds it to be a powerful way of looking at the overall picture of the Bible. On other occasions, he offers classes on everything from a 12-step program to help men learn how to permanently break from addiction to overcoming sexual idolatry, to conflict resolution, as well as classes on the fundamentals of Christian living, authentic manhood, and a curriculum called New Life Behavior.
Gregory added, “Apologetics seems to pique the interest of the men more than other topics and it is less threatening to their own perspective (whether denominational or antagonistic to Christianity). I believe we ALL are bombarded every single day by a multitude of ‘reasons’ to ignore the Bible’; reassurance can strengthen our faith…Apologetics strengthens our own faith; challenges those who don’t believe that there is an abundance of evidence to believe Christianity (and virtually none pointing to any other belief system); and helps those who already believe to effectively share their faith with others. I developed my own material so that it is truly mine and therefore I will present it with more excitement and depth than if I simply used others’ material. I’ve developed many classes: Apologetics (10-20 weeks worth); Intelligent Design (20-30); The Resurrection! (20+ ---my personal favorite); The Reality of the Flood (20+ -this class seems to be the favorite of most men who’ve taken several); Threads That Tie the Bible Together (15+); Internal Evidences (150+); Archaeological Evidences (in the works); The Exodus Pointing to the Gospel (in the works). Many of my classes are simply going through books of the Bible –I tend to do this at a rapid pace so that men can quickly begin to see the bigger picture. I’ve also developed some classes on ‘The Basic Gospel’ and ‘The Character of God’…I try to weave in a heavy dose of the gospel and … full devotion to God…I have always avoided trying to pressure people to get baptized; I believe God’s word will eventually work on their heart if they are seeking.”
I asked these brothers what characteristics or attitudes would most benefit a person interested in this kind of work, and learned that humility is key in this kind of outreach. It’s humbling to ask oneself, “What would I be like today if I had been born to a mother who put whisky into my own baby bottle to quiet me? And what would be the chances I would not continue to look to this kind of relief to endure an abusive childhood? Though not every inmate has the same setbacks, these kinds of dark realities certainly make it easier to humbly look past an inmate’s offenses in order to speak soul-cleansing truths to each one, not excluding drunk drivers, drug dealers, sex offenders, and even murderers (Acts 9:21). Certainly the gospel is as much for repentant X-rated sinners as it is for PG-rated ones, is it not? And just as the Father has looked past our own darkness that cost the blood of His own Son, we too are called to provide the divine solutions that address the root of the very problems that men and women are imprisoned for 一 and that is sin.
Patience is of course a prerequisite for this kind of work as well. For starters, inmates often come with all kinds of Bible questions that have little to nothing to do with their root problems. Rather than getting pulled into time-wasting debates that derail a study, these men are skilled in moving these conversations towards considering more foundational, spiritually pressing matters of the heart. They realize and are at peace with the reality that it may take years for many of these men to reach a point where they truly understand the gospel, and what they are planting into these hearts may not take root and flourish until long after these inmates have been released. Even still, there are so many satisfying moments just about every day. There’s nothing like seeing a man come out of the waters of baptism as innocent as the day he was born, though still shackled, rejoicing all along his icy-cold, 30-degree walk back to his cell, all because he wanted that bad to die with Christ. It is likewise satisfying when an inmate expresses his deep gratitude, makes obvious changes in his life, and when new converts share their faith with others. It feels good to know that if they’ve taken to heart what you’ve shared in the word of God, those truths will protect these inmates from all the false doctrines being circulated among the prison population, whether paganism/Thor worship/white supremacy groups, the Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventism, etc. And of course, it’s deeply gratifying to hear through the grapevine that an inmate that has moved to another facility or has been released is still doing well spiritually.
For wives reading this whose husbands are interested in shining God’s light in the world’s darkest places, I hope you will champion him and will embody the fearlessness of Sarah (1 Peter 3:6) and be the kind of wife whose focus is not so much on minimizing every possible risk of physical danger, but instead focuses on minimizing the risks of these souls not hearing the Good News that will finally make them “free indeed” (John 8:36). I’m inspired by Kristine Whipple who, after their 11-year stint as missionaries in Belize, was unshaken when her husband announced he really wanted to live in central Florida because “there were a lot of prisons there!” And likewise, had to chuckle when I heard that Daryl came home one day suggesting to his wife that they invite a recent convert being released from prison to live in their home to help him get grounded in the faith. She said “Yes!” The situation worked out exactly as Daryl had hoped, and it was those tight quarters that were eventually how the idea for the transition houses got started.
Prison ministries are worthwhile. They are worthwhile because so many of the over two million prisoners currently in America are genuinely interested in, and have the time to examine the bigger picture of how they’ve landed where they have in life, and are hungry for a fresh start. Prison ministries are remarkable because you get to see firsthand just how powerful God is. When He speaks and people listen, amazing things still happen today. I got to see this for myself when we visited this friendly, welcoming congregation as we were blessed to spend some time after worship with my friend Katherine and her devoted husband Robert and their adorable children, all of whom have reaped so many blessings since his own coming to Christ through the ministries described here. How encouraging!
If you’d like to find a church family that believes strongly in the power of the gospel, is welcoming no matter which sins you have repented of, has a lot of heart in their worship without compromising any of the written will of God, who with the assist of preacher Jerry Crolius, digs deep into the word of God, has a wonderful women’s Bible study, and is even tightknit enough to gather near to one another in order to lay hands on a new brother in Christ to earnestly pray for him, this may be the congregation for you.
Middleburg church of Christ
3155 County Road 215
Middleburg, FL 32068