Jesus offers a challenge to his disciples: "Do you not say, 'There are yet four months, and then comes the harvest'? Behold, I say to you, lift up your eyes, and look on the fields, that they are white for harvest" (John 4:35).
Like the apostles, we often find that, while we can see the fields, we're unsure of how to gather in the harvest. What tool could possibly yield so many hearts for Christ? For many congregations, the answer is prison ministry.
In 2006, members of Christ Presbyterian Church in Janesville, Wisconsin, joined the local jail's chaplaincy program. The volunteers, including some who come from other local churches, are not required to be ordained. Due to the work of these volunteers and the involvement of the congregation, a mission of ministry and discipleship of limited means has developed for the Lord's people.
Through corporate prayer and volunteer instructors using the Crossroads Bible Institute (CBI) correspondence Bible study program, Christians are reaching people behind bars. Prisoners from across the U.S. are matched with a CBI instructor who receives their lessons, corrects them, and gives personal encouragement through notes about the student's work.
Volunteers go on Sunday mornings before worship and lead a Bible study at a local jail. They also pray with the prisoners concerning their needs, the needs of others, and matters for thanksgiving.
Elder Carrol Lewis, a CBI volunteer, notes that prisoners' responses to the lessons tend to vary, "but all have a sense that outside of Christ they alone cannot control their lives. Many now look beyond their own problems and pray for family and friends."
Christ Presbyterian's Priscilla King, another CBI volunteer, agrees that being a CBI instructor is a way to be used by God in a field that is "white for harvest." She says, "It surprised me how much I received. I have been blessed beyond any 'sacrifice' of time or effort."
Guy Fish, a Christ Presbyterian CBI volunteer, echoes the sentiment. "We incorporated the CBI program into our family worship. Discussions of the issues and topics each week have greatly enhanced our walk with the Lord." He adds that giving feedback on scripture lessons to students has been humbling. "In a way, I am also a student of the CBI program," he said.
"One result I've seen is that I have grown more in my spiritual life than at any other time," says elder Jim Stalman, a jail chaplain. "And it's been a great blessing to see so many of our congregation involved with us in correcting jail lessons and providing prayer support."
Stalman says being a jail chaplain is a challenge. "There have been many Sunday mornings when I didn't want to get out of bed, review my lesson, and spend time in prayer before going to the jail—the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. But I can't remember leaving the jail not being thankful that I went."
It's a connection with lasting implications, King notes. "I am unable to see and talk with my students directly, but I often feel as though I do. I look forward to meeting and having face-to-face fellowship with many of them in heaven."
Prisoners at the local jail are ministered to through discipleship, but are also exhorted when leaving jail to join a local church, and are offered a pamphlet about Christ Presbyterian Church. "We can only trust that the Lord is using us to work out his purposes," says Stalman.
The congregation reaches out further, arranging rides to church for the newly released and providing clothing; inmates typically leave the jail with nothing but what they arrived in—often out of season—and new debt for their prison keep.
Join the harvest. Consider providing volunteers to local jails and prisons, and contact the CBI program through their website at crossroadbible.org.
The author is a member of Christ Presbyterian Church in Janesville, Wisc. She quotes the NASB. Reprinted from New Horizons, March 2008.