By Mark Swarbrick
I was in jail, again. I stood there alone while the other prisoners glared at me. I felt uneasy, unsure what to do. I had been in jail before, but this was different. This time I was there by choice. This time I wasn’t on the inside looking out. I was outside looking in. This was my first experience in jail ministry. I went with someone else from church. I thought I would receive a little training from him. However, my training consisted of merely: “Just let the Holy Spirit lead you. You’ll know what to do if you listen to Him.” It would turn out that admonition was the best training I could have received.
After checking in at the county jail we were greeted by an officer who seemed to consider that we were some sort of necessary nuisance. After getting a stern lecture about not getting close enough for a prisoner to grab us through the bars, we were ushered into a hallway lined with large jail cells, behind which were about 30 people in each cell. My ministry partner went off on his own to minister farther down the block. I was left standing there alone, feeling a bit intimidated and awkward. I offered up a quick prayer for wisdom.
The prisoners knew I was there to preach to them. I felt myself being eyed with suspicion. They were a captive audience. I could preach at them whether they liked it or not. They were powerless to stop it. I could sense the animosity. I could imagine what they were thinking: “Here’s one more holier-than-thou person who is going to tell us how worthless and wicked we are.”
I continued to pray for God’s help. What do I say? How do I start? As I surveyed the group of prisoners in the cell, I realized that there were, no doubt, some desperate criminals in there, but I also knew there were many, that on the inside, were just kids who were scared out of their minds.
Before I had given my heart back to Christ, I had been in jail. I knew how most of them felt. In jail you are treated like you are the lowest of the low. You are dirt. Dirtier than dirt. Most of the police officers treat you like scum. The worst thing about jail is feeling as though you have been totally forgotten. You are unlovable, unlikable, despicable.
As I stood there in silence, holding my Bible, the Holy Spirit reminded me how it felt to be considered discarded trash. Then it came to me. I said the one thing I would have longed to hear when I was in jail:
“Is there anyone here who wants a friend to talk to?”
Those were magic words; a glimmer of kindness in a sea of cold indifference. Hearts starved for even an ounce of caring suddenly softened. First one man got up and came over to talk with me, then another, and another. People practically stood in line to accept my offer of friendship. I spoke with each person one on one, assuring each that I cared about him and that God loved them, that they were not forgotten and that Jesus was real. God could help them now and in eternity. Jesus could save them if they would turn to him with repentance and faith. I saw broken hearts hungry for compassion melt before the truth of God’s love and forgiveness through Jesus Christ. I didn’t need to preach to them. I just had to love them and the preaching flowed naturally out of that.
Jail ministry might not be your cup of tea, and that’s Ok, but once you get a taste of it, you want more. There is nothing as heartwarming as hearing Jesus whisper to your heart: “I was in prison and you came to me.” (Matthew 25:36)
Telling others about Jesus is for all Christians. Sometimes it can be hard to know how to break the ice and start talking with someone about God. So, let me share what I have learned: The best technique for leading anyone to Christ is to just offer to be their friend. Indeed, it has been said, “You can’t win your enemies to Christ, only your friends.” So be friendly! Just love people genuinely and care about their eternal destiny. They will sense your sincerity and it will touch their hearts. I’ve learned it isn’t so much what we say to people but how we say it. People don’t care how much we know until they know how much we care.