Our (growing) Convictions

It’s important to keep in mind that our ministry is intentionally congregation-based, not a parachurch organization. That means we need to do our correctional ministry in a way that continues to draw from the strengths and passions of our congregation rather than independently of it. Since our approach to ministry, both in our prison ministry and in our multisite congregation as a whole, is deeply informed by a number of key underlying principles and convictions, we list a dozen of them here.

  • Our mission is to make more and better disciples – not clients. Whether in the congregation, or in the prison, or in the wider community, our missional bottom line is to help make more and better followers of Jesus. We are responsible to share the life-changing god news of Jesus, and to “equip the saints for ministry” through participating, apprenticing, leading, and coaching.
  • We have a bias for assets/potential/strengths/positive deviancy/appreciative inquiry. Prisons can and do function as spiritual boot camps, producing a large number of men and women who are biblically literate, passionate, full of authentic faith, and experienced in mentoring and leading behind prison walls. Prison ministry is bearing spiritual fruit that is withering on the vine on the outside. Everywhere we look we see some sort of God-given giftedness and strength.
  • Entrepreneurial bias. God is busy creating opportunities. Where are they? There are unmet needs and opportunities all around us. This takes some imagination, but there is a wide-open field to work in!
  • A welcoming congregational atmosphere: As a multisite congregation, we are committed to cultivate a culture of intentional hospitality along with high expectations for life-change for everyone (ex-offenders included).
  • The congregation’s role is crucial. Successful ex-offender ministry can’t be just a sidebar program of a congregation. It needs to be a constituent part of its missional DNA if it’s going to work. That’s why we require our connection group leaders to be members of the congregation (who are actively inviting group members to participate in church) in order to keep the ministry deeply connected to the local church. Otherwise, the “missing connection” between ex-offenders and churches never truly gets addressed.
  • No toxic charity: Dependence at all levels is toxic and kills true Christian community. We’re committed to doing ministry in a way that doesn’t engender a sense of inferiority. We’re not out to reach “clients,” because we’ll never turn a client into a brother or sister in Christ. What we want are new brothers and sisters in Christ who truly feel part of the congregation and whose gifts and assets are recognized and welcomed. We need to take ex-offenders seriously and put them on a path to meaningful ministry. Like AA, everyone gives something here!
  • Deep transformation happens only when people actively participate in their own meaning-making at all levels. Being preached at or treated as a passive client (both are common occurrences for inmates and ex-offenders) rarely leads to Christ-likeness. We want to give people the tools they need to grow into full participation, and then apprenticing, leading, and coaching.
  • Deep transformation happens only when people have a new vision of themselves, strive for big change, experience early victories, and have ongoing support. We’re convinced that only the congregation has a vision of new and abundant life that is big enough to foster and sustain lasting change. Social service agencies (as valuable as they are) tend only to alleviate present problems. They are not structured to frame a compelling future. We need to give people new lenses (You’re not just a screw-up. You’re a man/woman of God.”). We need to show them big change (“You’ll be a leader who will help change lives, families, neighborhoods, cities, and the world”). We need to help them achieve early victories (“Here, let’s take this next step together.”). And we need to provide ongoing support (“Here’s a group of people who’ve been where you’ve been, who care, and who will hold you accountable.”).
  • Sustainability and reproducibility need to be wired in from the beginning. The organizational methodology of Alcoholics Anonymous has provided an intriguing and encouraging model for us. They are at work everywhere, with almost no paid staff. Some key practices of AA that we think we can learn from and emulate are (1) a step-based process, (2) participatory group dynamics marked by authenticity, testimony, and accountability, (3) a sponsor to provide one-on-one mentoring, and (4) leaders who are committed to step 12 (“Carrying the message”), who make the movement sustainable and viral.
  • Collaboration is key. As we mentioned above, congregations can’t (and don’t have to) do it all, but they need to take more of a leading role. Congregations cannot continue to abdicate leadership to, or follow the ministry model of, social service organizations that are dependent on experts and professionals and expensive and non-sustainable programming. Our social ministry partners are waiting for us to fulfill our unique role. Parenthetically, as a ministry connected to a traditionally mainline denomination, we re deeply committed to working ecumenically with other Christians who are engaged in the same ministry.
  • We are committed to bring a visible, viable, valuable alternative to the system. We want to go beyond concepts to create a visible model that others can scrutinize and adapt. We want to work in a way that’s sustainable and makes a longer-term impact. And we want to bring something of real value for inmates, ex-offenders, and congregations.
  • Leadership at all levels. As a growing, reproducing multisite congregation, we are already committed to reproducing at all levels, including leadership. The same goes for our ex-offender ministry. We are intentional about helping all our ex-offender leaders and potential leaders understand the path through apprenticeship to leadership. We encourage them to receive coaching and to attend monthly leadership gatherings to learn practical leadership skills.