Finding Freedom in a Prison Cell, by Marty Friedman
This is a wonderful story of redemption. Marty Friedman came to the Lord in jail, and for two years was part of a fellowship we helped start in the housing unit where he lived. He became a leader in that fellowship, where he profoundly impacted many, many lives. Now that he’s out, I am privileged to call him my friend.
BTW, I’m not sure about that reference to me as his “Sunday pastor”.
Marty, we gotta talk about that… :-)
This weekend, I met with one of several fellowships in our county that’s primarily comprised of men who surrendered to Jesus while in jail.
They are now out, and meeting weekly in different gatherings as they encourage, support and move forward together in the Lord.
Because they came to the Lord in jail, many of these men did not have an opportunity to be water baptized quickly after conversion. Some ended up serving the Lord – and the State of Virginia! – in jail for several years after becoming believers, and were only recently released.
As a result, they now want – and need – to be water baptized.
A rap/poem by a brother in fellowship in the local jail, who is learning to become the man God created him to be.
When I reached out
You took me in
When there wasn’t a soul in sight
And all I saw was you
You took me in
Dusted me off
Cleaned me up
Asked me if I’d yet had enough?
Knew about my past
Had been there through the struggles
Said you’d carry my burdens
If I’d give you my troubles
I grabbed to my shirt
Expressed a cold smirk
Yeah I’d heard that before
Seems never to work
Last night, two other men and I met with one of the indigenous churches some of us helped start in the jail four years ago.
This fellowship is one of several that we have seen emerge in various housing units within the local jail.
That particular church (typically numbering six to eighteen men) has been a powerhouse for God, as the guys have learned to express Christ to one another through open, participatory fellowship.
Literally hundreds of men have come to the Lord because of them, and they’ve been effectively discipling each other in the faith
In addition, many, many other fellowships have sprung forth from them, as the men in that indigenous church – rooted in the specific cultural dynamics present in any jail or prison environment – are then transferred to other units and facilities.
When we teach folks to be the church, God’s Kingdom can’t help but ripple out into all sorts of improbable places through improbable people – impacting whole communities, towns and cities. Here’s just one related, amazing story, among many …
On Christmas eve, Marianne and I spent time with about thirty brothers in the jail. During our time of fellowship, one of the men read the poem below. Here’s the story behind the poem, then the poem….
Earlier in December, I had shared with those men how our journey in the Lord is like Israel’s journey from slavery in Egypt, through the desert, and then into the promise land.
God takes us out of the bondage of Egypt, but then uses the wilderness to burn Egypt out of us.
In the wilderness, God prepares us to take possession of the promise land – that place where we are able to own and responsibly manage the things He has created us to both be and do.
A friend of my mom who is a very dear, older sister in the Lord:
“How are you doing, Jim?”
“Good. I just got back from being in the jail this morning. I was with about fifty men from one of the housing units.” (She knows I often “minister” in the jail.)
“Oh, did you teach?” (Years ago, I had a very successful traditional teaching ministry in one of the larger churches in the county, and she was always one of my most eager and engaged students.)
“No. These days, I mainly let them teach and minister to each other. Sometimes I may say something, but not always and I keep it really short so they can take the lead among themselves.
“Today various men shared verses, testimonies, songs, teachings and we even had some great, improvised Christian rap by two of the brothers.
“One man shared, with tears of joy, about how the Lord had given him peace over the uncertainty of his upcoming trial, and I asked if he would pray for other men facing the same anxiety. He did a beautiful job as a half dozen men gathering around him in a circle, arms round each other’s shoulders, and he imparted to those struggling with the same issue some of the grace God had given him. He had never done that kind of thing before. I didn’t pray for them, but stayed in my seat, because that other brother who was an inmate had the grace needed and I didn’t.
“That’s how it works. We’ve gotten away from directed meetings were a worship team ‘does’ worship for everyone and a pastor ‘does’ a monologue teaching and everyone passively sits there – other than following along with the music and maybe an ‘amen’ or two. We just don’t see how that matches up with what the New Testament says about being the church: the multi-member Body of Christ where every part contributes.
“Instead, I have learned to sit back so they can learn to express what the Lord is doing in them and it always seems to meet the needs of those present. Sometimes I have something to share, usually along the lines of helping to create a framework for them to come forth. This morning, however, like most of the times I join with them, I said a few words as just one of the guys then sat down as they ministered to each other for an hour and half. Like usual, they also ministered to me.”
Silence, then, “Oh, so you are there to make sure they don’t get off track?”
“No, they’ve learned to do a really good job of that themselves. I just go to enjoy their fellowship every now and then and be an encouragement to them or maybe add some foundational input.”
Silence, then “Oh. “
More silence, then, “So they get together every week or so when you go in?”
“No, actually, they are their own church. They meet as smaller churches every day after their evening meal. I may see them only every week or two, but they do fine on their own and don’t much need me. We encourage them to be the church, rather than trying to ‘do’ church for them or importing church. That way, they learn to minister to each other and grow up in the Lord.”
A very, very long silence, then finally, “Nice weather we’re having, huh Jim?”
Sigh. It’s just about impossible for people to break out of their traditional concept of “church” and to get their mind – and spirit – around the New Testament idea of participatory fellowship rather than directed meetings.
Some day, some day. In the meantime, I just continue to sow seeds as the Lord directs …
I spent Sunday afternoon with the guys in one of the churches that we planted three years ago in the local jail.
My voice went hoarse from singing along with them and my fingers became sore from playing the guitar as they took the initiative in starting song after song and leading forth.
For nearly an hour and a half they sang non-stop praises to the Lord, and were so loud and enthusiastic I’m sure they could be heard throughout the building.
They were stompin’, clappin’ and rockin’, with lots of laughin’ and cryin’ in gratitude before the Lord!
Now, I don’t want to shake up anyone’s theology, but the Holy Spirit also was grooving to some powerful, spontaneous rappin’ that was going on!
This is an appeal for help by other churches and ministries in reversing the local probation office’s de facto ban on church attendance in Prince William County, Virginia.
Our network of fellowships, with other churches in the county, actively ministers to and embraces men and women on the fringes of society. We have found that if the Gospel doesn’t work for those whom some consider the worst among us (including ex-sex offenders), then it works for none of us.
Our work with sex offenders often begins in the jail as we reach out to them and they turn their lives over to Jesus. We then engage in intense pastoral counseling that focuses on confession, forgiveness and repentance as we get to the issues in their lives and allow the Lord to bring healing. We also foster indigenous churches in the jail where they, and others, can experience vibrant fellowship and grow in their faith. It is not easy, but we have seen great success.
It’s amazing how ekklesia takes root in the fringes of society when you empower Christ in existing community rather than trying to bring “church” to them, take them to “church” or do “church” for them.
When some of us started changing our perspective, we started seeing dynamic, participatory, indigenous fellowships emerge in the jail, among the homeless, and with ex-offenders – as well as other improbable existing communities.
The life of Jesus that is evident in those fellowships at the fringes of society is now attracting “normies” to come and be part of their times together. It is amazing to see the spread of the Gospel through those whom society scorns, for the redemption of society.
When you introduce people to the freedom to find and express Christ in them and through them – and thus allow them to relate together as a fully functioning and participatory Body of Christ – Jesus just naturally happens!
This morning, as I was pulling out of my driveway to meet with some guys in the jail, I felt the Lord say it was time to plant a church among them.
I’ve been mentoring and building relationships with a group of thirty or so men in the jail, as we periodically meet to discuss the things of God. Some are believers, and some are believers in the making.
This morning, I was prepared to share with them about slaying those giants in their lives which stood in the way of God’s promises.
But I felt the Lord say, instead, that it was time to actually start an indigenous church in their housing unit.
This sense that it was time to plant a new church among them did not strike me as the least bit odd. I am part of a fellowship that has planted various sister churches that are thriving in other housing units in the local jail, as well as in other improbable places. So the sole issue for me was simply being receptive to the Lord’s timing, by acting only when and how He says.
Is there still no room at the inn?
It’s not too late: Invite to your time of Christmas family sharing, or to your Christmas meal, that man or woman who recently was released from prison, or that person who has no family in your area and is alone, or someone who is destitute and living in the woods near your home (trust me, they are there).
You and your family will bless them, and be blessed, more than you can ever imagine.
If you don’t know anyone to invite, call your local homeless shelter or battered women’s shelter. Ask for the staff person on duty. Tell him/her you want to invite someone to join your family Christmas morning, or to share a Christmas meal at your home.
Let them know if you are interested in inviting a family, or maybe just an individual or two, and ask for their recommendation. They will know the residents, and will do a good job introducing you to an appropriate person or family.
Some of my most enduring friendships have come from reaching outside my comfort zone to those who are destitute, abandoned, imprisoned or just plain alone. It will change you far more than them.
And please, don’t try to “fix” them – just be a friend. The rest just sort of follows naturally – including them fixing you as you open your heart and your life to those who you previously treated as “other” or only “helped” through impersonal “programs”.
Take a chance. Open your home and your lives to embrace the Joseph’s and Mary’s of our age.
This is true church. This is true religion. This is true grace.
Sometimes I get angry and need the Lord to settle my spirit.
I am so frustrated over the shattered lives of man after man who I help find the Lord in jail, who then go to some on-fire, podium-focused, pastor-centric church when they get out.
Inevitably, I will see those men back in jail again a year later, or I’ll hear that they have relapsed and fallen back into addiction or bondage.
In nature, there’s a word for a place with inflow but no outflow: It’s called a swamp. God’s people are not called to be dead, stagnant swamps, but to offer living water: Cool, fresh, flowing and life giving.
Unfortunately, too many church gatherings are about inflow and not outflow. Churches today are focused on meetings and programs where people receive ministry, rather than places where we can minister one to another — as Scripture commands — according to our differing gifts. Getting people out of the familiar, traditional swamp of going to church to receive ministry, rather than the Biblical mandate to be the church where everyone ministers, is very daunting!
This dichotomy is amply illustrated by two ministries I’m involved with in the local jail. One is a highly structured, thirteen week program that provides intense teaching and scripted study materials to about thirty men who live together in a low-security, faith-based dorm. In that program, some of the strongest pulpit ministries in the county come to teach and minister to the men. With two meetings each weekday, they receive the best preaching and teaching imaginable. It’s like “podium church” on steroids.
My spiritual DNA — the way God put me together — makes me instinctively encourage others to give away what God has given them. Sharing God’s blessings is a key component to spiritual growth, I’ve found.
I often teach and minister in a faith-based dorm at the local jail. Rather than me “leading” this Friday, however, I took a seat among them and let the men bless each other by sharing what God is showing them and doing in their lives.
Some rose to sing songs they wrote to the Lord, some read and commented on short passages of scripture that had become alive to them, while others gave testimony to how God is now healing and making them whole men.
One brother read a poem he wrote about dealing with the issues of his heart and finding healing through confession, repentance and forgiveness. I’ve seen tremendous peace and maturity emerge over the last couple of months as he’s been totally transparent with the Lord — even though it’s sometimes hard and painful to expose those secret and hidden places to Him.
Today in the jail, after two hours of powerful ministry between the men one to another, they stopped and said they decided earlier this week to do something for me. They then stood around me, laid hands on me, and prayed the most wonderful, tender prayers of blessing I’ve ever heard.
I cried as I realized what they were doing, because they’ve learned – maybe with some of them for the first time in their lives – to give rather than always take or receive.
After months of mentoring them on “being” the church (see my blog, The Church in D Pod), they heeded God’s gentle call to new pastures. As a result, they now “get” it and wonderful life is flowing between them and from them – even to me!
How many pastors – who so closely guard the microphone and the prerogatives of their front podium as they try to direct even God himself during their closely scripted and controlled Sunday services – have ever experienced the joy of being just one of many?
Do they realize they have no monopoly on the many spiritual gifts God wants us to give as acts of worship, to Him and in fellowship one with another?
If not, then they are missing the blessing of letting life and ministry flow under the prompting of the Holy Spirit – not simply from them, but to and around them.
This Sunday, like most Sundays, I will be fellowshipping with the “Church in D Pod” at the local jail.
D Pod is a unit housing around a hundred men, and God has been pouring out his new wine in an exciting way among those inmates.
A couple of months ago, I started shifting my focus from “conducting” church services “for” the men. God was challenging me to start mentoring and training them instead to “be” the church by learning to minister one to another.
At the same time, God sovereignly arranged for two brothers from Africa — where Christians generally are way ahead of their American brothers and sisters on these issues — to be jailed in that unit. They, too, understood the concept of ministering one to another and started fostering authentic fellowship among the men.
Here’s an interesting article, reprinted below, on how people will stick to what they believe or think even in the face of contrary facts or circumstances. As I’ve watched people react to challenges and controversies over the last couple of months, and to God bursting old wine skins as he brings forth new wine, I can believe it!
Isaiah 9:6-8 tells us that God’s Kingdom, from the incarnation onward, has been and will continue to be ever advancing. As such, God is constantly fermenting new wine — and providing new wine skins to contain it — as his progressive plan of redemption moves forward from one spiritual generation to each successive spiritual generation (which can include individuals of all ages!). God’s active and ever expanding intervention in history is clear, and his tendency to discard the old while bringing in the new is repeatedly seen in Scripture.
Yet it never failed to fascinate me, as a graduate student in church history back in the 1970s, to see how — time and time again — most Christians reject God’s new wine of new anointing for new generations. Instead, they choose to stick with their old wine and old wine skins.
I’ve been meeting with various brothers who also minister in the informal Christian networks I’m part of, along with others, to discuss starting a weekly fellowship (possibly in my home) for ex-inmates. My burden is for men whose lives are dramatically captured by God in jail, but then stumble when they get out because they can’t find authentic Christian community in our churches.
I’ve been wanting to do this for a while, but health issues and distractions over problems in my local church prevented me. The church problems persist, but my health has improved and my heart is stirring once again over this. That’s causing me to ask whether it’s time to stop putting the Kingdom of God on hold while waiting for some who hold local church offices to climb out of their seemingly perpetual leadership ruts, to begin moving forward, and to trust that God’s provisions will follow.
Maybe, my heart is saying, the best outcome is to provide an opportunity and a motive for churches in general — including mine — to get their acts together and start being the church, rather than doing “church”, by showing what’s possible when people of vision become engaged with each other and engaged in what God is doing in the earth today. After all, the Kingdom of God is much, much more than “church”, although hopefully each of our local churches are part of that progressively advancing Kingdom!
As “Mr. Analytical,” I’m the least probable person I know to be doing pastoral counseling, but God seems to have given me a special grace to walk with people to those places where He wants to meet them in very powerful, transforming and healing ways. I guess it’s one of those spiritual ironies that God uses to confound us. He works through the least likely to insure that the glory is His.
Whether in the jail or in my home study, I deal weekly with issues that – believe me – exceed anything you might imagine. But the Lord meets us in amazing ways, and men and women find freedom in just one or two sessions from decades of emotional and spiritual bondage.
God shows up!
In 2007 over 75 men in the local jail – comprising more than a forth of those incarcerated in the “modular” building – had a dramatic encounter with God.
For some time, I’d been feeling that we were falling short with the men who were coming to the Lord or re-dedicating their lives through various outreaches in the jail. God was bringing men to salvation on a weekly basis, and over the previous months I’d been involved in scores of men becoming Christians. Others involved in ministry at the jail were having similar reports.
We were being successful in leading the men to Christ and were doing a good job teaching them God’s principles. The men had a heart to follow the Lord, and a basic understanding of how God wanted them to act and live.
The problem, however, was that they lacked the power to do so effectively, and when they got out, they were falling prey to old habits and circumstances. Although they had hearts that want more of God, and had understanding, they lacked the power to be overcomers.