Can prisoners be transformed by the gospel?
In theory, we know the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. But here are three recent examples where that is exactly what has happened in practice.
‘C’ came from a church background but had lost his faith when his little nephew died. By the time he was released from prison he had rediscovered his relationship with God and was committed to serving him in the mission context in a local church. ‘J’ decided, when he came to prison, that it was now or never in terms of finding out about Christianity. He will be baptised shortly, and is seeking to give his life to Jesus. ‘S’ has been a Christian for a number of years but has struggled with drugs. Although very knowledgeable about Jesus, the basics of his faith have been rebuilt, and he too is now considering baptism. That is a major step for him, because, as he says, ‘It’s a once and for all’ — when he is baptised, there is no turning back to his old ways.
The common denominator between ‘C’, ‘J’ and ‘S’ is that they have all recently completed the specially-devised Christianity Explored Prisons Edition (CEPE). The course was launched late last year after four years of research, developing and trialling at a number of penal institutions around the UK. CEPE is a version of the well-known Christianity Explored course (published by The Good Book Company), which has made a significant impact in the UK and abroad in the past ten years. It is now being used in 80 countries worldwide and has been translated into more than 25 different languages. In the 18 months or so since the reformulated third edition was unveiled, over 10,000 DVDs and 100,000 handbooks have been sold.
Big mission field
But why is a special edition needed at all? Prison is, firstly, a potentially enormous mission field. Although the population inside our jails has reduced since the aftermath of the widespread riots of August 2011, as at February 2013 there were still over 84,000 men and women behind bars in the UK in about 160 different institutions.
But prisons are, secondly, a very different mission field. While the very concept of sin is often derided in a Britain that grows increasingly secular, prisoners have, by contrast, little option but to consider their sin and guilt while behind bars. They may well be more open to Christ’s message of forgiveness and redemption as a result, meaning that every one of those 160 institutions represents potentially fertile territory for outreach.
CEPE was devised to present the gospel to this very specific and unique audience. The new version remains completely faithful to the original Christianity Explored course in that it continues to let the Gospel tell the gospel, while providing space to dive deeper into Mark for those able to do so.
However, the information is presented in a very different, simplified way, making it much more suitable, both for the particular prison audience and the particular challenges involved in putting on a course inside a busy working jail. It has therefore been tailored to accommodate the lower than average reading age and attention span of much of the prison population, and their potentially vulnerable mental and/or psychological states.
The circumstances of incarceration can cause practical difficulties for those running and attending courses, too. The prison management may offer a series of regular one-hour slots or, at the other extreme, a whole week’s course at one go. Yet these can be cancelled or interrupted at very short notice, for example if the prison goes into lock-down. And inmates may sometimes be unable to attend even pre-planned sessions because of court appearances or consultations with their lawyers. Flexibility and variety are therefore the keys to CEPE, for it has been re-planned and redesigned to work with a flipchart and handouts — so there is no handbook. Sessions have been shortened, made less intense and are now image heavy and text light.
‘A positive influence’
The chaplains who work at the sharp end of pastoral and mission ministry in prisons quickly saw that CEPE makes a real difference. Mark John at HMP Cardiff, for example, wholeheartedly recommends it, because: ‘It has been shaped in the prison environment, tested and refined for over four years, addressing the various problems that the prison regime can throw up. We have living proof that the course has had a positive influence upon prisoners who go through it’.
Sarah Morris, chaplain at a Young Offenders Institution (YOI) in Shropshire, is similarly enthusiastic: ‘Having led Christianity Explored in the parish, I was excited to have the opportunity to pilot the course at the YOI. The materials are excellent — interactive and easily accessible, without losing anything from the original. We found that all offenders could engage, no matter what their background or ability. Some preferred the Bible studies, some the discussions and others avidly awaited the DVD each week. Through each, the central message was reinforced and by the end all offenders had a good appreciation of who Jesus is, why he came and what difference that makes’.
Ian Roberts & Stephen James
CEPE is available from The Good Book Company on 0333 123 0880 or at http://www.thegoodbook.co.uk
This article was first published in the April 2013 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information.
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