When Did We See You in Prison? (Guest Post by John Kenneth King)

(John King is the pastor of Stones River Church of Christ in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.  John has served with our ministry as a volunteer in Africa, has joined me in training events as a presenter, and is currently serving on our Curriculum Development Team.  He is one who knows the Word, teaches and preaches the Word, but, most importantly, lives the Word. – David Watson)
 

( * Note:  The names of these brothers have all been changed.  All the other details are accurate.)

One of the counter-intuitives of Church Planting Movements states:  “Expect the hardest places to yield the greatest results.”  In my attempts to obey Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25 I am experiencing the truths of this irony.
 
They had not attended the church long when Jason * confessed he would be going to jail soon to pay for his crimes.  He had been using drugs and alcohol and violated driving under the influence laws.  While on probation he again became intoxicated and was caught shoplifting.  The judge was angry and Jason realized things were in a mess.  He wanted a spiritual family to accept him, his wife and children without condemnation for his sin.
 
We spent several weeks getting to know this family and learned to love his humble spirit.  This man acknowledged he had violated the law.  He was disappointed that his previous church chose to ostracize him and his family.  He wanted to come clean.
 
Our worship minister became friends with Jason and began to visit him in jail after he had to report.  Eventually he approached me to relay Jason’s request for additional biblical resources.  Within a few months, Jason had completed every Bible correspondence course the jail chaplain had on hand.  The worship minister felt like he would benefit from visits by someone with a formal theological education.  I agreed to visit Jason.
 
Before that first visit could be scheduled I had to complete a visitation form and agree to a background security check.  When that was cleared I began to visit weekly.  I quickly sent Jason an additional correspondence course on the Gospel of John.  Jason, his cell mate and some other guys in their pod who were meeting daily for a group Bible study quickly completed this ten lesson course.
 
Jason requested assistance in getting ACT study manuals for some of the other inmates who wanted to prepare to get into college upon their release.  The Rutherford County Jail is not your stereotypical place of incarceration.  The inmates are not allowed any TVs, no radios, CD players or any other type of electronic devise.  There are no hard-backed books allowed.  Family or friends could provide paperbacks, but they would become the property of the jail library.  The church where I pastor began to assist with some educational materials.
 
Jason requested I find a college or university that would offer correspondence courses that he could take—especially Biblical ones.  With today’s technological advances these types of programs have transitioned to video or web-based formats.  Such prevented this type of study.
 
Eventually I discovered the Perspectives on the World Christian Movement reader and workbook and purchased a set and had them mailed to Jason.  He was grateful to receive such an in-depth study that would give him greater insights into God’s work in our world.  After a few weeks he asked if I could get another set for his cellmate.  The two of them had been sharing one reader and workbook since the original set had arrived.  I purchased one for Malcolm * and it was mailed to him directly.  Less than two weeks later Jason was moved down two floors so thankfully each had his own study materials.  Before moving Jason communicated that Malcolm would like to visit with me each week to continue learning.
 
I had encouraged Jason to teach what he was learning to other guys in the pod.  This was a principle that I had been learning from listening to the CPM training CDs that recorded David Watson’s seminar in Freetown, Sierra Leone.  You learn quicker and more deeply when you teach others the new material you are learning.  Jason had been teaching others in the daily Bible study group, but he was especially discipling Malcolm.
 
I continued meeting with Jason, but added a weekly visit with Malcolm, too.  It was encouraging to begin to see how much Jason had passed on.  Discipling someone to disciple another really works even though it may seem counter-intuitive.  Involve your disciples in the process of discipling someone else from day one.  Do not wait until they get some body of knowledge down, start them immediately.  Make this a condition for you continuing to disciple them.  They learn more and deeper because their information is coupled with experiences.
 
Malcolm was farther along than I could have imagined.  I began encouraging him to disciple other guys in the pod.  I wanted him to prepare for the eventual day when he would be released.  He would have to pass on what he was learning to keep the fire burning in that pod.  As time drew near for his release Malcolm told me that there were two young guys he wanted me to meet with.
 
I began meeting with Paul * and Jimmy * after Malcolm was released.  Here I saw some evidence of generational degradation of information (a copy of a copy of a copy…shows real losses).  David Watson had talked about this in the training CDs emphasizing the need for training centers that bring each generation up to the original level.  There were some pieces of the discipling process that were not repeated in subsequent generations that resulted in significant weaknesses.  This was an important realization for me to experience.
 
Jimmy did not disciple anyone.  Paul wrestled with being shy and not easily finding someone else to teach what he had been learning.  I began to wonder if I had failed to keep the process alive and question whether I had invested too much time in people who were not teaching what they were learning.  As Paul’s release approached I asked him to pray about someone else in the pod who would like for me to visit each week.  Paul informed me the next week that the trustee, Austin *, would like a visit.
 
Having learned from my failures, as well as successes, I decided to start out differently with Austin.  From the first day I communicated my expectation that Austin would have to teach what I taught him if my visits were to continue.  He agreed.  Quickly he began to tell me of his efforts to teach Tommy.  Eventually I learned that Tommy brought his cousin into the study group that was forming.  Austin was taking seriously the expectation and the pace was picking up.
 
While spending some time with David Watson he asked how Austin’s 3-column studies were going.  I said I did not know.  David suggested I provide money for Austin to be able to photocopy his studies and send them to me through the mail.  I noted that the inmates do not have access to a copy machine.  I decided to have Austin hand write a copy and mail it to me.
 
Soon Austin sent me a stack of 3-column studies that had been completed by several others in his pod who were now participating in the group.  Each exhibited insights into the text and showed evidence of grasping the need to apply the passage.  Several needed to work on stating the third column in the “I will…” format that forces personal application.  These were mailed back to Austin to redistribute to the participants.  (Regretfully, these were never returned to Austin.  I do not know if they were lost in the mail or misplaced at the jail.)
 
Spiritual warfare began.  It especially dated to Austin and myself beginning to pray for an opening to teach Hispanic guys in the pod.  Soon after these prayers began, INS picked two of the Hispanic guys up.  Another was transferred to the state penitentiary.  The only Hispanics left in this pod spoke little English.
 
A couple of weeks later a couple of trouble-makers instigated a sit-in breakfast strike that resulted in half of the guys being removed from the pod and taken to the Maximum security pod.  The number of guys in the group study dropped from eight to three.  Austin was disappointed in what had started so well being so quickly depleted.  He began to pray and decided to hand-write an invitation to the group studies and slide it under each cell door (he could do this since he had more freedoms as a trustee).  Several new guys began attending the group.
 
I had never seen Austin without a smile.  His disappointment was apparent when I arrived for my next visit.  I anticipated something had gone wrong because Austin was no longer on the fifth floor.  I had to visit him on the fourth floor.  He told me what had transpired since my visit the previous week.
 
Another attack came from some members of the Crips gang in the pod.  The leader resented the influence Austin was gaining.  He showed his displeasure after Austin reached out to him with the gospel.  The guy directed the other Crips to begin charging Austin with violating rules.  His desire was to cause Austin to lose his trustee position.  When the charges proved untrue, the administration did not strip Austin of his job, but they realized there would be additional trouble in this pod if Austin remained.  They chose to move him to another pod on the fourth floor and make Austin the assistant trustee there.
 
My visits for the next couple of weeks were spent encouraging him and focusing on getting a new group started in the new pod.  We also discussed who would be a good candidate to reach out to in that fifth floor pod.  Austin suggested I write Justin * to see if he would step into the leadership position.
 
Justin was interested in meeting with me.  The group had continued to meet each evening to pray for one another and any other requests that other guys in the pod shared.  They had not continued the study since all the materials had been taken when Austin was moved.  I sent Justin a set of the God and Man studies so he could resume where Austin had left off. 

It was interesting to start working with one of the guys Austin had been discipling.  He had mentioned Justin to me on a couple of occasions.  This guy had always asked deeper questions.  His inquiries often resulted in Austin writing them down and bringing them to me on my next visit.  Austin believed Justin had a desire to understand the Word.  He was right.  I started with him the same way I did with Austin—I would continue to teach as long as Justin would make an effort to teach what he was learning to someone else.  He agreed.
 
Meanwhile, Austin was excited and anxious to have me meeting with Justin.  He wanted me to assess whether or not he had done a good job.  Justin often wanted more depth than Austin could provide, so he had been a challenge in some ways.  Austin wanted this feedback so he could incorporate any needed changes in the new group he was launching.  He had some fears that he had done some things “wrong,” but he wanted to know so he could do a better job this second time around. 

Austin’s second start has gone much better.  He earned the respect of the guys in this new pod by his lifestyle.  His infectious smile and his joy in the Lord were apparent.  Also, during the first couple of weeks, when he was still in shock over the move, he cleaned up the pod (part of his job assignments).  This pod was grungy.  They did not have adequate tools or cleaning supplies.  Austin knew what was available on the fifth floor so he respectfully requested the same items for this pod.  Instead of using a worn-out scrap of a mop, he requested and received two new mops.  He requested and received bleach that he used to scrub away the mould and mildew that had developed.  As he cleaned the place he learned that there had been quite a bit of sickness on this floor and people felt that what he was doing was going to make it a healthier place for them to live.
 
This group study quickly has grown to a high of sixteen.  They are alternating their study between the Old Testament and Matthew’s gospel.  They continue to study some of the God and Man stories as a foundation for their understanding of God and as a way to prepare themselves to teach others these important insights into God’s character.  During their studies from Matthew they are watching Jesus develop spiritual leadership in the men he called to be his disciples.
 
Because of this move, Austin has become more aware of how important it is to not only get the group to learn the biblical material, but also to be discipled in the process.  He is becoming more intentional in looking for leadership potential in the group and pouring more into the guys who exhibit potential.  Justin is also understanding at a deeper level because of what happened.  Also, he is gaining greater insight into why Austin did things the way he did. 

Justin’s group just sent me some 3-column studies.  Their insights into passages (the first time they have ever attempted to do this) continue to amaze me.  As is true of most, some prefer to speak of what “we” or “they” should do in the third column, but I continue to point out that this will be more beneficial if each point begins with the words, “I will…”  This process truly is about discovery, not preaching or teaching.
 
The work continues.