Bible Studies for Adult and Juvenile Prisoners
By Don Smarto
Bible studies in jails and juvenile facilities
are important for discipleship and evangelism for the "almost
persuaded". A new Christian needs direction, and a systematic
course of study.
"Bible Study" sounds good but I have
witnessed prisoners fascinated by the Book of Revelation yet combining
the truths of that book with new age philosophy and the prophecy
of Nostradamus. The imagery and metaphors are rich but Revelation
should be reserved for Bible Study Grad School. Most prisoners
were unchurched growing up and are biblically illiterate. They
require the basics (Elementary Education) of the Gospel of John,
If the prisoner does not understand sound doctrine
and the basics of the Christian faith, errors in thinking and
theology can easily take hold. These basics include: The Deity
of Christ, Salvation, Justification by Faith, Repentance, and
Grace. These basics must be rooted in the Scriptures.
While reading the Bible is essential for Christian
growth, the Bible can be twisted to fit any conclusion. Heresies
often come from quoting the Bible out of context. Leaders with
wisdom can lead prisoners to a sound theology and away from false
Whether using a previously published study or
creating your own, there are several factors that are important.
Theologian R.C. Sproul said "How can we do the truth without
first understanding what the truth is?" A person can have
a theology degree yet not live a godly life, so the ultimate goal
of a Bible Study is to embrace truth by living a life committed
to obedience, loving God, and serving others.
Some prisoners believe they are Christians because
they repeated a one minute Sinner's Prayer. When a prison ministry
puts emphasis on quick "numbers" they may contribute
to false hope. Others base salvation on "being good",
or a forgiving God who "pardons everyone".
Knowledge of the Bible refutes these types of
beliefs. Remember, every heretic and cult leader has manipulated
the text of Scripture. Even Satan quoted Scripture (Matthew 4:1-11)
in an attempt to cause Christ to sin.
Most prisoners do not understand the origin of
the Bible. This should be a starting point. When volunteers in
prison ministry insist on King James Version only with juvenile
offenders they miss the important history of Bible translation
into the native tongue.
For the same reason, we do not use a Latin Bible
in prisons; a common language means we use the translation that
best communicates truth clearly. Old English was common in 1611.
Ken Taylor introduced a paraphrase, The Living
Bible in 1971, as an exercise for his children, initially. The
Good News Bible was published in 1976, The New International Version
in 1978, and The Message in 2002. Each has merits. Some oppose
free translations like Word on the Street because they are not
literal translations. I do not agree. Gang members and teens with
a reading level of 4th grade; often with learning disorders, need
to hear about Jesus clearly. That is the starting point.
If taught properly, prisoners, young and old,
can grasp the Canon. A simple history of Gnosticism (intellectual
salvation) can explain why writings of the apostles are in our
Bible from the Patristic Era, and other writings were rejected.
I have taught incarcerated juveniles about how
the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek (Septuagint) and how
the Aramaic writings where translated into Latin by Jerome (Vulgate).
Sound like an impossible task? It is not. Too
often, we "dummy down" our studies for prisoners. Believe
me, you can "raise the bar" and most prisoners will
meet the challenge and learn, and appreciate your respect for
Of course, if you teach these fundamentals of
the Canon like a dry, theology professor, don't expect much. The
best and most effective teaching is by discussion and uses PowerPoint
visuals, music, and story telling. Hearing through lecture is
the least effective way to teach, yet some prison ministries predominately
use lecture and monotone preaching. We must prepare and in our
preparation be creative.
Biblical literacy is a gift to prisoners. They
need to know about the Early Church to appreciate our heritage.
Prisoners need to understand how the Bible was compiled to recognize
skepticism. Prisoners need to embrace the power of the Word and
the role of the Holy Spirit in interpretation, so false teaching
will not "toss them by the waves".
Effective Bible studies in jails, prisons, and
juvenile facilities are far more than verse memorization. The
studies must direct prisoners toward living a godly life in the
facility and on the streets, after release.