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, for example.

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 doctrine.

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 their potential.

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.

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