What picture comes to your mind when you hear the words “prison ministry?” Perhaps you see members of your local church in county jail on Saturday nights, offering listening ears and prayers to those on the wrong side of the law. Perhaps you think of Angel Tree Christmas gifts through Prison Fellowship, or Kairos Weekend retreats held inside prisons around the country.
What you probably don’t picture is being handcuffed, arrested and sentenced. You probably don’t envision years of 24-hours-a-day behind iron doors, wearing a prison uniform and eating prison food.
For many Christians in hostile and restricted nations, though, that’s what “prison ministry” means: being sent to prison and, while there, doing ministry.
Several years ago, one of my coworkers at The Voice of the Martyrs met with Zhang Rongliang, the leader of one of the largest house church networks in China. “Uncle Z,” as he is often called by Chinese Christians, had just finished serving seven years in prison for his Christian work.
“I consider myself and I treat myself as one who is a missionary,” Uncle Z told my VOM coworker. “The difference is that God called me to preach to the prisoners in that place. You know, no Christians can go to the prisons of China to have an outreach ministry. We cannot go to witness to the prisoners. We cannot go to disciple them in the faith. If a Christian wants to preach in the prison, there must be a reason for him to go to the prison.”
During Zhang’s years in prison, VOM readers were among many people around the world who zealously advocated on his behalf and for his release. More than 5,000 wrote letters to Pastor Zhang at the prison through the web site www.PrisonerAlert.com. Thousands also sent emails to Chinese government officials or wrote letters to the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C. VOM and our readers had loudly encouraged China’s government to set Zhang free—and it had all come to naught.
Uncle Z was thankful for our efforts. He knew about the letter writing; he’d been greatly encouraged to know Christians around the world remembered him and prayed for him while he was in prison. He thanked us for our efforts to get him out of prison. Then he said something amazing: “I’m glad you failed.”
Why would a person be glad that they were “blessed” to serve almost all of their prison sentence, instead of being released early to return home to their family? Pastor Zhang went on to explain his strange answer.
At the Third Detention Center in Zhengzhou City, Henan Province, there were approximately 5,000 men imprisoned for various crimes against the Chinese state. Uncle Z was able to lead many of those men to Christ during his “prison ministry,” including former high-level government officials and influential business leaders. And as he discipled those who came to Christ, they in turn shared the gospel with other prisoners, and the process repeated itself. By the time of his release almost seven years later, Pastor Zhang said every prisoner at the Third Detention Center had heard the gospel message and had an opportunity to make a decision about following Jesus Christ.
“I am happy that you and others tried to arrange for my release,” he said. “But…you almost made a big mistake. If you had been successful, there would be no church in that prison today.”
If time in prison can be both a blessing and a part of God’s will, and getting out of prison can be a “big mistake,” perhaps many of us should rethink how we pray in the midst of hardships and difficulties.
Just before He ascended into heaven, Jesus commissioned His followers: “You will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8). The word translated to “witnesses” in English, you probably know, is the Greek word martys: martyr. At the time, the word described one who told what he’d seen and heard. It was only later, after Stephen was stoned, that the added meaning of one who died for their faith came into common usage (Acts 22:20). Christians around the world will honor men and women who died for their faith in Christ on Day of the Christian Martyr, June 29.
Jesus did not promise that being His witnesses—His martyrs—would always be easy. He didn’t say we’d only witness in pleasant places. And He didn’t say all those we witnessed to would be happy to hear His good news. But He did promise the Holy Spirit would go with us and empower us in our obedience.
Sometimes God puts us in places of trial and suffering—a prison, a hospital room, a job situation we do not like—because there are people in those places who need to hear of His love. Evangelism in such circumstances involves pain, suffering and loss. And it can be easy to want relief from such suffering—when we are there ourselves, or even when a Christian brother or sister we love is there. Sometimes we even try, in our own power, to relieve or escape the suffering, and we’re frustrated if we cannot do so. Sometimes we question God, asking, “How could You let this happen? Have You forgotten about me?”
What if, instead, we looked at those around us in those trying circumstances and prayed, “OK, Lord, who did You send me here for? Who here is ready to hear of Your love?”
In those times of trial and hardship may we remember our call to be His witnesses—His martyrs—and think of the church planted in pain at the Third Detention Center and the words of Uncle Z: “I’m glad you failed.”
Todd Nettleton is the host of The Voice of the Martyrs Radio, a weekly half-hour program heard on 1000+ radio stations and by podcast listeners around the world. Todd has served with The Voice of the Martyrs for 21 years and speaks regularly at VOM Advance Conferences. He has traveled to more than 20 restricted and hostile nations and interviewed hundreds of believers who faced persecution for their Christian witness. He is the author of Restricted Nations: North Korea and was part of the writing team for four other VOM books.