What picture comes to mind when you hear the words “prison ministry”? Perhaps you see members of your church going to the county jail on Saturday nights, offering listening ears and prayers to men and women 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-hour days behind locked doors, wearing the prison uniform and eating the prison food.
For many Christians in hostile and restricted nations, that is what “prison ministry” means. You get sent to prison.
And you do ministry there.
Meet Uncle Z
Several years ago one of my coworkers at The Voice of the Martyrs (VOM) met with Zhang Rongliang, 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 almost seven years of a seven-and-a-half-year prison sentence for his Christian work.
Uncle Z suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure, and he came out of prison in fragile condition. He spent his first weeks of freedom in a hospital, and shortly after his hospital release, my coworker met with him.
Now during the seven years he’d spent in prison, VOM actively and zealously advocated on Zhang’s behalf. More than 5,000 VOM readers wrote letters to Zhang through PrisonerAlert.com. Thousands sent emails to Chinese government officials or wrote letters to the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C.
VOM and our readers had banged the drum loudly to encourage China’s government to free Zhang long before the end of his sentence—and those efforts had come to naught.
When my coworker met with him, 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.
“Thank you,” he said, “for your efforts to get me out of prison early.” Then he said something amazing: “I’m glad you failed.”
Can you imagine a person feeling “blessed” to serve almost all their prison sentence, instead of being released early to return home to his family?
Zhang explained his unexpected 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.
As he discipled those who came to Christ, they shared the gospel with other prisoners, and the process repeated itself. By the time of his release—after almost seven years—Zhang said every prisoner incarcerated at Third Detention Center had had an opportunity to hear the gospel and make a decision about following Jesus.
By the time of his release, Zhang said every prisoner incarcerated at Third Detention Center had had an opportunity to hear the gospel and make a decision about following Jesus.
“I’m happy that you and others tried to arrange for my release,” he said. “But if you had been successful, there would be no church in that prison today.”
Sharing through Suffering
Paul would be familiar with Uncle Z’s sentiment. The apostle also saw the gospel advance while incarcerated, as he records in Philippians 1:12–13: “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ.”
Sometimes God puts us in places of trial and suffering because people in those places need to hear of his love. Evangelism in such circumstances involves pain and loss. It can be easy to want relief from such suffering—whether it’s us or even a Christian brother or sister we love. Sometimes we even try, in our own power, to relieve the suffering, and we’re frustrated if we can’t do so.
In such circumstances, may we humbly remember Paul’s words to the Philippians, and the church planted at Third Detention Center and the words of Uncle Z: “I’m glad you failed.”