Todd Nettleton: What ‘Prison Ministry’ Means for Persecuted Christians

Chinese police arrest an activist who was reportedly calling for more transparency and less corruption in the government. | (PHOTO: REUTERS)

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 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.

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SOURCE: Christian Post, Todd Nettleton