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Churches Grow Behind Bars

November 4, 2020
Choir sings during worship
Choir sings during worship
Photo by Celebration Fellowship

Colin Watson, Sr., executive director of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, recently convened a roundtable discussion that included the CRCNA’s three prison congregations in order to get a better sense of what they do and how they fit into the structure of the denomination.

“The genesis of the meeting was the fact that our standard ways of categorizing churches — emerging, organized, etc. — might not exactly fit with the unique experience of the prison church,” said Watson.

“In addition, I wanted to hear firsthand about this growing area of ministry, and about how we can mutually and collectively support each other better,” he said.

Participants in the Zoom meeting were Bob Arbogast and Glen VanAndel from Celebration Fellowship in Ionia, Mich.; Doug De Groot and Gordon and Jean Dyk from Cornerstone Prison Church in Sioux Falls, S.D.; and Jan Williams, Dave Gritters, and Rick Admiraal of New Life Community in Newton, Iowa.

Leaders of the prison congregations who attended the meeting said they appreciated the chance to share particulars of the work they are doing.

“I enjoyed the roundtable. It gave me encouragement, and I felt a sense of solidarity with the two other prison congregations,” said Rick Admiraal, pastor of New Life Community.

He added, “Prison congregations often don't fit the mold. Toward the end of the roundtable we discussed ways that the denomination could assist us.”

Bob Arbogast, pastor of Celebration Fellowship, also appreciated the chance to give the denomination a better look at who they are and what they do as well as to share the challenges they are facing.

“The meeting with denominational folks was both helpful and encouraging. It was encouraging to know that the work of prison churches is on the radar of denominational leaders, that they are eager to support us with prayer and various resources—and are open to developing so-far-unthought-of means of support,” he said.

In addition, he said, “It was helpful to be connected with folks from all three CRC prison churches. Each prison system, each prison, and each prison church is unique. Yet we can certainly learn from each other and perhaps find new approaches to ministry in our particular settings.”

Dee Recker, director of synodical services, brought the topic of prison congregations to Watson when a question came up about how these ministries should be categorized in the CRCNA’s annual Yearbook.

“They informed us that they are not ministries — they are churches,” she said of the round-table. “They opened our eyes to what they are doing.”

In addition, Recker added, the online discussion allowed the prison congregation leaders to get together “and share challenges and best practices. They learned from one another, and so did we.”

Here is a description of the prison congregations.

Celebration Fellowship Church

“We are an organized CRC congregation that gathers at three Ionia, Mich., prison facilities,” said Arbogast. “What’s key to our identity is that our members are from both sides of the prison walls, yet we are one fellowship.”

Prison walls, he added, “are specifically designed to isolate prisoners from the outside world. But no wall can hinder the movement of the Spirit. And, of course, Jesus is known for breaking down dividing walls and making his people one (see Eph. 2:14).”

Since the COVID-19 pandemic arrived earlier this year, outside members of Celebration Fellowship have not had access to the prisons. Connections with prisoners have been limited to printed communications and, at one location, brief videos.

Ordinarily, each of the three gatherings assembles for two hours on a weekday evening, with the first hour devoted to small-group Bible study and fellowship. The second hour is devoted to worship.

“Most of the leadership is in the hands of prisoners. We have begun working to train some prisoners with the goal that they become ordained as commissioned pastors,” said Arbogast.

At one of the Ionia prisons, Handlon Correctional Facility, Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary have established a prison initiative in which a number of the prisoners have opportunities to earn degrees.

New Life Community

In February 2020, New Life Community in Newton, Iowa, received approval from Classis Central Plains to become an organized congregation within the CRCNA, so, along with Celebration Fellowship and Cornerstone Prison Church, it has become the third organized prison congregation in the denomination.

One month later, on March 10, however, said Admiraal, the Iowa Department of Corrections decided that all visitors and volunteers would not be allowed to enter its prisons due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This has been extremely difficult to be locked out of the prison and prevented from having face-to-face ministry with our congregation inside the walls,” said Admiraal.

In the meantime, though, New Life leaders send in materials such as Bibles, Bible study materials, worship DVDs, greeting cards, and encouraging newsletters.

“My wife, Rose, organizes a prayer team that has 230 members. She emails the prayer team weekly — this is even more important during the pandemic.”

Like Celebration Fellowship, New Life has outside members who have "dual citizenship" in the congregation. There are 37 “commissioned members” who belong to New Life Prison Church as well as to their various home churches.

“That group of 37 gathered on Zoom for worship in August in order to install our first elder, Dave Gritters, and first deacon, Jim Williams [who are prisoners]. Both were present during the Zoom meeting.”

COVID-19 restrictions, said Admiraal, have made things difficult because New Life is very much a ministry of presence.

“We show the guys that we care about them by being present and treating them with respect and humanity. We can't wait to return in order to listen, pray, study the Word, and worship with our incarcerated brothers in Christ,” he said.

Cornerstone Prison Church

Gordon and Jean Dyk said that at Cornerstone Prison Church in Sioux Center, S.D., a member is only a member of the church inside the prison.

Notes from the roundtable discussion say, “Cornerstone counts members. The challenge is in finding outside participants to join in gathering with this church. Only about 25 people on any given night receive clearance forms, which are required two weeks in advance. They are required to have 40 hours of training to get a ‘pink tag.’ For security purposes, they would need their name on a form for any given night. Cornerstone began as the first freestanding prison church in the CRC.”

In addition, the notes say, “Most of the prisoners would never have set foot in a church on the outside and now are taking leadership roles. They take a leadership class and need to make a profession of faith. The outside treasurer serves as the deacon. They have an inside church council and an outside board with three members to give guidance to the council members on the inside.”

Kevin Schutte, who serves as mission-shaped congregations leader for Resonate Global Mission, took part in the roundtable. “These are established congregations that we often think of as prison ministries,” he said.

“To me, the main identifier is not that these are prisoners but that they are now brothers and sisters in Christ and are part of the church.”

David Koll, director of the CRCNA’s Candidacy Committee, was also part of the Zoom roundtable and was gratified to learn more completely what the denomination and these congregations are doing.

“It is wonderful to see the CRCNA engaged in these innovative ministry initiatives. They are rich in opportunities,” said Koll. “The gospel is about reclaiming lives, so it is natural that we as a church take an active role in finding ways to incorporate this population into our church life. Even behind bars, the Spirit of God gathers the church.”