Every other Friday I facilitate a discovery Bible study at the Rutherford County Jail, here in Murfreesboro, TN. There are usually about 20 guys who sit on the concrete floor with their backs against concrete walls wearing their bright orange or dull green jump suits (signifying they have not yet been sentenced or were found guilty of a felony and are awaiting the outcome of their appeals).
Today they had obviously been in the recreation room (a thirty foot concrete cube with a four-foot by twenty-foot window that can be opened to let in the only sun they ever see unless they are being transported to or from court) for a while. Their Bibles were open and it appeared that one of them was sharing from a favorite passage.
I honestly had not selected a text prior to arriving, so I asked where they were reading. Psalm 52 was their text so I asked the inmate who told me the text to read it for all to hear. He read the nine verses from the NIV translation. I asked for one with a KJV to re-read it since these are the two translations the chaplain gives out most of the time.
I asked if any of these guys had a twelve-year-old son or daughter. Then I asked one of the men to re-tell the text in his own words as though he was explaining its meaning to his son or daughter. After he finished I asked the rest to fill in additional details that stood out to them.
Psalm 52 is an interesting text for twenty inmates to be reading. It says, “
Why do you boast of evil, you mighty man? Why do you boast all day long, you who are a disgrace in the eyes of God? Your tongue plots destruction; it is like a sharpened razor, you who practice deceit. You love evil rather than good, falsehood rather than speaking the truth. Selah
You love every harmful word, O you deceitful tongue! Surely God will bring you down to everlasting ruin: he will snatch you up and tear you from your tent; he will uproot you from the land of the living. Selah
The righteous will see and fear; they will laugh at him, saying, “Here now is the man who did not make God his stronghold but trusted in his great wealth and grew strong by destroying others!”
But I am like an olive tree flourishing in the house of God; I trust in God’s unfailing love for ever and ever. I will praise you forever for what you have done; in your name I will hope, for your name is good. I will praise you in the presence of your saints.
Collectively they touched on every significant section of the psalm. The last one to commented about God’s mercy. After re-stating what he said about God, noting the NIV translates this as “God’s unfailing love” (52:8), I asked them, “What else do we learn about God from this Psalm?”
One noted that God will punish the wicked liar being mentioned here. Another pointed out that God blesses the godly.
Next I asked them, “What do we learn about humanity from this Psalm?” They said that some of us become arrogant and speak boastful things. They discussed the metaphor of the tongue being like a razor (52:2). I asked if they could have a straight razor and was quickly told, “Of course not! It would be used as a weapon and someone would be cut!” We pondered the ways we can use our speech to cut someone down.
Then I asked them what the meaning of the second metaphor of a man being “like an olive tree” signified. Since no one had a suggestion I noted that grain, wine and olive oil were three of the items that were exported from Israel. Then I asked, “What was olive oil used for?”
One noted it was used for anointing. I added that it was also used as cooking oil and as a fuel in lamps.
When I asked them again what the significance was for this word picture was, they responded differently. One said, “This is like Jesus talking about not putting a lamp under a bushel basket.” Another noted that good men are to be a blessing for the people around them. A third man said, “We have to disseminate good things to others.” (Not everyone in jail is uneducated!)
I used the last comment to ask them who they know in their pod or family who needs to hear the message of this Psalm. Several looked as though they were going through their mental list of associates.
Then I asked, “What do we need to do to obey this passage?” I could tell they were taking the text seriously.
One replied, “It troubles me to hear a guy talking all the time at Prayer Call and at church and then cursing every other breath back in the pod!” He went on to say that our walk and our talk needs to be the same.
I reminded them that the passage ends with a statement about praising God. Then I asked, “What has happened lately that you praise God for?”
Some praised God for what they were learning from incarceration. One praised him that he was arrested for a minor crime rather than the serious trouble he was headed toward. Another wanted to praise God for the patience he had been learning.
At that point one of the guards and a nurse were giving out daily medications to the inmates in one of the pods. Several of the guys had to step out of the exercise room, back into their pod. Most had returned and then there was loud angry shouting. The last two guys returned and the doors behind them were noisily slammed by the guard.
There was a moment of awkwardness because one of these guys was the one who suggested we look at Psalm 52. The other was the one praising God for learning patience. Non-verbal clues indicated these two are among those who talk better than they walk.
Imagine getting that deep into their world in less than one hour. Imagine how all of us felt stripped bare of our usual facades.
Our silence was interrupted by the same guard entering the adjoining pod, calling for anyone who needed meds. Oddly enough there were none, so he felt compelled to step into where we were to make sure they heard him. As he exited the walls shook as he slammed the two heavy steel doors.
“Why does the devil always have to mess up a good thing?” one of the two guys, who had been part of the earlier angry shouting match, asked. I let the question hang in the air.
One of the inmates said, “Sometimes we just have to turn the other cheek.” Another said, “I know I must be doing something right if Satan feels like he has to come after me.”
You have just witnessed what can happen when people open Scriptures and ask some basic questions. I entered that exercise room wanting to model a discovery process. I chose to go with the text one of them had already opened. I did this to demonstrate that the approach works with any section of the Bible.
There are some basic questions that can be answered from every text:
1. What do we learn about God here?
2. What do we learn about humanity?
3. Who do I know who needs to hear this?
4. What will obedience to this look like?
We modeled praising God for the good things he is doing in our lives. We modeled asking him for the things that we need (the one who had praised him for patience and then promptly lost it asked us to pray for him).
All I try to do with guys in jail is show them how to hear from God. All I try to do is model for them a study method they can use for the rest of their lives. All I want is for them to open themselves to hearing, trusting and obeying God’s will for their lives.
Will they change? Will they put this into practice? I do not know. I am responsible to plant the seed and/or water it. God gives the increase, depending on the soil. But I have no doubt they will never forget today’s study! The Holy Spirit was in control. I could not have planned what transpired. I got the joy of being an instrument in God’s hands. I was able to be a catalyst. I anticipate some good fruit will come from today. That’s my prayer!
[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by John King, felicitydale. felicitydale said: Great description of power of Bible study in Jail via John King http://bit.ly/9mpvs8 […]
Thanks, Felicity! I appreciate the mention!
Wow! What an experience. I’m always inspired by your endeavors for the kingdom. Thank you for sharing this.
Michael, I have to do things like this or I end up spending all my time with folks who are already believers. I really need to find more ways to get to know those who do not know Jesus on the outside, too.
John, quite inspiring! I believe you are making a difference in ways you might never see, but God’s holding the record book!!!
Thanks, Amie! He has certainly taught me a lot through my visits to the jail.
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I have received a blessing from you today. I have the opportunity to lead a life group on Sunday evenings here in Waco, Texas. This is my second year, and we have new couples in our group. I have been looking for a format to help drive our discussions. And so, I just now turned on my computer, went to my Christian website folder I have accumulated, realized I haven’t clicked on your name in quite a while, and thought why not. I read a lot of blogs and probably saw a rely of yours sometime in the past, maybe on Jay Quin’s site????, liked what I read, and saved a link to your blog. And so what a gift! I was not familiar with DBS. I like the format, especially the four questions. It looks to me to be perfect for life group discussions. I’m excited. And so again ole king, thank you for your blessing!
Brent, thanks for letting me know that this post has blessed you and will be useful in your life group. Small groups are a great place to use DBSs, especially if you will give each other permission to ask about your efforts to be obedient. Hearing the Word and not being transformed by it was something Jesus took seriously. He called it foolishness at the close of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7). He also says that if we love him we will keep his commandments (John 14 & 15). Let me know how the group responds to the discovery process.
Go. Baptize. Teach. from Radical ..from Scripture….i want to minister to the lost and make disciples and teach them how to go! this is such a great opportunity as my husband is in the inmate phone business and we can explore and pray about this for ourselves!Tom and Sandy in Mobile
Sandy, many of the inmates here in Murfreesboro profess to be Christians. Obviously there has been a breakdown in their discipleship. What Jesus commands is actually “Go, Disciple, Baptize, and Teach to obey.” I am concerned we have miss-read the last one. The only thing the disciples are commanded to teach (in Matthew’s Gospel) is to obey Jesus’ teachings. These guys are in jail because of disobedience. If they were obeying Jesus they would not have done the things that got them arrested.
The challenge is whether or not they will be obedient when released. Many go back to churches where they find people who are not obeying Jesus. Yes, they are hearing his words, but they are like the foolish man who built his house on the sand, because they hear but then go back to living as though they never heard. Transformation comes in our lives when we truly submit our wills to the will of King Jesus. I pray this will be something that your husband will use.
John, I agree – I need to find more ways to reach out to those who do not yet believe or, as you’ve said, have had a lapse in their discipleship. Here’s my question. For my own consistency my sermons are based on my own 3 column study of a passage before anything else. But then I am also studying another passage with the DBS group I’ve launched at my church. Here’s my question:
As I reach out to others who want to discover God in this way and who are willing to do the 3 column study and discuss it with me, what kind of prep time do you do for each visit if you are working with multiple people you are coaching to reach out to others? Thank you in advance!
Doing a personal 3-column study of the passage you ask someone to study is adequate preparation–other than spending time in prayer. Discovery studies are quite different than traditional preaching/teaching because you do not want to be “the answer guy.” The goal is to help people experience hearing from God for themselves. Scriptures provide the answer, not the teacher. Keeping it simple is usually the best approach. The issue of how long it takes sort of depends on how long the passage is and how slow/fast you are at doing your own 3-column study, Chuck. Since many of these studies will be from the Discovering God series, you will work through the same passages multiple times (because you are working with multiple groups). Reviewing a study you have already done is an option, but the bigger issue is how are you putting into practice these passages so you, too, can share your “I Will…” Statements and answer question # 3, “How did it go?” If we do not model obedience, people learn obedience is not really expected.
Thanks for your answer, I definitely do want to model things. I’m just trying to think through how to move things forward in terms of my outreach. You’d mentioned some folks you were getting mailed 3 column studies from, for example, and thought that could multiply quickly in terms of time commitments.
The thing that I discovered a year later was the jail would not allow me to send all of these back to the one guy who coached these guys in doing 3-column studies (one inmate is not allowed to send mail to another inmate). Regretfully, those were returned a year later and the momentum had already been lost. Satan will not surrender territory easily.
Thank you for your insights John. I appreciate them. Good night and God bless!