How to welcome ex-cons to church

We’ve had two men released from prison come along to our church over the past year or so.

For different reasons neither of these men are still attending.

It is very hard for a person exiting prison to find a welcoming place in a church on the outside.

Mostly those who want to join a church when they leave prison have already made major changes in their lives. Mostly it’s the churches that need to change to welcome those coming out of prison. That’s why Anglicare chaplaincy has developed a training course for churches to welcome and mentor people coming out of prison.

But to welcome a person just out of prison into your church is not as simple as welcoming a fellow sinner into your fellowship. Unlike some organisations who work with prisoners, Anglicare expects the former criminal to be up front about their crime. Joining a church that is prepared to welcome them, they are expected to inform their brothers and sisters in Christ why they were in prison.

Other organisations working with offenders both inside of prison and outside, hold to the practice that those working with them do not need to know the crime. They expect their workers and volunteers to exhibit an unconditional acceptance of a person, just as Christ himself accepts us. This is a very powerful aspect of working with people who for most of their lives have experienced abuse and very little acceptance.

But welcoming a person into the fellowship of the people of God involves more than acceptance. If the person is a Christian there needs to be acknowledgement of sin followed by repentance. If a person claims to be a Christian and yet does not acknowledge their sin and therefore shows no sign of repentance, they should not be welcomed into the church. This is why one of the former prisoners no-longer comes to our church. Claiming to be a Christian, he has shown no repentance for his crime and has therefore been told that he is not to attend our church.

This sounds harsh, but we are talking about a man who claims to follow Jesus. It would be different if he was an unbeliever. An unbeliever we would welcome into our midst to love and to pray for that they would see that God is truly amongst us, encouraging them all the time to seek God’s forgiveness and submit to the lordship of Christ.

While excommunicating the believer who does not repent seems harsh it is what the Scriptures tell us to do and has also been Anglican practise from the beginning. In 1 Corinthians 5 the Bible tells us to remove the immoral, arrogant person. This is not done with any sense that we are better than him. The whole purpose of excluding the unrepentant brother or sister from fellowship is so that they will realise that sin is a serious matter. The hope is, having been delivered over to Satan (v.5), they will repent and be restored to fellowship.

In the opening rubric of the Anglican service of the Lord’s Supper a procedure is outlined for excluding a person who is known to be in “grave and open sin without repentance”.

I’ve run out of space to tell you why the second man is no longer at church. I’ll have to do that another time.

My point is that I love to see people leaving prison and being welcomed into the fellowship of the congregations of God’s people.

But it is not a simple matter. To welcome people who have been in prison, congregations need to change. But the congregation of God’s people cannot compromise the seriousness of sin.

All members need continual encouragement to repent and be reconciled with God.