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Discipling Inmates with a New Story

I recently saw a video that rocked me. It depicts a woman who’s been on a meth binge for who knows how long. According to the videographer, the woman’s name is Angela. Angela hardly has control of her body. She walks around the yard randomly, using jerky, unnatural gestures. Someone off-screen tries to talk to her, but Angela can barely string together a sentence; and she obsessively scratches herself. The camera zooms in. Angela sweeps her matted hair away, and all the skin is gone from her lower neck. Angela is literally tearing herself apart.

I can’t get that image out of my head. I believe I now have a better sense of what Jesus saw when he encountered the man who, tormented by demons, habitually cut himself while living among the dead. When I think of this woman I feel sadness, anger and gratitude all at once: sadness for Angela, the broken image bearer; anger at the destruction brought on by the meth peddlers; and gratitude that God has rescued my friend Nick from that life.

Meth Addict to Jesus Addict
I teach and disciple inmates in a local jail each week, and last December I met Nick. He’s just a kid, really, not much over 20; but he was doing time alongside well-seasoned criminals while his trial progressed. Despite his obvious youth, he seemed to fit in pretty easily.

Nick was living a relentless life before Christ broke in. Smoking meth and heroin, stealing cars—you name it—Nick and his brother were probably doing it. One day he got in an argument with someone over a cell phone. They went for a drive to talk it out, and before he knew it Nick had taken a bullet through the gut. He pulled through, but found himself in jail not long after.

Nick came to class every time I taught in his unit. He occasionally spoke up, but I couldn’t quite get a good read on him. What I didn’t know at the time was that Nick had come to trust in Christ right there in the jail, shortly before I met him. Just a few weeks after I met him he was transferred to work release. I figured I probably wouldn’t see him again, so I was surprised when he showed up back in class just a few days later. I asked him what was up, and he sheepishly admitted that someone offered him some synthetic marijuana. When the work release officer tried to give Nick orders, he was so out of it they booted him back to jail, returning to the very unit where I taught.

I love how sly the Father can be—Nick opened up to me about his blunder and I began to meet with him for prayer and discipling. Not only that, but Nick reentered the jail just as I was beginning to lead other inmates through the The Story-Formed Way. If Nick had succeeded in work release, he would have missed this opportunity, and life might have turned out much differently for him. I’m convinced, though, that the Father planned this all out so that Nick was able to go through the whole story experience, from creation to restoration, seeing his place in God’s story, and I was able to personally guide him in the process.

Rewriting Our Stories
Nick wasn’t the only one who engaged with The Story. I had the privilege of leading two different groups of inmates, about 30 in all, through the greatest story in history, and they ate it up. At times it was chaotic, and I had to stay on my toes. Some of these guys have no filter on what they say, but that’s also the beauty of it. They pull insights from the story that most people would probably never catch (or never admit it if they did).

We spread the story out over a four week period, and it was remarkable to see the light bulbs turn on. For years these men had defined themselves as addicts or thieves or baby daddies, and I got to watch them discover their new (and true) identity as God’s adopted sons, totally accepted and loved, in spite of their rap sheet.

Not only that, they learned a whole new vocabulary for understanding God and their lives. God alone is good, right and perfect, and he doesn’t allow sin to remain in his presence. Life is in the blood, and Jesus’ death—his shed blood—brings us life when we trust in him. God created us to grow as disciples of Jesus and to make disciples of Jesus. The Holy Spirit makes discipleship possible.

Maybe most importantly, the Spirit convinced the men who had believed they permanently forfeited any good future, that God could rewrite their story and redeem the years they had considered lost. I could see the gears turning—“Maybe what my mom always told me about being worthless isn’t really true.” “The world’s written me off because I’m a sex offender. So you’re telling me God hasn’t given up on me?!?

Strategically Pursuing Disciples
When my wife and I moved to Tacoma, Washington to train for church planting with Soma Communities, we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. Honestly, in hindsight, I think we assumed we’d really start engaging in mission once the training phase was completed. Step 1: Find a job that pays the bills. Step 2: Watch and learn. Step 3: Figure out where to plant a new church. Step 4: Get on with the real work. But the Father had different plans in mind…much different. He decided to throw us in the deep end of the pool, with a couple of ankle weights thrown in for good measure.

We’re already church planting, not really by our planning, but by the Spirit’s insistence. Nick was deeply affected by the story, and he began to seek Christ in earnest. He resolved to live a new life for Christ post-release. When his time came to go home, I offered to keep meeting with him to help him grow. Truthfully, I didn’t know whether I’d hear from him once he hit the fresh air, but a few days after being released, he called. We met for coffee, and in no time he asked if I’d be willing to come to his house and lead his friends and family through The Story. The answer was a no-brainer.

I don’t know about you, but I like good strategy. I read the best blogs, I really like my twitter feed, and I stockpile books (much to my wife’s chagrin) on ecclesiology, church planting, and disciplemaking. Now that’s all good and helpful, but I’m finding that the Holy Spirit is a much better strategist than I am. Isaiah 11 says that he is “the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,” “of counsel and might,” and “of knowledge and fear of the Lord.” What a relief to know that God’s purposes don’t rise or fall on my own strategic brilliance, or rather lack thereof.

The truth is, I’m finding that my own strategy really just gets in the way sometimes. Case in point: I was planning to meet with Nick one-on-one for personal discipling ad infinitum. That sounded pretty logical in the moment. Looking back, though, that looks like a pretty narrow plan compared to what the Father wanted. I thank God that he introduced something far more ambitious. Now, instead of helping to establish one person in the gospel, I get to disciple Nick as we partner to help a dozen people he loves grow in gospel faith.

My Prayer
I’m praying that the Spirit will lead more and more of us into this kind of pioneering work. Recently, as I was listening to a sermon by Tim Keller, he pointed out that true joy comes as a result of following the Spirit on mission. I’ve certainly found that to be true. Nick is a first generation Russian-American, and many of his friends are turning to heroin and doing whatever it takes to support that habit. Their need for healing is great! I’m so glad the Father gave us a relational bridge into Nick’s community for the sake of the gospel.

As I write this, we’re heading into the final week of The Story-Formed Way with Nick’s crew. I wish I could tell you all the encouraging stories that the Spirit has done in our lives through this process together, but that will have to wait. By God’s grace, our new friends are already asking, “What’s next?”

It’s a great question, and frankly, it’s one that I can’t definitively answer. But I’ll tell you what I’m praying for. I’m praying that Nick’s small band of friends, family and neighbors will commit to life together as an extended family, centered on the gospel; that this one gospel family will mature and multiply and spread the fame of Jesus far and wide; and that in five or ten years we’ll see that the whole Russian-American community has been irrevocably changed as a result.

And that’s just the start. There are so many opportunities for planting new missionary families. In our area alone there are dozens of distinct people groups who don’t yet have a viable gospel-centered community loving and serving them well. I’m asking the Spirit to send us into the trailer parks, the prisons, the bland ‘burbs (with their own set of problems), and the Section 8 housing projects.

There are countless Angelas and Nicks out there, and they’re waiting for us.

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Chris Thomas and his wife Stephanie are getting worked by the Spirit while training for church planting with Soma Communities through Antioch Northwest. They are learning to love each other well, and they think their two daughters, Anna and Emi, are super rad. Chris works for Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission discipling inmates. You can find him blogging here and tweeting here.