Each Thursday evening at Davidson County Jail, a group of 20 to 40 incarcerated men gather in a classroom for church—Church of Another Chance, as it’s come to be called.
What makes the service meaningful is that the men behind bars are looking for a place to find restoration and hope. What makes it unique is the fact that they’re not just attending a church service, but leading it as well.
They are the ones greeting outside community members at the door, welcoming them inside. They are the worship leaders, Scripture readers, and givers of communion. They pass the plate, as everyone is encouraged to give written prayer requests as their offering.
The only thing they don’t do is deliver the sermon, which often is given by Tim Knapp. Along with speaking at this weekly church service, Knapp also leads the additional ministry efforts of Church of Another Chance, which include regular group mentoring dinners for men who’ve recently been released from jail and are now trying to rebuild their lives.
Knapp, a member at Christ Presbyterian Church, also heads up Church of Another Chance (MC), a missional community which has grown to include 40 people from 20 different area churches over the last two years. Members of the missional community attend the weekly church services and mentoring dinners, coming alongside the incarcerated men to foster friendships, offer encouragement and extend grace to those who often feel stuck in a cycle of pain, addiction and isolation.
Church of Another Chance (MC) is unique in the sense that most outreach efforts for incarcerated men focus on prison ministry instead of jail ministry. Prison is the permanent place for those who’ve been through the trial and sentencing process and have been found guilty of a crime. The city jail, however, is more like an anxious in-between ground. About half of the men at Davidson County Jail, for example, are serving a six-month sentence for probation violations, while the other half are awaiting trial. Knapp says he knows one man who has been waiting 11 months in the city jail just for his trial to begin.
While it’s understandable that many ministries focus on those who face incarceration for the long haul, Knapp and Scott Jamieson (the ministry’s founding pastor) began to see several years ago that the men in flux at the city jail were a group worth reaching, especially when they realized that Tennessee prisoners rotate in and out of jail an average of 11 times in their lifetime. Many find their past patterns of destructive behaviors impossible to completely shed without help and support, while others try but fail to keep up with stringent and unforgiving probation requirements and other uphill complexities of the criminal justice system.
“These are people who are hurting, lonely and have been rejected by society in many ways,” Knapp says of the men at the city jail. “Many of them have childhood trauma and their lives eventually spin out of control in their attempts to cope. The result is pain, addiction and criminal behavior.”
The blessing of how Church of Another Chance (MC) operates is twofold, Knapp says. The inmates experience a judgment-free zone where they can speak freely about their pain, mistakes and the redemption they desire. There’s no pretending. The men love interacting with the missional community who are willing to take time to listen, offer a hug or share a word of hope. In the process, their dignity is affirmed—even within the confines of jail—as they’re able to extend hospitality to those who join them for the weekly church service.
In exchange, those in the missional community receive the gift of coming face-to-face with people who are living in vulnerability and hungry for healing. “Their pain is at the forefront,” Knapp says of the incarcerated men. “There’s no hiding it or disguising it. Their lives consist of dealing with it. I think this provides the missional community with the realization that there’s great freedom when we’re honest about our own struggles, pain and shortfalls.”
Attending services and participating in the rehabilitative mentoring work once men are released is an answer to Christ’s call to love our neighbors as ourselves, Knapp says. It’s a transformative, healing experience for everyone involved. “I don’t think someone can attend one of our church services without being changed,” says Knapp.