By David Dawson
Baptist and Reflector
MURFREESBORO — Although his name was the only one that appeared on the plaque, John Spurgeon quickly points out that his award-winning prison ministry is built on the combined efforts of a large army of individuals.
Spurgeon, the prison ministry pastor at New Vision Baptist Church in Murfreesboro, was recently named the Volunteer of the Year by the American Jail Association.
Spurgeon, who also serves as chaplain of the Rutherford County Adult Detention Center and Correctional Work Center, was presented with the national honor during a ceremony held in Sacramento, Calif., last month.
Spurgeon said the recognition of his ministry — which includes worship services and Bible studies inside the correctional facilities, along with individual counseling sessions for both the inmates and their families — was humbling for him. He also said it was the result of teamwork at its finest, saying that his family, the church staff and his SWAT (Servants With A Task) team all play a pivotal role in the impact of the ministry.
“First of all, glory to God for giving me an opportunity to serve Him,” said Spurgeon. “Also, I thank my wife and my kids for putting up with me, because I am always running, running, running.
“And I am so thankful for (New Vision senior pastor) Brady Cooper. He has given me such a wonderful workspace, and he gives me such freedom with it. It’s really amazing how he allows me to do what I do in the community.”
Spurgeon said his ministry could not function without his large group of assistants and volunteers — the SWAT team — which is comprised of roughly 100 volunteers in the Memphis area and several hundred more across the country. The team helps Spurgeon produce the events that he organizes throughout the year.
“Our task is to bring hope to the hopeless and to free people from the bondages of addictions and the cycle of addictions that led to destructive lifestyles,” he said.
Spurgeon was born in India, where his father, Dr. P. Joshi, has a large evangelical ministry. Spurgeon lived in India until 2003, when he came to the U.S. to attend seminary in Cincinnati. Early in his ministry, he said he felt God’s call to make an impact in the lives of inmates. He has served as the prison minister at New Vision Baptist for the past eight years.
“Many times, the men and women who are behind bars are the forgotten people,” he said. “It is a mission field. The harvest is ready.”
Spurgeon’s prison ministry is unique in that he does not put the focus exclusively on the inmates. Rather, Spurgeon said ministering to the families of inmates is a crucial piece of his ministry — and it’s a piece that many well-intending churches and pastors overlook.
“When God first called me into the ministry, I did a lot of research into what other (prison ministers) were doing,” he said, “and what I discovered, and what I have observed, is that many times people will go into the prisons and share the gospel, and then just forget them (the inmates). So, I said to myself, I need to do something different.
“What we do is, while the inmate is locked up in jail or the correctional facility, we reach out to the families,” he said. “I personally go and visit them. I go to some places where even the cops won’t go. And I go in there, just carrying the Bible.
“I want the families to know that, hey, I am ministering to your loved ones (in prison) but I am here today at your house to pray for you and to check on you guys.”
Spurgeon then invites the family to church. He puts a special emphasis on trying to get the inmates’ children involved, either through VBS or any other program that the church might be doing at the time. “The kids come to church, they get loved on, and then there is a connection there.”
The goal behind Spurgeon’s methodology is to have the families embedded in the church so that when their family member is released from jail, they return home to an environment where Christ is present.
“We work on the families from the outside in, not from the inside out,” he said. “And the reason we do that is because if an inmate becomes a Christian, and then returns home and is made fun of for his beliefs, they are probably only going to walk the walk for about a week and then fall back into the same bondage again. But if we work with the families — as well as the inmates — there is an instant connection when he or she is released. They can go to church together as a family.”
Spurgeon’s strategy is working: New Vision Church currently has about 50 families of released inmates who are part of the church family.
Last year, Spurgeon organized and implemented a Mother’s Day program that provided an opportunity for incarcerated women to attend church with their families on Mother’s Day. The program was featured in an article in the B&R last year.
“I think that was one of the programs that the AJA (American Jail Association) was really impressed with,” said Spurgeon. “They told me it was a one-of-a-kind program in the United States. It was something they had never even heard of.”
Spurgeon held a Father’s Day event this year similar to last year’s Mother’s Day program.
Spurgeon has planted a church inside the correctional facility and another one inside the jail, and one of his “ultimate dreams” is to train up one of the inmates who has a life sentence to be the campus pastor at the correctional facility’s church. Spurgeon said he wants this person to be put on the payroll at New Vision so that “his kids would know that, even though my dad messed up, God gave him a second chance and he became a pastor.”