After months of preparation and prayer, Redeemer held its first adults-only worship service at 4 p.m. Easter Sunday, welcoming 20 visitors, all registered sex offenders.Former offenders in church! A good thing, but why adults-only?
Paul (last name withheld upon request) was one of them. He hadn’t been to church for eight years and didn’t expect to go for another eight, when his parole would end. But a friend who attended Redeemer handed him a flier for the adults-only service.
“I didn’t think I’d be able to go back again until I got done with probation,” Paul said. “This church doesn’t judge. They accepted the fact that some of us had gotten into trouble and were learning from our bad decisions. A young man told his story and it struck home with me. … We had communion, which was awesome. I actually felt a sense of peace come over me. This makes me feel much better about life.”
Ministry among registered offenders is particularly difficult. Many offenders can’t be in places where children gather.Some former offenders are not allowed to attend worship services even with their own families. This article makes only glancing reference to families of sex offenders, profiling an offender who seems not to have one. Offenders do have families -- children, spouses, parents, in-laws, siblings, grandchildren -- families who welcome the offender back into their lives. It seems particularly cruel to withhold the experience of worshipping with family from someone who has paid his debt to society.
In addition, the stigma following [sex offenders] can be turned against congregations that would welcome all—including offenders. A primary concern for Hayden is that Redeemer could “be targeted” for backlash from its community.
Rightfully so, say many. Churches are supposed to be welcoming but also safe places where members can trust one another and where adults and children are protected from harm. In a 2010 survey, Christianity Today found that nearly half of respondents would oppose allowing a registered offender to serve in a ministry in their congregation. For many in the church, the risk of re-offending is too high.
But researchers have found public perception of the risk of repeat sexual offenses to be much higher than it is, especially when the specific characteristics of a crime are taken into account. In a 2010 study for the Justice Department, researchers from the Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, found that offender registries and notification systems have little to no effect on recidivism rates and may, in some cases, increase the risk they will commit future sex crimes. [My emphasis.]The registries isolate former offenders at a time when a strong social network is a way for them to stay on a good course. Places of worship have traditionally been a particularly fine way to build that support network. Hard to do when attendance is prohibited by probation and parole officers, and harder when the congregation fears repeat sex offenses that research shows are unlikely.
If more places of worship follow the example set by this church, the rewards will be much greater than the perceived risks.
The transformation hasn’t been limited to former offenders. As plans for the service developed, a woman approached Hayden and said: “I hear you’re having this alternative service. I’m a victim of a sex offender. But I’m going to come, because I feel like I can be healed there, because we’re all going to be at the same table together.”Kudos to The Lutheran for daring to publish a piece promoting the inclusion of sex offenders in church services.