America has a lot big problems—and we American’s like them to have one big cause. We also prefer that they have one big solution (preferably fixable by our big government). Take, for example, violent crime. Since 1992, the population increased from 255 million to 310 million but the violent crime rate fell from 757.7 per to 386.3 per 100,000 people. While in 1994 more than half of Americans considered crime to be the nation’s most important problem, only 2 percent believed that in 2012.

prison-ministryNo one knows exactly why the crime rate dropped so precipitously, though numerous experts have their pet theories. Penologists credit increases in incarceration while police say it’s community policing. Others say it’s due to increases in abortion or reductions in lead in gasoline. All of these factors may have played a role, but one consideration that is often overlooked is the role of religion.

For instance, as H. David Schuringa points out,

Over the last 20 years, prison ministry has finally gotten back on the church’s agenda. There are not only large, national ministries like Bill Glass Champions for Life,KairosPrison Fellowship and Crossroad Bible Institute, all dedicated to preparing inmates for reentry, but also thousands of smaller groups and churches going into prisons and jails to bring the Good News.

A suggestion of a correlation can be discovered by comparing the 20-year growth of Crossroad’s imprisoned student body and the decline of crime during the same time period. Crossroad’s program could be seen as a reflection of the entire church’s stepped-up efforts to remember those in prison. The link is certainly as plausible as abortion, lead or increased incarceration rates, if not more so, considering Byron Johnson’s compelling studies indicating reduced recidivism rates among discipled prisoners.

Surely there is no one reason crime rates are dropping, but let’s give credit where credit is due. Prison ministry’s effect on recidivism rates should be good news for our communities – whether one buys into the faith-based approach or not.

As Baylor professor Byron R. Johnson wrote in his book More God, Less Crime, young men who go to church regularly are less likely to be involved with alcohol, drugs, and crime. Similarly, released convicts who are involved with a local congregation are less likely to commit further crimes or return to prison. In an interview I conducted with Dr. Johnson, he explained the role of the church in reducing recidivism:

Carter: Can a faith-based prison program rehabilitate inmates, or does the process primarily occur after their release?

Johnson: I believe the answer to both questions is “yes.” I have seen inmates change dramatically over a year or two in prison. They can quote Scripture all day long, and seem contrite and deeply committed in their faith. However, life on the streets is very difficult. They are often without the support and accountability they experienced in prison. When you observe former prisoners in the community, you quickly understand how fragile their situation is and how easy it is for them to become fatalistic if things don’t go the right way. This is why mentors and supportive congregations have to be closely involved.

Johnson’s research highlights the importance of intermediary institutions in helping to solve societal problems. But the actions and effects of intermediary institutions like churches and prison ministries are often modest and difficult to measure, which is why they are easy to overlook or dismiss. Americans tend to favor big government “solutions” that are bold, centralized, expensive, and—all too often—ineffective. We need to recognize that modest actions which have a marginal effect can, over time and combined with other efforts, have a substantial impact on seemingly intractable problems.

The world is often too complex for us to fully understand the causes and solutions to our problems. But we can’t go wrong by shoring up the intermediate institutions that are stumbling upon ways that make our communities better. Sometimes they can change our society in ways that even the most farsighted of our experts could not have foreseen.