How Do People Change?

Dec 10, 2018

By Rick Admiraal, pastor of New Life Prison Church, Newton, Iowa

I remember attending Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  The experience became a process for me of being changed into the minister God wanted me to be.  One memory I have of seminary is a pastoral care class in which the professor asked the class: "How do people change?"  Arms shot up into the air and various answers were proposed from the four corners of the classroom.  As you can imagine, some of the answers were better than others.  After a brief discussion, the professor proceeded to answer his own question.  People can experience change primarily through three methods: behavior modification, cognitive instruction and dynamic relationships.

Psychologist B.F. Skinner understood that behavior can be modified by positive or negative reinforcement.  Parents often utilize behavior modification techniques with young children by offering rewards for good behavior or punishments for bad behavior.  The prison system also operates with behavior modification at the forefront.  That's why Iowa and 49 other states have the word corrections in the naming of this particular system - the Department of Corrections.  Inside each prison there are policies and procedures which seek to correct bad behavior and reinforce good behavior.  Special privileges are given to those who follow the rules.  For example, model prisoners may receive additional time for recreation or visiting friends and family during visit hours.  In contrast, problem prisoners may be sent to solitary confinement or have their visiting hours reduced.

We are well aware of the importance of cognitive instruction in bringing about change.  We realize the value of this so we open up our pocket books to pay the price.  We pay our taxes in order for our public schools to operate.  Some of us may decide to dig even deeper and pay the tuition required for Christian education.  It's important for all of us to have good schools because our children need to receive knowledge so that they can make informed decisions.  There are classrooms inside prisons as well.  At the end of a person's prison sentence, he or she typically participates in a treatment class in which the instructor teaches the incarcerated student to make smart choices in order to avoid returning to prison.  The goal is for returning citizens to become more successful members of society.  There are other classes available in prison for those who want to better themselves.  For example, the HiSET (High School Equivalency Test) program is typically offered within the prison setting.  This is the program formally known as GED.  In addition, colleges and university may participate in helping instruct those who are in prison.  At Newton Correctional Facility in Newton, Iowa, Grinnell College sends numerous volunteers to offer instruction in various topics, such as basic math, world religions and English literature.

The final way people change is within dynamic relationships.  It is a positive benefit for someone to seek out positive role models such as parents, grandparents, teachers, or coaches.  By spending time together in relationship, constructive characteristics of positive people rub off onto others and bring about change. Volunteers and mentors in prison congregations know the value of relationships.  They know that the most important relationship in which people change is within their relationship with God through the Son by the power of the Spirit.  It is extremely important not only to know God but to be known by God.  In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul instructs: "Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will" (Romans 12:2, NIV).  The type of spiritual transformation that leads an individual to make wise choices begins and ends with a relationship to God.  Sometimes we're skeptical as to whether some people are even able to change.  But the fact of the matter is this: People can change - by the grace of God.

Rick Admiraal is the pastor of New Life Prison Church, prison congregation in Newton, Iowa that started in the winter of 2011. Strengthened by its volunteers, New Life ministers to men in prison.  Rick & his wife Rose have one son and one daughter: John is in graduate school at Central Michigan University while Annaliese is in her junior year at Pella Christian High School.  Pastor Rick and his family live in Pella, Iowa where every May a Dutch festival called Tulip Time is celebrated.  But before the spring flowers bloom we must endure winter!



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