SPRINGFIELD – John Stroup sat in a prison cell when the gospel arrested his attention. Now, through a ministry he established with two other members of Crossway Baptist Church, Springfield, he strives to capture criminals for Christ.
“I was raised in a drug-addict, drug-dealer environment,” Stroup said. “Everybody I knew is pretty much dead or doing life in prison.”
In 2008, Stroup himself was serving time behind bars, when he found a Bible and began reading it.
“I fell in love with God and never looked back,” he said. “I knew I was called to preach, to reach people like I was.”
For this purpose, Stroup, Mike Aye and Rick Lechner started Freeway Ministries in 2011. Beginning with only seven names, the ministry now draws as many as 600 people to their Saturday night services, where they receive a meal and hear a message from God’s Word. Many weeks, between 20 or 30 people respond positively to the gospel.
Each week, Stroup and his co-laborers at Freeway Ministries also reach out to people at the parole board, the drug courts, homeless shelters, battered woman shelters and juvenile centers.
“What we do is we run after the people that most people run from,” Stroup said. They make disciples among the hard-to-reach, helping them rebuild their lives, connecting them with local churches and “turning them into missionaries. Then they go win their lost friends, who are just like them.”
“God is doing it,” Stroup said. “He is turning convicts into preachers. He is turning drug addicts into missionaries. And we’re focused on integration into the local church. So now if you go to Crossway Baptist Church on a Sunday morning, in the second service, this is what you’re going to see: You’re going to see convicted criminals. You’re going to see drug addicts that have been freed. You’re going to see women who have lost their children and got them back. You’re going to see all these different people, and they’re going to be in the choir. They’re going to be handling the offering bags. They’re going to be teaching Sunday school class.”
Freeway Ministries is “a gateway into church for the people that are ‘unchurched,’” according to the ministry’s website, www.freeway-ministries.com. Stroup insisted that Freeway is not a church, but an “arm of the church,” existing to help local churches reach criminals and other hard-to-reach people for Christ.
But, as the website also explains, the ministry “exists to educate the church about what we feel is an unreached demographic.” According to the National Institute of Corrections, Missouri held more than 30,000 prison inmates in 2011 and nearly 10,000 jail inmates in 2006—when the latest jail census was taken. Nearly 20,000 prisoners are released back into Missouri communities each year; within three years, according to a report of the Pew Charitable Trusts, half of them will end up behind bars again. Additionally, 2.7 million prisoners’ kids live in the United States, and 70 percent of them will likely follow their parents into prison. Approximately 60,000 of these children live in Missouri.
“The need is extreme,” Stroup said. “Look at our prisons. Look at the child abuse. Look at the drug addiction. It has taken over. And the only way it is going to change is if we go after them. We have to reach them. Churches are going to have to be willing to get messy, to go where they are and go after them.”