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From a Mess to a Message: How to plant a church in a prison

The first night in Tarrant County jail, I was scared to death and overwhelmed with fear. I kept thinking about my kids, ages one and one half, four, and six that I had just emotionally kissed goodbye that very day. 

In 21 days I would be transferred to a state prison to begin serving a two-year sentence for a crime I had committed several years before I started living a Christian life. I had decided to turn myself in because I wanted to take responsibility for what I had done.

As the evening progressed, I was sitting on my bunk just watching what was going on around me. A noticed a group of guys who went over into the corner and huddled up. I sat there frightened, not knowing what they were planning. I didn’t know anyone who had been incarcerated or even arrested, so I only had movies to help me guess what to expect. 

Then, all of a sudden, they grabbed hands with each other and started praying. In that same moment, the Holy Spirit spoke to me and said, “Stephen, those are the men I want you to reach. They are my children and I want you to go after them.”

They called it their prayer circle, and it was where they prayed daily for each other and their families. I asked if I could join them, and they welcomed me in. From there, I realized the way to show my faith was by helping the guys. I started by helping some with basic skills like learning to read and write letters to their children. 

As I got to know these men, I wondered how they would fare and cope when they returned to a changed society with strained family relationships and also had to interact with people with commonly held biases toward offenders. This weighed heavily on me, and I wanted to do more for them.

This was the beginning of my prison ministry: trying to reach fellow inmates while I myself was incarcerated. After my release, my wife and I started a more formal prison ministry to prepare inmates for their re-entry into society. I love the saying, “Today’s offender is tomorrow's neighbor.” Why wouldn't we want to teach them how to be better husbands, fathers, and sons so they return to their families and communities different from when they went in? 

A year later, our ministry partnered with Gateway Church’s Global Ministries, and we made nearly 495,000 connections with inmates from 2010 to 2018 through faith-based programs and outreach initiatives. Then, in 2018, I came on staff at Gateway as we made plans for our first Gateway Church campus in a prison. 

It was the Gateway Church Coffield Prison Campus, where more than 4,000 inmates live. We launched our first services at the end of 2018 with a packed-out chapel, drawing more than 500 men in attendance. Since then, we've seen hundreds of men accept Christ, move into discipleship and learn to lead through serving. Three more prison campuses have opened in the last two years, and we have plans to open three more each year moving forward.

While I was in prison, so many ministries came in with good intentions to save the prisoners, but what is so desperately needed is regular discipleship. Many men have wanted to follow Christ, but they needed someone to teach them how to walk this new path. 

With the Gateway Church campuses in prisons, we don’t just do evangelism services or events, we do actual church. It’s not an outreach project, but part of our church family. We do weekly worship services, small group studies and discipleship classes, and we involve their families on the outside too. 

The secret sauce is that we match up each of the four prison campuses with a non-prison campus that provides group leaders and other volunteers at the prison. Our non-prison congregations have learned so much about not caring about a person’s past but focusing on their future. Plus, each of those campuses on the outside provides small groups for families of the incarcerated and ministers to their needs.

We’re in prisons every week building relationships with men who are broken, forgotten and condemned. An inmate said it well: “I never knew that I could feel so free inside prison.” We teach them how to see themselves for who they can be and not what they’ve done, and they become leaders in their communities once they're released.

We train them how to be a leader in their church, how to be a greeter, usher, audio/video tech or a member of the worship team or prayer team—all using the same training material we use in our other campuses. They can leave prison, walk into any church and be ready to serve. 

We also created the Fresh Start Bible Correctional Edition to use as an evangelism outreach tool. A full-text Bible, it also has a 21-day devotional, reading plans, articles and more to help searching people find a life in Christ. We offer it to any inmate who comes to our services, but the real win is giving them to the regular attending prisoners to share with the 80 percent of inmates who don’t attend the services. The Bible can spark a spiritual conversation and provide a chance to invite them to the weekly services and small groups. 

If we want to prepare inmates for life after incarceration, we need to give them the tools they need when they get out, so they can make generational changes. We focus on four areas: 

  • marriage and parenting
  • financial stewardship
  • spiritual development
  • leadership development

The faith-based relational component creates the foundation that supports lasting progress in those areas. If the offender’s family life or home environment is solidified, he becomes better in all parts of his life. We have gotten letters from wives and kids talking about how their husband or dad is like a different person after being part of one of these prison campuses. 

I believe the key to sharing faith is consistently walking alongside someone on his or her journey. Each of the four prisons has a campus pastor from Gateway who shows up and spends time with them every week. It’s not just about getting people to church; it’s about meeting them where they are now.

Pre-COVID we had over one thousand coming every week to the services. But during COVID, Texas prisons temporarily stopped all volunteer-run activities to keep everyone as safe as possible. We weren’t able to go into the prisons to preach, teach and help with church services. At each prison, staff chaplains on the inside were scrambling, trying to figure out how to run services on their own.

We immediately worked to pivot and started sending full worship sets, sermons and class curriculum—not just to our four campuses. As a result, doors have opened to send the resources into 150 prisons every week. The chaplains on the inside in each of those prisons are doing a great job sharing the material with the guys, and we have inmates trained to lead that are helping.  

We are so excited to get back to our full on-campus ministry as soon as the prisons open up but until then, ministry, worship, and discipleship are still happening. We are also using this time to plan three new prison campuses and most importantly, we are focusing on inmates that are being released from the prisons. 

The end result is that now we have released prisoners showing up at all of our campuses asking to be involved worship, serving and discipleship. Our people are quick to welcome them as family. Experiencing this process has had a God-sized impact on our staff and congregation, and we will all be changed forever. 

 

For bulk information on the Correctional Edition of the Fresh Start Bible, designed for residents of jails and correctional facilities, go to: FreshStartBible.com. Any pastor or ministry leader wanting to learn more about starting a prison ministry or to get help with your current ministry, please contact us at: [email protected]

 

This article was extracted from Issue 5 (Spring 2021) of the AVAIL Journal. Claim your free annual subscription here.

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