Should You Consider Prison Ministry?
She called me on a Thursday afternoon. Her husband had just been sentenced to twenty-three years in prison. To make matters worse she was in the hospital on dialysis and was currently not in good shape. Now she faced a future without her husband. My heart sank when I heard the news. Due to COVID, I was unable to attend the sentencing hearing to lend my spiritual support. We prayed over the phone, and I set up regular visits with her as we walked the justice system together. I wish I could say that this story is out of the ordinary, but unfortunately it is all too common in prison ministry. There are currently 2.3 million people in prison in the United States as of 2019.
How do we find hope in such dire circumstances? How do we take people from all different backgrounds and education levels and build them up in Christ? How do we rebuild people in the image of Jesus that are so broken that they ended up in a place that no one would ever choose to go? The only answer to helping these people is through discipleship and submission to King Jesus.
Discipleship needs to be the formative relationship in these people’s lives.
Once they become incarcerated, they become a number. Their limited phone time makes discipleship extra difficult. Discipleship happens through panes of glass and on phones that are hard to hear through. Discipleship happens in the pods where you get one day a week for about an hour, sometimes a little longer if you are lucky.
When I first started working in the prison system, I was intimidated to say the least. Short of speeding tickets, I had zero interaction with law enforcement or any type of prison setting. The very first thing that you learn in prison discipleship is that time is not your own. You enter the world of the guards and you work off their schedule. This means that for every visit, you need to have a plan set for each of your disciples. Even if it is a simple Bible study, you need to still go in with a plan on how much ground you can cover.
Prison discipleship is both a marathon and a sprint.
It is a sprint because the time you have with the inmates is limited, and you need to be ready to do Kingdom work as soon as you are allowed to meet. It is also a sprint because everyone has different sentences. I met one young brother who only had three months left inside. For him we had to do a quicker discipleship course to help mature him in Christ prior to his release. He is doing great out in the world and is still a disciple of mine.
Prison ministry can also be a marathon because of the long sentences. As I mentioned in the opening of this article, I have one disciple that was sentenced to twenty-three years. That will mean twenty-three years of visits talking through phones and panes of glass. Twenty-three years of letter writing, praying, and fasting together as we walk with the Holy Spirit behind barbed wire.
So why is prison ministry so important?
Why does my heart go out to these brothers and sisters in Christ that are inmates? Well, I am always looking for next steps, ways that I can spread the Kingdom. And I was praying to God to open my heart and place me in uncomfortable situations to spread the faith. I was also reading the Bible, and Matthew 25:35-36 spoke to me through the Holy Spirit.
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Matthew 25:35-36, NIV).
Jesus said, “I was in prison and you came to visit me.” That line struck me so deep in the heart. Jesus commands us in the Great Commission to go forth and make disciples of all nations. Yet there is an entire subset of people that we tend to leave behind because of mistakes they made.
I tell inmates the first time that I meet them that we are the same. We are sinners that need Jesus and I will walk with them on this journey to redemption. That is what the Heavenly Father loves: redemption stories.
It is amazing to watch the Holy Spirit work behind those large concrete walls.
Depending on the facility, there can be very few resources for prisoners in terms of spiritual formation. They can have access to Bibles, but the issue they run into is different education levels. There are a lot of the men that haven’t graduated high school, and you need to help them with understanding the Scriptures.
They all have one thing in common, however, and that is spiritual hunger. Their souls are hurting for healing. They have made grave mistakes that landed them in the position that they are in, and many times they will be dealing with addictions, abuse, and false beliefs about God. Prison ministers go into a great spiritual war for people’s souls. But we do not go alone; the Holy Spirit is very much in this mission.
When I was assigned my first pod, I went at the specified time and sat in a classroom waiting for people to come to me. The first night, not one person showed up. I prayed to God on the way home and wondered what would happen next.
This was a great lesson to learn that God is always working, for over the course of the next few weeks we completely filled the classroom with eager disciples ready to give their lives over to Jesus.
The prison system has not been immune to COVID-19. There have been months I have not been able to go into the facility. Yet this has not deterred the Holy Spirit from working. I am now writing letters to many inmates hoping that my words bring comfort and spiritual formation. Many inmates have started their own Bible studies and I have assisted these as well until I can get back into the facility and teach in person. I have also been able to pick up new disciples through the letter writing campaign as my information gets passed around the pods. It is so encouraging to hear these men reading the Bible on their own and asking great theological questions.
If God is leading you out of your comfort zone, I would encourage you to look into prison ministry. It is an amazing opportunity to see God work in dark places. There you will see spiritually hungry people from all walks of life ready to embrace Jesus with all their heart.