The Church Inside: A New Movement in America’s Prisons

Tracking the powerful innovations that are changing the landscape of prison ministry today

A radical shift in thinking is sending ripples through prisons around the nation. Penitentiaries are becoming equipping grounds for mission. Churches are opening campuses behind bars and are empowering prisoners to reach their fellow inmates. Even seminaries are establishing degree programs on the inside. A new movement is emerging, and it’s changing the landscape of prison ministry as we know it.

TRAINING INDIGENOUS LEADERS

Louisiana State Penitentiary, a converted former plantation also known as Angola, is the largest maximum-security prison in the U.S. It was also one of the bloodiest, with a high rate of inmate assaults. But when Burl Cain took over as warden in 1995, he championed the concept of “moral rehabilitation,” the idea that prisoners could be transformed through theological education. He partnered with New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (NOBTS) to open an extension program in the prison called the Angola Prison Seminary. The seminary offers a B.A. in Christian ministry and an M.A. in pastoral ministry. Since the program was instituted, graduates have planted around 25 churches inside Angola and other prisons around the state to which they’ve asked to be transferred as “indigenous missionaries.”

The once violent prison is now a model of rehabilitation. Kevin Brown, director of prison ministries at NOBTS, says the key to the transformation has been raising up leaders from inside the prison. “The challenge for a prison environment is allowing prisoners to assume the mantle of leadership; in an environment where leadership is typically reactive and anti-authority, this makes sense,” Brown says. “However, when you have a group of moral leaders who want to see positive change wrought in a hopeless environment, this dynamic changes.”

In a facility like Angola, most of the residents are serving life sentences or are on death row. Almost all of them will never leave. But by raising up “indigenous” leaders who can speak hope, change and healing through the gospel to their fellow prisoners, the moral temperature of the facility and the Louisiana prison system as a whole has changed.

“Our ability to train Christian leaders to enact the gospel inside prison walls is powerful and effective,” Brown says. “The fact that these men are leading others into relationship with Jesus Christ, to hope and a moral regeneration, is the important factor.”

Angola represents a fascinating grassroots movement of prisoners and former prisoners who are partnering with Christian institutions and churches on the outside of prisons to bring hope and restoration to the inside.

A PRISONER REBORN

Howie Close is the only man to have both a prisoner ID and a chaplain ID from Limon State Correctional Facility in Limon, Colorado. He literally holds the keys to the place where he was locked up for almost 15 years of his 20-plus year sentence. That this is nothing short of miraculous is not lost on him.

Close was the youngest of three children, a “surprise” baby. Though his parents called him a pleasant surprise, he always felt like a mistake. As a result, he grew up with a lot of anger. In 1990, when he was 17 years old, he assaulted a group of Japanese exchange students and was convicted under Colorado’s newly implemented hate crime law to a 75-year prison sentence.

To survive in Denver County Jail, he developed a reputation as a fighter. On one fateful day, he was sent to solitary confinement and discovered a Bible that the guards had missed in a sweep. As he began to read, something was awakened inside of him, and God began to draw him to himself. He started attending church services inside the prison, but when he was transferred to Limon—the most violent prison in the state—he reverted to his brawler persona and “put the Bible down and lived like the Devil for four to five years.”

Years and a couple of transfers later, he saw his new cellmate reading a Bible and unpacked his own from a black garbage bag. He threw it on the desk and said, “I’m a Christian too.” The man, who had been watching Close’s violent behavior, replied, “I can’t tell.”

“In any other situation, those would have been fighting words, but God broke my heart,” Close says. “I wanted people to be able to tell. So from that point on, I tried to live my life so people can tell.”

Close was eventually transferred to Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility in Cañon City. One of the chaplains, Dan Matsche, played bass at Woodmen Valley Chapel in Colorado Springs. He would bring staff members and the worship team into the prison for special events and began to introduce them to Close. He wanted to make sure that if Close ever did get out, he’d have a home and somewhere to go.

After five years in Territorial, in 2011 the Colorado Supreme Court reviewed Close’s case and reduced his sentence. He went from thinking he was going to die in prison to sitting at home in six weeks. God cleared the way so that he was allowed to break normal parole protocol, and he began coordinating the prison ministry at Woodmen. On top of that, he is now associate chaplain at Limon, the very place where he spent the majority of his prison sentence. He’s been out of prison for eight years and has been spearheading statewide prison aftercare efforts ever since.

A NEW PRISON CAMPUS

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2018, volunteers from Woodmen held a worship service in the yard at Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility in Ordway, led by Ron DeLorenzo. Close and others had been encouraging Woodmen lead pastor Josh Lindstrom to visit the prison, and for various reasons it hadn’t worked out. That day he was finally free to visit, and what he saw inspired him.

The following Sunday, Lindstrom got up on stage and told all 6,000 people watching the simulcast from Woodmen’s campuses, “It’s like we have a campus and a de facto campus pastor in the prison,” essentially putting the onus on Close and the prison ministry team to realize the vision of making Ark Valley an official campus.

“We began to ask ourselves, apart from these men being incarcerated, how different would they be from any of our other campuses?” Lindstrom says. “As our elders, staff and the men of Ark Valley prayed about it, it was clear to us that this was a step we all wanted to take.” Close spent the next several months working with the Colorado Department of Corrections and the ministry team inside the prison to make the dream a reality.

In August 2018, Ark Valley became an official campus under the umbrella of Woodmen Valley Chapel. On Saturdays, Close takes a team of volunteers to Ark Valley to worship with the inmates. Each of the Woodmen campuses has a unique field guide, and recently the 10 inmates on the Ark Valley lead team worked with the prison ministry staff at Woodmen to revamp their programming. They created prayer groups and pod-based community groups that often are better attended than the Saturday services. Close jokes that the Ark Valley inmate-led campus runs just like any other Woodmen campus except there’s no children’s ministry and no mission trips.

Since its launch, the new campus has already been bearing fruit. Around 500 men showed up for the Ark Valley campus launch event in the prison yard. Joe was one of them.

Joe was an ex-gang leader, covered in tattoos—including horns on his forehead. He doesn’t know why he went to the yard event launch, other than it was held outdoors on a sunny day. Lindstrom gave the benediction and said, “We’re going to be here every Saturday. We want you to belong to something. Society has thrown you out, but Christ doesn’t throw you out, and neither will we.”

“When Joe heard Josh preach and that the reason we were there was to create belonging and community, it resonated with him,” Close says.

Joe kept coming to events until he was released. One of the Woodmen prison staff began bringing Joe to church on Sundays, helping him fix his bicycle and surrounding him with Christian fellowship. Joe eventually came to Christ and started plugging in at Woodmen where he’s thriving.

“Joe was a success story of how Christ changes lives. He feels very much a part Woodmen. Woodmen is his home,” Close says. “Our campuses all roar when they hear about him. They love hearing his story.”

A RIPPLE OF CHANGE

Like Close, Stephen Wilson, pastor of prison ministries at Gateway Church based in Southlake, Texas, can speak to residents of prisons from the perspective of someone who has served time.

Wilson, formerly a teacher and coach, turned himself in to the police and served what he calls a 12-year sentence (one year in prison, one year on parole and 10 years registered as a sex offender) for attempted indecency with a child due to an inappropriate relationship with one of his high school students.

Wilson grew up in a Southern Baptist church, and had head knowledge of the Bible, but had never submitted his life to Christ. That changed when he went to the county prison to serve his time and saw fellow residents holding hands and praying in a prayer circle. “It blew me away. I’d never thought about those things happening in prison,” Wilson says. “So I just said, ‘OK, God, I get it. When I get out, I’m going to come back and reach those guys just like that.’”

After Wilson was released, he got an M.Div. at Liberty University and started a nonprofit called G3 Prison Ministries to reach prisoners with the Word of God. G3 partnered with Gateway to take volunteer teams into prisons in the state of Texas, focusing on strengthening the families of prisoners.

“It’s all about reentry and the ripple effect of guys who get out and change their families, churches and communities,” Wilson says. “It’s amazing to watch the ripple effect of guys who accept Christ in prison.”

DISCIPLING A ‘CAPTIVE AUDIENCE’

After seven years of partnership, Gateway brought G3 under its umbrella with the idea of planting a church inside the walls of the Coffield Unit prison in unincorporated Anderson County.

The Texas megachurch with multiple campuses has a robust volunteer training program and an endless stream of curriculum to draw upon. Wilson simply burned the training materials onto DVDs and used it to train residents of Coffield the same way he would train volunteers and ministry staff at any other Gateway campus. Wilson sees this as key: Making residents feel as if they’re a part of Gateway Church.

One offender said, “Gateway comes in and makes things feel human. Everywhere else I’m a number. They [Gateway] don’t treat me any different. They treat me like a human.”

On November 28, 2018, the Coffield campus was officially launched with over 300 in attendance, and was announced to the rest of the campuses in late January 2019. The Coffield campus of Gateway Church is now totally led by offenders with volunteer oversight. The campus has a live production and altar ministry with ushers and a worship team. They even have their own printed bulletins with images of their fellow residents and Coffield-specific announcements and prayer requests.

“When we teach them, we’re not doing it for them to serve at Gateway Church. If they come out and are looking for a church home, of course they’re welcome,” Wilson says. “But I’m just trying to train up leaders for any church.”

Recently, a woman named Tia visited Gateway Church and told one of the pastors, “My husband is incarcerated, and I went to visitation and all he could do was talk about Gateway Church and what an impact it had on him. He told me when I left visitation to go straight to a Gateway Church tonight, and here I am.”

Wilson and the prison ministry volunteers began to get to know Tia as she kept visiting. One night, she shared her testimony in a prison ministry interest meeting, and afterward they invited her out with them to dinner.

A month later, Wilson was visiting Coffield, and a large man came up to him and gave him a big hug. It was Tia’s husband, Jason.

“Pastor Stephen, I’ve got to thank you for what you’ve done for my wife,” he said. When Wilson downplayed it, he responded, “You don’t get it. You took her out to eat after the service. My wife came to visitation and cried on my shoulder and said, ‘Jason, now I have a vision for what you and I can do when you get out.’”

“That just blew me away. It’s the little things that we take for granted,” Wilson says. “He came to Christ in prison and his wife wasn’t a Christian. He’s able to lead his wife to Christ, and when he gets out his whole family will be following Christ because of what’s happened to him.”

MINISTERING BEHIND BARS

Woodmen, Gateway and many other churches have found success incorporating campuses inside prisons. But even if your church isn’t equipped to sustain a prison campus, you can have a powerful impact on the lives of prisoners in other ways.

1. Visiting Prisoners

It’s telling that Jesus made a point to draw attention to prisoners at the beginning (Luke 4:18–19) and end (Matt. 25:35–36) of his ministry. Many of the chief actors in the Bible served time in prison. A survey of the Old and New Testaments reveals a catalog of prisoners God has seen fit to use in powerful ways. Perhaps this is because prisoners are so easily forgotten or written off as hopeless causes.

“All too often, when we encounter the formerly incarcerated, we do not see them as brothers and sisters who reflect God’s image. We usually view them with suspicion and interact cautiously with them,” Dominique Dubois Gilliard writes in Rethinking Incarceration. “Furthermore, when we do go into prisons and detention centers, we frequently do not believe that people behind bars are capable of returning as citizens who can make our neighborhoods better places.”

The most powerful gift a church volunteer can give to a prisoner is the gift of presence—affirming their worth as image bearers of God.

“When a volunteer walks into prison, the thing the prisoners are most grateful for is them just being there. They’re overwhelmed just because they were there,” Close says. “You don’t need to have been through what they’ve been though. Giving them your time on earth—no one else gives them that. We bestow value and worth by our very presence.”

Wilson says another powerful way your church can reach prisoners is by reaching their families. Children of incarcerated parents are five times more likely than their peers to commit crimes. Removing a parent creates a tear in the fabric of that prisoner’s family. Your church can make a huge impact by doing something as simple as sponsoring families or buying Christmas gifts, taking the kids to a baseball game or providing babysitting for a parent’s day out.

Wilson says if you do those kinds of things “you just changed that family’s whole future.”

2. Bridging the Gap Between Prison and Society

Currently in the U.S. there are around 2.3 million prisoners, equivalent to the population of Houston. Close to 90% of those prisoners will one day rejoin society. Whether or not they succeed in reintegrating is largely due to the resources they’re given access to in prison.

“While God’s story sometimes includes punishment, isolation and harsh consequences, God’s justice moves toward restoration, reintegration and redemption,” Gilliard writes. “God’s justice is inherently connected to healing the harmed, restoring what has been lost and reconciling those who are estranged from God and community.”

Programs, education and mentors are key ways your church can reach out to prisoners. Recently, Stephen Wilson and volunteers took the curriculum from Gateway’s annual XO marriage conference and held an event for prisoners and their spouses at Coffield with a sub sandwich station that offered fresh fruits and veggies prisoners don’t usually have.

“It blows them away that we can love on them and give back and serve them,” Wilson says. “A lot of them have spent their lives looking inwardly instead of outwardly.”

Prisoners are often in need of large-print paperback Bibles (easier for those who struggle to read) and other training materials to which they don’t always have access, along with basic toiletries and personal care items. After you’ve checked with the prison warden to see what kind of items are needed and allowed in your local prison, your church could do a prison care package drive.

Wilson also recommends thinking about the programming your church does best, then going to talk to your sheriff or the head of your city’s corrections department to ask what the needs are and how your church can best help. Each state has their own regulations for how churches can get involved, and each prison has its own security guidelines that may limit what churches are allowed to do, so they are your best inroads to prison ministry.

“Today’s offender is tomorrow’s neighbor,” Wilson says. “While we have a ‘captive audience,’ why not train them and disciple them and help them become the men (and women) God’s called them to be?”

3. Partnering With the Church Inside

Seeing prison as a mission field is a recurring theme in prison ministry. The key to changing behaviors is changing hearts. The trajectory of prison ministry is toward equipping church leaders within the prison system.

“I view our work as training indigenous gospel leaders to bring the good news of Jesus and his kingdom to a closed mission field. It’s a far more effective model than sending the occasional pastoral team to minister inside prison walls,” Brown says of Angola. “Our guys are there 24/7 while outsiders can only be there sporadically. The ministry is lived inside this environment and the good news is communicated in both word and deed at all times of the day.”

This model of ministry is driving a new wave of churches to partner with church leaders inside prisons rather than feeling the need to take over. Vibrant two-way partnerships are being forged between churches on the outside and churches on the inside.

“The impact our Ark Valley campus has made on Woodmen is difficult to quantify. Simply put, it has been one of the most exciting things we have done in the last few years,” Lindstrom says. “For the men inside, I think the formal relationship and consistency reminds them they have not been forgotten. For those outside at our other campuses, they are thrilled to see such dramatic life change in the lives of our Ark Valley brothers and love having the opportunity to get involved in it.”

As more and more churches discover the power of collaborating with church leaders inside prisons through equipping them and/or incorporating their churches as campuses, they are discovering that the gospel is very much living and active in these often neglected places.

“While I can appreciate that prison ministry can be daunting at first, at the end of the day prisons are an often untapped mission field,” Lindstrom says. “The men at our Ark Valley campus have a tremendous opportunity before them. We feel we are just getting started.”

Read more about how your church can reach prisoners at OutreachMagazine.com/prison-ministry.

RESOURCES AND OPPORTUNITIES

Churches that aren’t ready or equipped to add a prison campus can still reach out to prisoners in myriad ways. These resources and ministries are a helpful introduction for a church of any size:

Cain’s Redemption (Northfield Press)—The story of warden Burl Cain’s efforts to transform Angola from the most violent U.S. prison into a model of reform.

Rethinking Incarceration (IVP)—A comprehensive look at the U.S. prison system and how the message of the gospel speaks to matters of prison reform.

Crossroads Prison Ministries—Connects prisoners with volunteer mentors and Bible correspondence courses.

Global Prison Seminaries Foundation—Helps facilitate creating seminaries in prisons. Started by Burl Cain.

Kairos Prison Ministry—Addresses the spiritual needs of prisoners and their families through programs and long-term support.

Koinonia House National Ministries—Provides post-prison aftercare resources.

Lifeline Global Ministries—Launched in 2004 at Angola by Awana co-founder Art Rorheim and then president/CEO Jack Eggar, this ministry equips inmates in 220 prisons globally to become the fathers and mothers God intends through their Malachi Dads and Hannah’s Gift (moms) programs.

Prison Fellowship—Helps reconcile all affected by crime to God, their families and their communities. Started by Chuck Colson, Prison Fellowship is the largest Christian nonprofit for prisoners and justice reform.

Prisoners for Christ—Brings the gospel to men, women and juveniles in prison.

World Impact—Partners with reentry homes, local churches and mentors to move incarcerated leaders toward success and incorporation into the body of believers through Incarceration to Incorporation (I2I).