the shape of leadership

A Heart for Prisoners

Four ways to mobilize believers to do prison ministry through your church

Eric J Earhart on February 16, 2022

The loudspeaker crackled to life: “Christian services in the chow hall in 15 minutes. All inmates attending line up for escort.”

I was incarcerated, and this was my eighth prison in three years. Because I had gotten to know the chaplain, I decided to attend this service.

When I entered the chow hall, I got my first look at Brother Mickey and Sister Linda. An unassuming couple in their early 50s, they were greeting many of the inmates by name. (I later learned they had been volunteering at the state penitentiary for 25 years — coming back week after week, despite the challenges of prison ministry.)

After opening with prayer, Mickey started strumming his guitar, and the small gathering raised their voices in worship.

“This is the day, this is the day that the Lord has made,” they sang. “We will rejoice … .”

After worship, we settled into a simple time of sharing. As one inmate talked about his struggles and hopes, others flipped through the pages of their Bibles to find an appropriate verse for the occasion.

This was my introduction to the Assemblies of God. Little did I know I would one day plant a church and pastor a congregation that included Mickey and Linda.


The Opportunity

What if every congregation in the Assemblies of God had a Mickey and a Linda? What if every district had a vision and a plan for reaching millions of lost souls in prison? What if every parolee had a church to call home and a support network of Christian friends?

I believe Jesus wants every church in the Assemblies of God to have a prison ministry.

The need is great. More than 2 million people are incarcerated in the U.S., according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. On top of that, there are millions of people like me: felons who have done their time and walk among us.

While it would be easy to see only the scope of the problem, the Lord wants us to see the size of the opportunity. Most prisoners will be released at some point. They need church families to encourage them on their journeys. They need hope for the future.

Every time I share my testimony at a church, members of the congregation ask, “How can I get involved? How can I help reach someone like you?”

Imagine the possibilities if nearly 13,000 AG churches had at least one Mickey or Linda. Could a great awakening come from the prisons and jails of America?

Even the federal government acknowledges that faith-based volunteers are making a difference in the lives of prisoners.

A document on the U.S. Department of Justice website titled “Myths About Collaboration Between Corrections and Faith-Based Groups” says, “Preliminary research suggests that outside volunteers, especially faith-based people, can be an indispensable catalyst of positive transformation in the attitudes, behavior, and rates of successful reentry of prisoners.”

Jesus began and ended His earthly ministry by identifying with the prisoner. In Nazareth, He read from Isaiah 58:6 and 61:1–2, declaring, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18–19).

Every member of the Body has a role to play in building the Kingdom and reaching the lost.

Just before His crucifixion, Jesus reminded His followers in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats to visit “the least of these” in prison (Matthew 25:31–46).

Although He had done nothing wrong, Jesus himself died a criminal’s death. And as He hung on the cross, He invited a convicted criminal into the Kingdom.


The Vision

Some may believe prison ministry is the territory of chaplains. However, all Christians should be concerned about reaching the incarcerated. While our seasoned chaplains are a rich resource for institutional knowledge and training, they need the help of local congregations.

Others may assume every inmate already has access to a personal presentation of the gospel. That is simply not the case. Prison ministry happens only where someone has a heart for inmates, a vision for reaching them, and a plan of action.

What would it take to get the gospel into every penal facility in every community? We need the involvement of ordinary church members with extraordinary compassion. We need to motivate, mobilize and equip parishioners to visit those in prison and disciple them after their release.

The pastor’s job is to “equip [God’s] people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Ephesians 4:12). Every member of the Body has a role to play in building the Kingdom and reaching the lost.

Here are four ways to mobilize believers to do prison ministry through your church:

1. Regularly tell the stories of those who have been set free. One way to do this is by bringing in chaplains, volunteers and converts to share testimonies.

2. Partner with existing prison ministries. Consider Assemblies of God U.S. Missions Chaplaincy Ministries, Prison Fellowship, and Yokefellows International.

3. Recruit a local prison ministry leader. This person can create a pipeline that connects volunteers from your church with prison ministries.

Arthur Mitchell, a former inmate, leads our church’s prison ministry at Upper Room Assembly in Gatesville, North Carolina. He is an Assemblies of God pastor today because of a local church’s prison ministry.

4. Host an annual Prison Ministry Sunday. Bring in a special speaker to raise awareness. This can be an ideal time to recruit volunteers, pray for chaplains, and collect an offering for prison ministry.


The Calling

In Romans 10:13, Paul proclaimed that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” He then asked four compelling questions:

How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? (verses 14–15).

God often calls people to ministry through the testimonies of others who are serving. Your church members need to catch the vision often for reaching the lost in prison. The size of your congregation doesn’t matter. Whether you have 16 people or 600, it only takes one to respond.

Prison ministry is no less important than children’s ministry, women’s ministry, men’s ministry or youth ministry. Jesus loves the lost, even those in prison. He came to save the spiritually lost. And He calls us to take this good news to the “streets and alleys … the roads and country lanes” (Luke 14:21–23) — and to the jails and prisons.


This article appears in the Winter 2022 edition of Influence magazine.

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