Can You Have A Church Without A Prison Ministry?

A prison cell is pictured inside Alcatra


Now that I’m done with school, I’ve found myself flipping through Netflix, Hulu, and every other option I can find on Apple TV to catch up on shows I’ve missed.

The other day I came across a PBS special called Prison State.

It’s a Frontline feature on what is, by most accounts, the deeply flawed American penal system. As I listened to the countless stories of men and women languishing in prison for what in many cases was far longer than seems reasonable, I found myself asking a question I had never really thought about before.

Can you have a church without a prison ministry?

Now, I know lots of churches do have prison ministries – intentional efforts to reach out to inmates at a local prison through jailhouse worship services, Bible studies, educational opportunities, or a whole host of other things.

I also know, at least from my own experience, that this isn’t true for a lot of churches and even in the churches that do have prison ministries, only a handful of church members are actually involved.

I say this as one of those people who usually wasn’t involved. So maybe this is just an exercise in trying to assuage my own guilt. But as I watched the show on PBS several things began racing through my mind.

First, in my own experience, it seems that the primary reason few people at our churches are involved in prison ministry is fairly obvious – prisons are scary and we’d rather not go to there, like ever. Combine this the logistical challenges of working in or just visiting a prison and you’ve got a recipe for church folks never visiting prison folks.

But more than just being scary places, I think we ignore our call to prison ministry because unlike our caricature of the noble poor person, prisoners, we assume, are getting what they deserve. Maybe so. I’m not implying whatsoever that pedophiles, murderers, rapists, and the like don’t deserve to be in prison. But for us church folks, for a people who celebrate and talk about grace so much, isn’t it more than a bit ironic that we refuse to extend grace to some because they don’t deserve it?

After all, what if Jesus took that same attitude towards us and our own sins?

Which is why I think it’s so strange that prison ministry isn’t just an assumed part of the life of the church. I mean, when it comes to our Matthew 25 calling – I was hungry, did you feed me? I was thirsty, did you give me something to drink? I was naked, did you clothe me? I was sick, did you take care of me? I was in prison, did you come and visit me? – we’ve usually got all of those ministries down, no problem……except for the last one. We’ll raise thousands of dollars, use up our vacation days, and travel halfway around the world on a mission trip, but drive a few minutes down the road at virtually no cost to spend a few hours visiting folks in prison?

Not so much.

Now, I know that it probably goes without saying that there is profound suffering in our nation’s prisons. And I know some of those people really, really deserve to suffer. But a lot of them don’t. At least not to the extent that they do for reasons that range from the reprehensible – institutional racism – to the ridiculous – the war on drugs. And as if to pour salt on their wounds, we give them almost no chance whatsoever at putting their life back together. If you don’t believe me, find someone who’s spent time in prison – not overnight in jail for a DUI, but actual long-term prison – and asking them how easy it was to get their life back together after they got out and how many people – the church included – were willing to give them another chance.

Which is why if we do get our act together, our prison ministries must not stop at the prison walls. Once freed, former prisoners face what can feel like an insurmountable number of obstacles standing in the way of putting their life back together – from social stigma to lack of education and training to the inability to secure a job or even housing because of their criminal record. Which means if we do get our act together and answer Jesus’ call to care of those in prison, we must also be active in helping them put their lives back together once they are freed.

And so, for me, it all comes back to the simple fact that, as Christians, we have a clear and unequivocal call from the one we call God to care for those in prison. Which means for all the great things we do with food pantries and clothing drives and visiting folks in the hospital and feeding the homeless, if we stop there, then, to borrow a popular phrase, we’ve got a glaring hole in our gospel that we can’t account for.

So, can you have a church without a prison ministry?

I don’t mean do churches technically exist in the world that don’t have a prision ministry.

I mean, can we be the body of Christ, a people who claim to embody Jesus to the world by answering his call to serve the world and yet completely ignoring the millions languishing behind bars because they make us uncomfortable or because going to visit them might be inconvenient or because we simply believe they don’t deserve our help?

I’m not sure you can. At least not a very healthy one.

Again, I’m preaching to the choir here because I’ve only visited prison twice. Once was with my church, the other a school field trip (Worst. Field Trip. Ever.)

I know there are plenty of churches out there doing great things that don’t have a prison ministry and I know that not every church is down the street from a prison. But we can’t avoid the clear call of Jesus to care for our brothers and sisters behind bars simply because it’s inconvenient and makes uncomfortable.

Sure, most of our churches aren’t down the street from the state penitentiary, but I’m willing to bet there’s a jail within driving distance that, if we really wanted to, we could put together a group and go visit.

But I guess that’s the real catch in all of this.

Do we really want to serve people behind bars?

Are we really willing to count them, like Jesus did, among the least of these and extend them grace?

Or would we rather keep our grace locked up safely behind the walls of the church?

Can we find the love in our hearts to accept folks in prison as people made in the image of God and not just faceless, worthless criminals?

Or are we content keeping them out of sight and out of mind?

Because if that’s the case, if we can’t find the love, grace, and courage to make prison ministry as vital a part of our churches as caring for the sick, the hungry, and the destitute, then it seems to me that we’re going to have a lot of explaining to do come judgment day.


  • Ed_Cyzewski
    May 23, 2014

    Thanks for bringing this up Zack. My years serving in prison ministry were some of the most joyful periods of my life. The men were always so grateful that I came in. And it was such a wonderful place to keep revisiting the hope of the Gospel and to actually see how redemption can work. There were some key moments in my life that have saved my faith, and serving in prison was one of them. I can’t recommend prison ministry enough. There are so many men and women who just need someone to listen to them and who are eager to learn about the Gospel.

  • Missionarymike
    May 23, 2014

    Thanks for the post. Some of our earliest ministry was in prisons. We were members of a hyper-spiritual charismatic church at the time. It was impossible to gather a team to go with us. They loved doing “spiritual warfare as long as it meant dancing and prancing in a church meeting. Today in Russia we minister every week to men and women who have just come out of prison. They are a very fruitful field, White for harvest, as Jesus would say.

  • Brooke F
    May 23, 2014


  • Jeff Miller
    May 23, 2014

    Great post, Zack. I’m currently working as a prison chaplain in Nebraska. Different state policies obviously vary, but, in Nebraska, as a state employee, I don’t get the opportunity to do much in the way of actual, direct, Kingdom advancing ministry myself (I can’t preach/teach, and I can only speak with inmates about my own faith unless they directly inquire about it–my official title is actually “Religious Coordinator” instead of “Chaplain” now). Instead, I function mainly as a facilitator, trainer, and resource to outside volunteers who CAN do actual Kingdom-advancing ministry here. I bring this up mainly to say that prison ministry, at least in my state, is utterly dependent on volunteers bringing the Gospel.
    I would also note, with incredible gratitude to the Christian volunteers who I do work with, that in my experience with 2 different correctional facilities, 95% of Christian ministers who come in are very old-school and (again, I say with great gratitude) tend to be rather fundamentalist. It would serve the Kingdom tremendously, I think, for younger ministers with greater skills in connecting with the younger prison population and deep understanding of the person and grace of Jesus Christ would consider coming and reflecting Him inside of prison walls.

  • Christine
    May 24, 2014

    I’m gonna say that if the church was doing its job in the world, the number of people incarcerated would be far fewer, too

  • Mandy R-G
    May 26, 2014

    Thanks so much for this. Having walked with a close family member through dying of cancer in a federal prison, I can assure your readers that there is much more suffering going on in prisons than most of us know or care to expose ourselves to. I would also challenge us to read the Matthew 25 passage in such a way that we understand what Jesus is saying…. when you did it to them, you did it to me….as indicating that we will, in fact, *meet* Christ in the poor, the sick, the prisoners. In other words, it is not simply about *us* bring the gospel to “them.” In some sense, we will gain a deeper understanding of the gospel and grace through our relationships with them. Jesus identifies *himself* with the poor and prisoner. Indeed, the Jesus we worship was executed as a criminal.

  • Judith Brandsness Wolford
    May 27, 2014

    one must never forget that Jesus was a prisoner, too.

  • Adam Bull
    May 28, 2014

    Good Job mate on this, I’ve been serving full time in South Africa’s prison for the last 5 years, and not only have I been able to help young men in prison but it’s also helped me grow massively as a man of God, shaping my character and it’s also been a blessing to my church and the many churches I’ve been able to bring in the prison. I would encourage everyone and every church to get behind a program/ministry or church that is involved in Prison, don’t just start something new, partner with each other, learn from those who have been in the prison ministry world for a while. And the biggest thing, is to understand that prison ministry in not just behind bars but walking with guys outside, that’s where the temptation is most, is your church ready to welcome in and love an ex offender?

  • alicia
    June 1, 2014

    The church of Jesus Christ of latter day saints holds Sunday school classes and I believe institute or religious educational classes in prisons and jails. It’s a wonderful thing

    • alicia
      June 1, 2014

      But it would be a growing experience to have the regular congregation join every once in a while. My experience visiting a friend and then a brother in jail was humbling and I knew it’s what the Savior did and would have me do

  • Kenny Scott
    June 9, 2014

    A 15 minute podcast you may find encouraging…

    The Orthodox church has a day (the 6th Sunday after Pascha) designated for Prison Ministry Awareness.

  • R Vogel
    June 17, 2014

    Great article, Zach. Not every church is near a prison, but I would imagine very few are too far from the neighborhoods from which the majority of inmates hail and return to. I really appreciate what you said about the challenges facing former inmates as well. As one with many family members and friends who were/are inmates I can tell you that in the information age it follows you for the rest of your life. Your ‘debt to society’ never seems to get paid. This make recidivism very high.

  • Theo
    June 28, 2014

    After preaching a sermon on Judgment Day’s Final Exam with one of the six questions to be asked (exam questions already given to us) “How many prisoners did you go see,” I decided I needed to do more personally. Having a vast amount of therapeutic material just sitting in my files, accumulated from working in mental health for 12 years, I decided I needed to practice what I preached. Had to go through an approval process to go to the jail and conduct a therapy group (not Bible Study), one for the women and one for the men one day a week. I can tell you this has been one of the most rewarding activities I’ve ever done. The participants can’t believe that someone from the community actually cares about them this much.

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