How to Start a Prison Ministry

by Jack Wellman · Print Print · Email Email

One of the most neglected fields to witness to are behind bars.  Those who are in prison are often written off as hopeless.  The truth is, you can make an eternal difference by starting a prison ministry. Here’s how.

Setting the Captives Free

Jesus once said in Matthew 25:36 that “I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.”  Was Jesus ever in prison?  No, but He was taken captive and then later crucified . What Jesus was saying here is that when we visit the sick, we are visiting Him; when we clothe the poor, we actually clothe Him; and when we visited prisoners, we really visited Him.  These three groups of people have one thing in common; they are all neglected.  Jesus is saying that when you visit what the world considers the least of these in the world, you are visiting Him.  When we minister to these, we are really ministering to Jesus.

Beginning a Prison Ministry

he truth is, you can make an eternal difference by starting a prison ministry.

The truth is, you can make an eternal difference by starting a prison ministry.

I believe that the first step to beginning a prison ministry is to do these three things:  (1) Pray, (2) Pray again, and finally (3) Pray some more. Nothing moves God without first beginning with prayer and no ministry can ever move forward except it be on their knees.  Dedicate time for this specific purpose of God opening a door and showing you the way to begin a prison ministry.  Unless you bathe the idea in prayer you will never get it off the ground.  Before you do anything for Christ you take it to God in prayer.  Prayer is quintessential to any ministry that a person or church does so begin there and never let it end in all the process.

1. Get a Clear Plan of What you Want to Do

Before you make contact with any authorities, have a specific plan in place. You want to make sure that you have the city and counties best interests at heart.  Prisoners will often shy away from pure Bible teaching or preaching.  They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.  Your first visits will always be a getting acquainted type of meeting.  What are their interests?  Do they plan on developing a trade or have an interest in a particular occupation if they are to be released?  Even if you are unable to gain access to prisoners, you can at least minister to them through biblical literature; provide them with trade journals or magazines.  Make sure you are clear with your intentions.

2. Talk With People – Especially Former Prisoners

Talking with former prisoners is also a great resource.  Speak with the local sheriff to see if such a ministry is already in place.  Use the telephone to make an appointment to meet in person.  Use the same procedure with the city; speak to the local Chief of Police in person to see what steps are needed.  A personal visit is always more successful than a phone call or a letter.  You will find local and county officials more open to the idea if you have a plan in place, which will be discussed later.

3. Face to Face Meeting

You may not be able to schedule a face to face meeting. Sometimes county and city authorities like the Chief of Police (for cities) or Sheriff (for counties) are reluctant at first. State and Federal prison systems are more stringent. Sometimes these facilities have prisoners that are quarantined and are only allowed visits by family and the visitation sometimes may only be possible behind a glass partition.  And they may have limited visitation times as well.  State and Federal systems are usually located at a greater distance from most locations and are less accessible than those of a city or county so gaining access to them is strategically more difficult.

4. See if there is a Ministerial Alliance

Some cities have a Ministerial Alliance which is an organization where the churches cooperate to work together for a common purpose for a city. Some counties also have such an alliance.  Getting in touch with any Ministerial Alliance is a good beginning to see if they have any plan in place for a prison ministry.  These organizations are also valuable volunteer resources with a broad base of experience that you may want to tap. Try to schedule an in-person visit with the local head of a Ministerial Alliance.  This brings up an important point.  Two men or women, depending upon which type of prisoners are wanting to be served, more often makes it easier to develop a plan and to minister to the prisoners together. You don’t have to be an ordained minister, elder, deacon or have attended seminary to have a prison ministry.  In a sense, we are all ministers of God.

5. Consider Your Own Record

Some local and county jails may require a background check which includes a criminal background check.  They might run a check on you to see if you have any outstanding bench warrants or unpaid fines or tickets.  Don’t worry about it (unless you have some unpaid fines!).   This is normal procedure. By the way, some institutions do not have a regular Sunday service.  Even fewer have a Wednesday night Bible study.  A  Church service in the prisons or jails is run somewhat like any other local church with a few exceptions.   I recommend that you check with the local chaplain or religious activities coordinator (if there is one) before your first service to make sure that you understand the customs of the group.  You also don’t need to be duplicating services since they may have already filled the need.  The members of the Christian community in most prisons get along with each other much better than those on the outside, and many consider the service to be “their” church.  If you cannot be there Sunday mornings since you may be attending your own church, then perhaps you can offer them a Sunday evening service or a Wednesday night one.

6. Keep it Non-Denominational

Because of the interdenominational nature of the group you will be dealing with, and the mixed group of preachers who conduct the services, it is important that you not emphasize doctrinal distinctives. There is a wealth of material in the Bible that you can use without having to go into the small number of areas that many do not agree on. Keep in mind, most prisoners will be either babies in Christ, or they will be unsaved, so keep it simple. The main thing is to keep the main thing, the main thing; and that is Christ and Him crucified for them. You do not want to divide the inmates on doctrinal differences. It is best to go with the milk of the Word and stay away from the meatier things of the Bible.  This is not seminary.  No preaching, but just teaching.  Let them have input. Don’t dominate or cut off other prisoners if they have something to offer.

7. Always Show Respect

Always follow the directives and orders of the prison guards or jail staff. Never deviate or talk down about these officials in front of prisoners. And be consistent.  If you are scheduled to start at 6 p.m. then by all means, be there at 6 p.m.  You have to count the cost before you are willing to do any ministry because if you begin something and then don’t follow through, you are hurting the witness of Christians everywhere.  You can be a huge source for disappointment to them if you do not show up when you say you will or do not do what you said you would do and bring what you said you would bring.  You might want to have someone else on board with you or maybe even a few people in case you have to be gone or get sick for the time you’re scheduled to be there.

8. Kill Your Pride

Never get into an argument with them about the Bible.  They may try to persuade you about something that is not essential to salvation, like speaking in tongues, so don’t go there.  Leave the controversies to the TV talk shows.  If you make a mistake, admit you were wrong and move on. They will appreciate honesty and humility more than being dogmatic about some doctrinal issue. Be upfront with them about your own background. Relate any mistakes that you have made in the past. Transparency breaks down barriers and crumbles walls of partition between you and the prisoners. I often make admissions of my own sins, mistakes, and faults to my congregation and this increases the likelihood of their opening up and revealing their own faults.

If you can’t do this in person because you feel you can’t be consistent or you might even have a criminal record, then you can also inquire about writing letters to inmates.  Many prisoners are desperate for contact with the outside world.  There are so many organizations that are ready to give you help in this. You can even use a pen name and use a box number or general delivery at the post office to remain anonymous.


The writer of Hebrews probably knew what it was like to be in prison.  Whether the writer was Paul or not, we do not know for sure but we do know Paul was well acquainted with life in prison.  In Hebrews it speaks to all Christians today by telling us “Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering” (Heb 13:3).  Most people don’t even know that this is in the Bible and neither do they know that Jesus equates visiting those in prison with visiting Him.  Today, Jesus is freeing those who are held captive by the Devil (Luke 4:18).  If you are not a believer, then God is not your Father…Satan is (Matt 13:38; John 8:44; Acts 13:10; 1 John 3:10).  If you know the truth about Jesus Christ, then this truth will set you free (John 8:32).  Many are being set free behind the prison walls today.  Many there have repented and put their trust in Christ and even though they are behind prison bars, they are freer than most who live on the outside.  Trust in Him today and you too can be set free.

Read Jack’s personal testimony here: How I Was Set Free in Prison

Resource: New International Version Bible (NIV) THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide

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