In the Mail

Our church’s ministry to those in prison

Who would have guessed that a simple act of obedience to Matthew 25:36 would result in more blessing than one church could handle?

In that passage, Jesus says, “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.”

After reading that back in 2004, I decided to use traditional letters through the U.S. mail to “visit” people in prison and walk with them through the gospel. When word got out, people in my church, Austin Oaks Church (EFCA)*, began to give me names of loved ones who were incarcerated. I learned there was already a thirst for the gospel among the inmates, when one wrote back to me: Could another person be included in our letter writing?

Little by little, word spread from inmate to inmate, and from prison to prison.

As other members of Austin Oaks saw the growth and what God was doing, they joined me. So what had been a personal ministry became a ministry of the church, called New Life in Christ.

Now, the ministry is simply overwhelming. As members of the writing team come into the mailroom, there are hundreds of letters to sort. Each of our 50 volunteers has a file where his or her letters are kept, but one pile in particular stands out: the dozens of unclaimed letters. These signify individuals who are looking for hope from a person they will never meet—someone who speaks to them as a human being (rather than a criminal) and shares God’s truth.

Small beginnings

I started by writing original material that would clearly present the gospel and invite inmates to respond. In time, our team created two sets of interactive lessons: “12 Steps for New Life in Christ” and “Walking in Grace.”

Most prisoners are not allowed to have Internet access or use email. Therefore, New Life in Christ depends only upon pen, paper, envelopes and stamps. Each letter we mail contains a worksheet and a return envelope with postage. As the inmate completes the worksheet, it becomes filled with handwritten questions, prayer requests and other comments in the margins.

The volunteer then writes responses in the white space on the paper until the whole page becomes a beautiful mess of questions and answers centered around the gospel. The studies create interaction between the inmate and the church, as well as—most importantly—between the inmate and the gospel.

Here are a handful of responses our volunteers have received:

  • “I desperately want/need an intimate relationship with God, but I feel like it just isn’t happening, that maybe I am so full of evil, darkness that God just can’t or won’t dwell here . . . please pray for me.”
  • “God bless you both and thank you for the Christmas card. No one has wrote me or sent me a card and God did through you two. Thanks.”
  • “Thank you. I needed this lesson Sooo MUCH!”

Prison policy states that the letters cannot share personal information or pictures—only first names and a P.O. Box address. No promises can be made or gifts given, and the relationship cannot continue once the inmate is released. The prison even reads and checks every word that goes in and out. What remains on paper is the gospel and the testimony of what God is doing in their lives.

An eighty-fold increase

The first studies were mailed to 10 inmates who had been referred by family members or by another ministry. We now see more than 800 involved, and more than 500 have made written commitments to Christ.

Each inmate works at his or her pace through one of the studies, usually taking several months. Throughout that time, one volunteer reads the work of that inmate and responds with encouragement and prayer.

Some inmates have never known Jesus. More often, they consider themselves to be Christians already but never knew that believing in Him could change their lives. Their early life experiences have taught them not to trust anyone.

When prisoners encounter Jesus and His teachings in a format that allows for sharing thoughts and feelings in confidence, the result often is powerful. Then, when they receive a handwritten response, they get a message of God’s faithful love that helps them begin to trust again.

This ministry is simple, requiring no special skills, just a knowledge of the gospel and a few hours of training. Usually, volunteers pick up their mail at the church office on Sunday, write their responses during the week and return the outgoing mail on the following Sunday.

Volunteers are stretched to learn and grow in their own understanding of how great is the gospel of Jesus as they serve as discipleship mentors, prayer partners and “listeners.” They are not “pen pals”; instead, their roles are closer to that of counselors or chaplains.

With each letter, each comment written, we desire to faithfully collect the harvest that God brings, and we pray for more workers in the field.

*formerly First EFC of Austin, Texas

New Life in Christ has now expanded into prisons outside Texas, so we are actively looking for churches to join us. We would be glad to share our materials and everything we have learned. To learn more, contact Austin Oaks Church at (512) 891-1600 or email Scott Smith (co-leader of New Life in Christ).

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