Sunday, November 1, 2009

Reaching Into the Box: Implementing a prison ministry in the local church

By Michael C. Nadraus
"Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me." (Matthew 25:36)

I sat in a crowded visiting room a bit impatient, eagerly waiting for my friend. Every few minutes the loud click of the metal doors echoed and I would glance over to see who was coming out. Would I recognize him? Would he recognize me? I had never met him face to face, but we were brothers. I saw his face from old news clips and photos. I knew about the people he murdered, and how his life was almost taken by an inmate years ago. This time, David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam serial killer, was coming for me.

Prison ministry is a golden opportunity to reach out to inmates who have hit rock bottom. Spiritually hungry and looking for something, these prisoners truly open up their hearts and minds to the Word of God when it is preached. They are alone, lost and in need of love, a church that truly cares and of Jesus Christ.

Whether it is a county jail or a maximum-security penitentiary, these inmates are searching for something. They know they messed up and have to pay the consequences. Except for being on death row for murder or a smaller charge like marijuana possession, they are just like us, only behind concrete walls and locked cells. If we don’t reach out to them with God’s Word, who will?

To get a prison ministry on its feet is really simple. A desire in the heart of just one person, or even a few of the church members, to go and plant gospel seeds in the department of corrections in their area is the first step. A plan of action needs to be set up to make sure all the bases are covered in this ministry. Over time a core of faithful servants will emerge as those who will continue to serve in this ministry.

Present the idea to the church and begin praying for doors to open and laborers to come forth and serve. Prayer is the key to a successful ministry. The results are literally tripled on prison service days when we hold a prayer meeting the day before we go. The carnal Christian might say it’s just coincidence, but the faithful can call it by its true title, the power of God unleashed by going to Him in humble prayer. “Call unto me, and I will answer thee, and show thee great and mighty things, which thou knowest not” (Jeremiah 33:3).

Next, compile a list of area juvenile homes, federal penitentiaries, county jails and state prisons. Depending on how far your church group is willing to travel will determine the radius in which you look for them. Typically, the prison ministries I have been in will travel up to three hours away in any direction.

The Internet is a valuable tool in finding the addresses and phone numbers that are needed. Key words to look up in the search engine are “department of corrections” and the state where you live. Actual jail names will also bring up information that should get the right website where you can find the contact information. If that doesn’t work for you, a quick phone call to Information will get you the numbers needed. Playing the part of an Internet detective can score you tons of much-needed information.

Once you have a complete list of prisons, begin to call them one by one and ask for the chaplain’s office. Write down the chaplain’s name and remember it. Be personal and friendly and open with him. Let him see the enthusiasm you have, and let him hear your smile over the phone. A joyful spirit is hard not to like.

Let the chaplain know who you are, where you’re from and what you have to offer for his inmates. Anything from a one-man service and up can be done. Tell him what a service will consist of, such as special music, with possibly a guitar included, preaching, testifying and Scripture reading. The more interactive you make it sound, the more enticing it is, and the more chance you have with him. Once a chaplain is on your side, you have a key piece of the puzzle. A great friendship with a chaplain can provide you with many years of services in his prison. Once a good reputation has been established, you will be able to use it when you approach other prisons.

Over a 9-year time span at Maranatha Baptist Bible College, the Lord has blessed us with the opportunity to see 199 men and women inmates saved in over 100 church services. There have been numerous assurances, major decisions in lives made, hundreds of Bibles given to men and women who didn’t have their own copy, tens of thousands of tracts on salvation handed out and message upon message preached. It all started with one phone call leading to our first service. The flood-gates opened, and within the next few years we got involved with the death-row population.

“But we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God which raiseth the dead” (2 Corinthians 1:9).

Death Row is currently home to almost 4,000 inmates. Day after day they sit in a cell waiting for their appointment with death, the dreaded execution date. On that day they meet one of these five dooms: lethal injection, electrocution, hanging, firing squad or the gas chamber. Some are innocent of the crimes they are accused of committing, but many are hopelessly guilty of murder.

Another opportunity for ministry that any Christian can do is to be a pen-pal. Men writing to men and women to women is the best format for this. There are only about 50 ladies on death row, so often we choose ladies with long or life sentences. These ladies can be found on the Internet just as the death row inmates can. (Anyone who needs names of inmates to write to can also contact me for free lists). Death-row inmates are the best to write to since they are in prison for life and are the closest to death.

Death row was renamed “life row” by convicted “pick ax” murderer Karla Faye Tucker a few years back. Death row is not the end of the journey for these inmates, but the beginning. Faith in God helps many of them get through the ordeal. Some outsiders call it “prison religion,” a fake religious awakening created to impress or fool guards and others around them. Prison religion is real, but it would be foolish to think it was the only kind. There is true genuine repentance and faith found in prison. Death row inmates have one thing that we don’t have—a set time and date when they know they are going to die. One convicted murderer/drug addict was quoted minutes before his lethal injection as saying, “I lived by the needle, and now I die by the needle.”

A few things to remember when corresponding with the prisoners: always place their DOC# (department of correction) number on the envelope next to their name. Always place your return address on the envelope and on the inside of the letter to insure they will get it. Each envelope going out to an inmate for the first time can be stuffed with tracts and John, Romans or whatever seems fitting. Hand-sign all typed letters; it personalizes the letter. Never send money. (If you give to one you had better have enough for all.) Never be scared to be personal or open. They are on death row, so there is no worry of them ever getting out legally unless they are innocent. Common sense and some good judgment will help you to make some good choices with what to and not to do.

Using the church address as the return address is fine if the person does not want to use his/her home address. Purchase some stamps and envelopes. Find church members who would like to participate and have them begin with a letter bearing their personal testimony and a little bit about themselves and why they are writing the letter. I find the more open you are with them, the more open they will be with you. Maybe a night could be devoted to writing letters, or have a youth activity of addressing and stuffing envelopes. Be creative in getting everyone involved in some aspect. Letting everyone have a part brings a sense of teamwork. When souls begin to get saved, everyone rejoices.

The first letter should be just one page long so as not to overwhelm the person. Always write Bible verses out; don’t just use Scripture references. The inmate may not even own a Bible in which to look it up. Be sure to accurately copy the Scripture. Hand sign the letter and be sure to refer to yourself many times in the letter to personalize it. The secret to writing many letters is to type up a great first letter. You can use the same first letter again when writing to other inmates. Just use the CTRL-H function on Microsoft Word to replace the inmate’s name. I find that with my main letter, for every ten I send out I get back about five or six responses. Anyone stuck at what to write can email me at and ask for a copy of my first letter, and I will send it to you.

“O taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8). I have seen this in my own life and the lives of the men and women who have tried the prison ministry. You need to sink your teeth into it and experience it first hand. Once you get a taste of it you will see how good it really is. But to taste it, you need to get involved and have a part in it.

Convicted cannibal killer Jeffrey Dahmer is a prime example of Christ’s saving grace. Dahmer said after his salvation, “Thank God, there will be no more harm that I can do. I believe that only the Lord Jesus Christ can save me from my sins.” David Berkowitz once said, “I didn’t want to only hurt them; I wanted to kill them.” And “I am the Monster Beelzebub, the chubby behemoth. I love to hunt.” Now he is a born again Christian and can be seen daily in prison preaching the gospel to lost souls. We as born again Christians need to teach these people how to build their lives around and upon the Word of God and to be faithful in all areas, both big and small. They can learn that they don’t need to have a perfect past to live by faith. Paul was an accomplice to murder when he stood by and held the coats at Stephen’s killing. He was imprisoned after his conversion and sat locked up rejoicing in the Lord. God can and will do mighty things with anyone if they open up their life to Him.

The implementation of the death row and pen-pal ministries is simple and can be a great asset to any local church. One of the end results my team has seen, besides the saving of souls, is a bond between the men that went out on the ministry. They come back with closer relationships to each other. People besides the pastor get a chance to preach and testify in the prisons. A fire is set in each one of them to serve God. There does not seem to be a downside to the ministry. It does take a good deal of time and sometimes an entire day is given up to go, but it can hardly be called a sacrifice when there are such eternal rewards. There is just too much blessing and rejoicing going on afterwards to call it a sacrifice.

At last the metal doors opened and I saw his smiling face. He hurried over to me and gave me a giant bear hug. I shook the hand that once pulled the trigger. I saw the scar on his neck from when he was almost killed by a fellow prison inmate. Reality struck. I was taken back by the thoughts of David Berkowitz’s past, but then refreshed by the man he had become—a born-again Christian. He was once a child of the devil but now a child of God and my brother in Jesus Christ. David gave his life to God while in prison. He knew Ephesians 2:8-9 was true: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.”

A few years before, I wrote David and explained the gospel. I waited patiently, not knowing if I would ever hear back from him. I just wanted him to know that God could/would forgive him. I was in college and loved to check my mailbox for mail. When I saw David’s letter I got chills! I waited a few hours for the anticipation to build before opening it and showed the letter to basically everyone I passed in the halls. I read it in private and found out he was saved already and learned his testimony. Praise God! That was the beginning of a great encouraging friendship that almost spans a decade. There have been scores of letters and frequent visits. On these visits I get to treat my brother to a special meal from the vending machine and speak of the blessings God bestows to us daily. I truly count David as a dear friend. People I meet think I’m crazy or just don’t see how God can change such a person. I think of Saul in Acts who got saved and became Paul. Is there really a difference between him and David Berkowitz? It began with the idea that I would do this to minister to the prisoners, when in reality they are an encouragement to me.

[David Berkowitz, known as the the Son of Sam, is now known as the Son of Hope. In 1987 he dropped to his knees and asked Jesus to be his Lord. To read his compelling story and to learn more about his world wide ministry visit his website:]

God on Death Row is a book I wrote a few years back that answers some tough questions. Could convicted cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer get to heaven before you? If I shot 13 people, could I still get to heaven? These and other questions are addressed in this book. It’s a journey in the lives of murderers and their amazing stories of finding faith in God, and salvation, as told through their letters— 19 convicted murderers in all. God on Death Row includes tons of personal letters, photos, last statements, last meals, etc. Be prepared, this book will change your life! (See page 21 for details.) You can always email me at Mnadraus(at) or call me at 920-220-3093 with any questions about prison ministry or my book God on Death Row.

About the Author:
I am Michael Nadraus. I’m 31 years old with a deep passion for souls behind prison bars. I grew up Catholic on Long Island, NY and became a born again Christian on February 8, 1995. I went to a Bible college in Wisconsin in 1999 and ultimately came back to NY on fire to serve God. I currently teach in junior church, preach to the children and help run youth group weekly at New Hope Baptist Church, where my beautiful wife Hannah and I attend.

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