They Kept Coming Back: How to Change a Prison

23 May


A local Free Methodist church working with CRM’s reFocusing team discovered they had several law-enforcement people in their congregation. This was news to them. At the same time, they discovered there were three prisons within their city limits. So they chose to make the correctional officers at one of these prisons their first “strategic initiative” to demonstrate the good news of Jesus outside of their church walls.

The team went out. To plan their approach they toured the facility and shared their desire to try to help and appreciate the 2200 prison guards who worked there. At one point the lieutenant leading the tour stopped, spun around, and with tears in his eyes said, “In 22 years I’ve been working here, hundreds of ministries have come into this prison to do this or that, all of them focused on the inmates. You’re the first to think to care for the correctional officers. Thank you.”

The church started with something very simple: They baked cookies. They took them into break rooms and offices in the prison. But they didn’t just box them and drop them off. They came and stayed. They visited with the officers, thanked them for their service, thanked them for the immense price their families pay, acknowledging the challenges of such a high-stress job, and thanked them for keeping the community safe. And after that day, they kept coming back.

What nobody knew going in was that that same day the prison employees received notices that over the next six months they could lose their jobs. It was the first of what’s become a fairly regular occurrence in California, but for those prison guards it was unprecedented. Shocking. Terrifying. So instead of delivering cookies and encouragement, those believers found themselves praying for and ministering to frightened but grateful officers.

In the months and years that followed, the church dreamed up many more creative ways to meaningfully appreciate the staff at the prison. A while ago some of CRM’s staff had the privilege of interviewing one of the top officials at the prison, and he said this: “The environment at the prison is changing. The correctional officers are different with each other. They treat the inmates differently, and as a result the inmates are treating one another differently.” He said it was because of the influence of this church.

Cultural transformation occurs when the Spirit’s redemptive work overturns injustice and breaks the power of systemic sin. Anyone who’s spent any time in prison knows just how common injustices are in that space—particularly between inmates and those who guard them. As we talked to this prison official it became clear that something significant was changing in the prison.

You might ask me how a church whose attendance peaks at 160 can transform a community of 8,800? Only God can do that! And, sometimes that can start with something as simple as baking cookies and being available to listen.

Ready to consider new ways to be a Church on mission in your community? Get started by reading reFocusing's guide, 5 Steps to Help Your Church Impact the Community.

View Church Impact Guide


trains, mentors, and coaches pastors to be effective, influential leaders. He is part of the ChurchNEXT reFocusing Team, a ministry of CRM that helps congregations and their leaders demonstrate the gospel to those outside the Church (explore upcoming reFocusing trainings here). Kirk and his wife, Annie, have six adult children and live in Southern California.

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