MCKINNEY, TX – Prisoners have souls in desperate need of God's grace, just like the rest of us. One former missionary's observation of this truth led him to begin a simple Bible study in an East Texas detention center, which has now grown to a ministry across more than 20 prisons in the state.
Ted Lindwall served in Guatemala as a missionary for 45 years, but in 2005, he moved to Texas and began teaching a class on Christianity in the Collin County Detention Center.
"[The students] took the same [Bible] studies we used in our class and took them all over the jail and shared them with fellow prisoners," Lindwall said. The inmates were receptive to the Gospel and sought to share it with those they were sharing quarters with.
Because it is a temporary detention center, the inmates were constantly being moved to other facilities across the state but wanted to maintain the Christ-centered community they found under Lindwall's instruction.
"After three to six months, they relocate the prisoners to a different prison throughout the state. When they arrive to the new prison, they start a new church," said Mario Gonzalez, Texas Baptists' director of multi-housing and administrator of the Philippi churches.
Lindwall originally intended this to be a ministry focused on the Hispanic population, but it quickly became much bigger as the Bible studies grew.
The prisoners have established what Gonzalez calls organic, or simple churches, in more than 20 prison facilities across the state. Prison chaplains correspond via mail with Gonzalez to request material that Lindwall created. Philippi church leaders, called elders, are sent a Bible, a Bible dictionary and a booklet to lead with. All of these are free of charge to the inmates.
"We are calling them Philippi churches because that's what the prisoners were calling them. We have a record of two Christian prisoners singing and discipling the other prisoners and evangelizing the prison staff in Philippi," Lindwall said, referring to Acts 16. "This describes the Philippi ministry and the ministry of prisoners."
Since the churches began spreading, bilingual materials are being created in order to reach more prisoners. Within facilities, there are pods or dormitories the inmates live in, and many prisons have more than one Philippi church because there is one per pod. Additionally, state law mandates that no more than around twenty inmates can be gathered in a group at the same time, which increases the number of churches necessary.
"They meet more often than regular churches," Gonzalez said. "Some meet every day."
With how rapidly the ministry is spreading, Gonzalez and Lindwall are anticipating Philippi churches to spread across the state.
"We have hundreds of jails in Texas. I think we'll be able to spread this ministry throughout the state in the next three years," Gonzalez said.
The Gospel is a powerful message in prisons because the inmates already view themselves as hitting rock bottom. But when someone comes in speaking truth, a ray of hope is able to come in to the prison.
"Prison is a very normal place for the Gospel because prisoners have lost so much. They are able to grasp the Gospel in a way that other people have a hard time grasping," Lindwall said.
He also noted prison can become a seminary for the inmates, and after they are released, they are equipped to start their own churches when they go home.
"I see prisoners growing by leaps and bounds. I've never found any mission field that is more rewarding than prison," Lindwall said.
The largest need of the Philippi churches is financial, in order to send the materials to the leaders within the prisons. Churches can sponsor a Philippi church either financially giving to Texas Baptists or by partnering with Texas Baptists to receive materials and corresponding with the prison itself.
"We have real change—not just selling the Gospel, it's sharing a life," Lindwall said.
For less than $20 a month, you or your church can sponsor a prison church. Your support will give a Philippi church a study Bible, a Bible dictionary and individual discipleship materials in the inmate's preferred language for a year. Visit here for more information or contact Mario Alberto Gonzalez at marioalberto.gonzalez [at] texasbaptists.org or (214) 828-5389.
Linley McCord, a student at Texas A&M University, is currently serving as a joint Communications Intern for both the Baptist Standard and the Texas Baptists.