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A prison-based church is bringing a congregation of inmates closer to the Lord week-by-week.

The largest prison in Texas, Coffield Maximum Security Prison holds nearly 4,200 incarcerated offenders and is now home to Gateway Church's newest church plant.prison ministry INSET 1Powerful worship transforms offenders, says Wilson, pastor of Gateway Church in Coffield Prison. (Justin Miller)

Located in Texas, Gateway was first started by Robert Morris in 2000, and has grown locally, nationally, and internationally ever since. With seven campuses in total, and two more just announced this past Sunday, it's easy to see the discipleship effect of the church as highlighted by Stephen Wilson.

"It's just amazing to watch the growth and expansion, just the lives saved here in our church," says Wilson, pastor of the newest addition to Gateway, located within Coffield.

Despite the tough exterior, a present reality in day-to-day prison experiences by many residents, Wilson says the transformation when these men engage in worship can be miraculous.

"Once they get inside, the presence of the Holy Spirit comes on them and just opens them up to a new realm and just a new way of thinking."

The offenders often referred to as "residents" by Wilson, engage in services held after school and work hours that resemble that of Gateway's traditional church model, simply placed within the walls of a prison.

"We want those offenders to have the exact guest experience that we have locally here at Gateway Church," Wilson shared. That includes conducting services as well as encouraging residents to assist in helping run the church plant. In fact, the campus is entirely offender-led.

The hope, says Wilson, is that upon release, those that have been involved with the Gateway Campus will continue to serve actively in their own churches beyond incarceration.

It's that training and building-of-bonds that sets them apart from other prison-based ministries, too, Wilson believes. Men interested in becoming involved in roles of leadership within Gateway receive the same discipleship and training as any other member of their church family. To date, 20 residents have undergone the six-week training.

"Inside that campus, it's offenders coming up to pray with offenders, which is having a huge impact not only on the residents that are sitting up in the audience but the residents that are learning and being a part of their church."

Wilson says that upon entry to Coffield, residents are often lost, disconnected from a faith community and unsure of how to connect while incarcerated. The goal of Gateway's newly-planted church at Coffield is to assist them in a smooth and positive transition upon release back into their communities at the end of their sentences.

"This is more about the offenders than it is about us. We are reaching out and loving on these men to help them prepare for re-entry when they get out."

In addition to real-church services held within the prison, Gateway also hosts classes on parenting and marriage for residents.

On average, 350 residents have been in attendance at each of Gateway's services since it's opening.

It's all about making a change inside their hearts that will last for eternity, says Wilson.

For churches looking to partner or learn more about the Gateway ministry, connect with the Gateway network here.