Report: The Ministry of Life’s Key, United States

November 5, 2019
Tim Priano

“ proclaim liberty to the captives and the opening of the prison to them that are bound.” Isa. 61:1

Life’s Key is a prison ministry committed to the Lord Jesus Christ for the purpose of providing current and ex-offenders (men and women) an opportunity to study the word of God, and receive spiritual guidance through correspondence.

The Beginning

The founder of Life’s Key ministry was John J. Bell (1939-2008). In 1974, Mr. Bell had received the Lord Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior. Realizing the tremendous peace and hope he received in Christ, he became burdened to share the gospel message with those in prison. When John Bell presented the idea of a Bible Correspondence Program to the chaplain of a local maximum-security prison, the chaplain agreed to the program and sixteen men began the first Bible correspondence course, “Born to Win.”

The Organization

The work started in June 1977, but because of the growth in the ministry, an organization was needed so that funds could be channeled through a non-profit rather than through Mr. and Mrs. Bell. In 1979, with the Lord’s clear direction and the encouragement of a local church, the initial steps to form a non-profit organization began. It was also decided that Mr. Bell should engage in the prison ministry on a full-time basis. Mr. Bell quit his job as a truck driver, was commended by the local church, and went on to exert his energy full-time to this ministry.

The Purpose

Life’s Key has a vision to present the gospel to current and former inmates so that they may come to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ our Lord. As it says in Romans 10:17, “So faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.” In order for inmates to hear the Word of God, someone must present it to them. This is what Life’s Key is all about, reaching prisoners with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Courses

All courses sent by Life’s Key into the prisons are published by Emmaus International. We are proud to have a long-standing relationship with them, and stand behind the Bible-based, Christ-centered message that each one of their courses presents. There are a wide variety of topics covered in the 75 courses that make up our curriculum. Some examples include courses written specifically with inmates in mind, such as “Born to Win” and “Doing Time with Jesus.” There are Old Testament character studies, specifically on Joseph, Gideon, and Jonah. There are studies that take an in-depth look at all of the books in the New Testament. There are courses for new believers, such as “The Bible – What’s in it for You” and “What the Bible Teaches.” There are behavioral studies, such as “Managing Anger God’s Way” and “The Believer’s Battle with Temptation.” We also have some on evangelism, like “Winning Souls the Bible Way” and “Preach the Word.” And there is even a course for those scheduled to be released called “How to Succeed on the Streets.” We pray that every inmate who starts taking these courses will take them all, and we know if they do, they will have a well-rounded understanding of God’s Word, and how to apply it to their lives.

The Director

Through the calling of the Lord, Life’s Key brought on Tim Priano to be the Director as a full-time worker in 2014. Tim had previously worked as a student accountant for an online school when he felt God calling him into full time service. He was somewhat familiar with Life’s Key, as the Bells were frequent visitors to his church in Pittsburgh, PA. Upon seeing the need, and being given clear direction from the Lord, Tim was commended into the ministry by his home church.

The Volunteers

Over the years the Lord has called so many wonderful people to be part of this ministry. Whether it is one of about a dozen people that visit our Pittsburgh office throughout the week, or one of our 40 course commenters throughout the country who respond to the inmate’s questions, or those that do building and tech maintenance, it would be impossible to have this ministry without each and every one of them. Not enough can be said about the time they selflessly give, doing their part to share the love of Christ with each student.

The Need

Life’s Key has been given additional responsibility by Emmaus over the last several years. Distribution is done within state lines, so if a student transfers from one state to another, the responsibility is also transferred from one ministry to another, as different ministries send courses into different states. In the past 5 years, our territory of distribution has ballooned from 7 to 16 states, by far the most under the Emmaus umbrella. One of those states, added in 2018, is Florida which has the 3rd highest prison population in the country. And praise the Lord, the thirst for His Word there is great! So great that we anticipate mailing about 5,500 more courses this year than we did last year, an increase of 31%.

We have been called to serve the incarcerated. Therefore, we are more than aware that we cannot charge them for the materials because in most cases, they simply have nothing to offer in return. Everything is provided to them free of charge including the courses, certificates of completion, and postage both to send and receive mail. We are so humbled at how the Lord has blessed us over the years to be able to offer this to them through the generous donations of churches and individuals. At no point have we ever turned a student away because of finances, and we trust the Lord will allow that to continue. While seeing such a large increase is a wonderful answer to prayer, we also know that there is a cost associated with it. More courses, envelopes, and office supplies must be purchased. More certificates must be printed. More postage must be paid. So, the need is there for more funding to keep up with the increase in students that the Lord has provided!

The Reward

We do what we do for a few reasons. First and foremost, to provide the resources these men and women need to learn the Word of God, and ideally come to the realization that they are lost sinners and need to invite Christ into their hearts. Secondly, we want them to use our courses and guidance to grow spiritually. To develop a passion for the Lord like they’ve never had before. And finally, to enable them to share that passion with others. The vast majority of our new students come from other inmates telling them about our program. And these new students lead to an opportunity for their hearts to be opened, so that they may be able to check the box in our first course that says, “I here and now accept the Lord Jesus Christ as my Savior.”