The class of 4-year-olds marched into “big church” with giggles, wiggles and flushed faces. Parents strained to find their children as the hesitant young performers began their first, well-rehearsed song. Melissa and I craned our necks left and right searching for our son, Caleb, knowing he would likely be in the back row, with his head down. Given his developmental delays and autism, Caleb usually tried to avoid the spotlight. When we couldn’t find him on stage, I anxiously rushed to his classroom to see what was wrong. I found Caleb safe and sound. Relieved, I asked why he was in the classroom while all the other children were performing. The volunteer said that he had been told to stay with him, because Caleb didn’t need to participate. The unintended message: Caleb doesn’t belong.
Unfortunately, scenarios like this play out every Sunday in churches everywhere. Whether it’s exclusion from an event or from the church overall, families affected by disability are deeply wounded, and many leave the church altogether as a result. Such exclusion is not usually intended to cause harm. Often it’s simply a lack of awareness. But with more than 1 billion people in the world affected by disability, pastors and church leaders must recognize the urgent need for outreach and disability ministry. And churches are uniquely designed to come alongside these families.
Like all of us, children and adults with disabilities have a great need to belong. A caring friend can be a lifeline to those who often feel isolated and alone. In Luke 14, Jesus taught the religious leaders of his day that in the kingdom of God we should embrace and befriend those with whom we would not normally associate in our social settings. In fact, he gave us a new guest list for dinner parties: “the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind” (14:13). These are people that society has marginalized or relegated to places of lower social status. Jesus specifically indicates in this passage that one sign of true spiritual maturity is welcoming the marginalized. This outreach is so important to God that he promises eternal rewards for those who embrace the disabled in this way (14:14).
If we have the heart of the Master, we will welcome, embrace and include people affected by disability. This is not only an issue of salvation, but of discipleship, fellowship and full participation. So, how do churches heed this call? Here are six steps to help your church get started:
1. Understand the Needs
Before you can minister to someone affected by a disability, you must understand his or her needs. An inclusive church is an understanding church. It begins with learning the details of each person’s story and accepting that person regardless of his or her physical or intellectual abilities. Remember that God created each person with a unique design. Asking questions and listening to the responses goes a long way. Often, people are afraid to reach out to someone with a disability or to their family members because they are afraid they may say or do the wrong thing. Don’t be afraid—be interested.
2. Relate Individually
People with disabilities are not problems to be solved; they’re relationships to be embraced. God’s love is expressed through his body, the church. It has been said, “People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” So it is with relationships. Investing one’s time and energy builds trust that leads to fruitful long-term relationships and ministry.
3. Provide Opportunities
God’s intention is for everyone in the body of Christ to be fully included, giving and receiving from one another. All of his children have been given gifts and abilities and should be expected to use them through service.
In 1 Corinthians 12:12-26 Paul uses the analogy of a body being made up of many different parts. He emphasizes that even though some parts have more visibility and seem more important, it is often those parts that seem least important that have the greatest contributions. Someone with a disability may not have as much visibility in the church or seem to have a significant role in the body, yet God has gifted them for a unique purpose that should be fully expressed.
4. Give Encouragement
One of the most powerful means of ministering to families affected by disability is encouragement. In multiple Bible passages, we are exhorted to encourage and build one another up in our faith (1 Thessalonians 5:11 and Romans 14:19 and 15:2). At times, families become overwhelmed by life circumstances and need a word of encouragement. Bearing one another’s burdens is a way of fulfilling the law of love given by Christ (Galatians 6:2).
Teenagers or adults with a disability often question their usefulness. Dreams of the future fall to the side as therapies replace opportunities. A sense of hopelessness becomes the norm for their lives. Your encouragement can redefine their sense of belonging and God’s plan for their life.
5. Network for Support
Support comes in many forms. The church has a unique role in the community, reconciling humanity to God and people to people. In this role, the church is able to support families affected by disabilities by connecting them with local resources—first within the church and then within the community at large. There are significant resources within the church that can help parents with finances, support groups, counselors and therapists. And networking with local community services can provide support to those within the church and allow ministry to flow back into those community groups.
6. Train for Service
Churches that welcome families affected by disabilities need to be churches willing to learn—to train and be trained. To provide better ministry for people affected by disability, a formal disability ministry is often the best approach. As with any ministry within the church, prayerfully seek the blessing of church leadership. After recruiting the leadership and a team of volunteers willing to donate their time, the next step is to prayerfully plan what ministry programs you will offer. Do not try to implement all ministry ideas at first. It’s best to start small and allow God to grow the ministry in his timing.
As your church provides opportunities for volunteers to grow in their understanding of disabilities, remember that professionals who work regularly with people affected by disability can be an excellent resource. Awareness is the key to recruiting volunteers. Celebrate the launch of the disability ministry by including the entire church. Provide information to members during services and through Sunday school or small groups. Information could include brochures on disability etiquette, details on the ministry programs, and most importantly, an appropriate biblical explanation of the need for disability ministry.