How can churches become equipped to be disability effective? In the end, a successful measure of disability effectiveness in a local church would be that it would not need to have a disability ministry. Outreach to and inclusion of people with disabilities would become so second nature that those who are disabled would be involved, included, and assimilated into the fabric of the church to the point that they would need no special attention as a population group.
The model is provocative: living transparently (out of necessity!) with weakness, and allowing these weaknesses—recognized, owned, admitted, and surrendered—to issue forth in fruitful labor—even leadership—in Christ’s church. The disability-effective church may be measured with identical components (broadly applied) for the disability-effective leader. The church must be inclusive, biblical, accessible, practical, evangelizing, assimilating, promoting, and multiplying.
Just as one foundational attribute for the leader would be humility, I believe the foundational characteristic for a disability-effective church would be “risky.” Disability ministry demands a church willing to risk the unknown, to break down barriers, and to enter into the experience of people and families who live with disability. It demands imagination and creativity, a willingness to make mistakes and to learn along the way, but most of all, it demands taking the risk of being available and having people with disabilities present among the fellowship.
Risk is a fundamental human experience. In our day, human experience is becoming increasingly banal and tasteless as society seeks to remove all risk from life (another indicator of our desire to live in control of our circumstances rather than receiving life as a gift from God). When we develop a vision for bringing people with disabilities into the church and set out to do it, we risk losing people who cannot deal with the unpredictable and the ugly. That means the risk of financial loss and status, but this is the risk Jesus took when he drew near to the rejected, the diseased, and the socially unacceptable.
Too many ministries have unspoken methods for organizational growth that involve winning the influential, the popular, and the wealthy in order to establish the movement. But Jesus calls us to go to those who have nothing to offer: the outcasts, the lonely, the broken, and the weak. That is a risky method of organizational growth.
Many years ago, when I worked with Young Life, the strategy was to reach the “key kids” at a school and then others would come. If you got the “wrong” kids or the wrong crowd coming, the outreach was considered doomed! I felt the dissonance with this strategy then and have been most glad to see in recent years Young Life taking the risky move of developing a whole branch of outreach to the most marginalized kids. This work, called Young Life Capernaum, is proving our point here—that God shows up in powerful and redemptive ways in the midst of our weakness. He is pleased to bless in remarkable ways strategies the world considers foolish.
Brett Webb-Mitchell speaks about this issue in his article, “Welcoming Unexpected Guests” where he writes:
Misperceptions of people with disabling conditions in congregations is not an individual problem, but a dark, knotted, disturbing thread that runs throughout the richly textured fabric of congregational life. The challenge for the church is rightly to perceive that some people have physical, mental, or sensory conditions that naturally impose some real limitation in terms of what some can do and cannot do in life. But members of Christ’s community are to look through or beyond one’s abilities or disabilities into the heart of the other person as we come to be with another person, whether in times of exuberant celebration or righteous anger, to care and to be cared for by the other person. We are all called to live in such a relationship with one another as a gift of God’s grace.1
As we have heard from those engaged in such work, families with disabled members will seldom risk further rejection and loneliness by venturing to visit a new church. It will take work to attract people not normally on our church list. Christine Pohl has written:
God’s guest list includes a disconcerting number of poor and broken people, those who appear to bring little to any gathering except their need. The distinctive quality of Christian hospitality is that it offers a generous welcome to the “least,” without concern for advantage or benefit to the host. Such hospitality reflects God’s greater hospitality that welcomes the undeserving, provides the lonely with a home, and sets a banquet table for the hungry.2
Just as a large part of ministry is “showing up,” so a large part of bringing people with disabilities back into the church is being available and present for the need and the opportunity it brings. Pohl, speaking on hospitality to the marginalized, states:
In situations of severe disability, terminal illness, or overwhelming need, the problem cannot be “solved.” But practitioners understand the crucial ministry of presence: it may not fix a problem but it provides relationships which open up a new kind of healing and hope.2
Embracing Our Mutual Similarities
One final objective presents a daunting challenge: the church must become more proactive to reflect God’s intended diversity by embracing first its own weakness (thus apprehending the gospel) and then the weakness and brokenness of others.
On a denominational level, most evangelical churches have never shown the slightest intention of moving in such a proactive direction. Numerous mainline denominations, on the other hand, have had budget-funded national offices dedicated to ministry toward people with disabilities. Unfortunately, most of those churches have defunded such offices in recent years due to austerity requirements. But a department for disability awareness can never affect change unless grassroots education of the leadership takes place.
Jesus calls us to go to those who have nothing to offer: the outcasts, the lonely, the broken, and the weak.
More fundamentally, change can never take place until the leaders and the lay people better understand the gospel. While the near goal of my book is that people with disabilities inhabit the worshiping community of God, the ultimate goal is that God’s people will have a renewed sense of what it means to live as God’s children—accepted by his love despite our weakness, brokenness, and inability. Those who live with physical, mental, and other disabilities will help God’s people see those disabilities in themselves in a more authentic way. As we join hands with these brothers and sisters, seeing ourselves in each other, walking in relationship, then we will begin to move forward as a church with new power—transforming power.
John Swinton, in his article “Restoring the Image: Spirituality, Faith, and Cognitive Disability” in Journal of Religion and Health, presents a case for the relational model of the imago Dei. He notes that divine grace reveals that we are all essentially dependent beings. Knowledge, cognition, thinking, reflecting, and deducing as primary (or exclusive) elements of the imago, he contends, is a result of Enlightenment rationalism and does not do justice to the whole character of God reflected in humans. He concludes eventually, “It is therefore in the quality of our relationships, as opposed to the quantity of our intellect, that the image is restored”3From there he posits: “The absence of a certain level of cognitive capability does not exclude a person from the experiential spirituality made manifest in loving relationships”4He goes on to say:
The doctrine of the incarnation suggests that God is revealed not primarily in ideas, but in concrete reality. It is in the flesh of Jesus that we encounter God most fully. In the same way as scripture reveals God as unceasingly accommodating himself to humanity’s inadequacies throughout history, and ultimately in the Word made flesh, so also He accommodates Himself in the communication of love to cognitively disabled people through loving relationships. . . . Simply put, loving attitudes reveal a loving deity, and if cognitively disabled persons’ experiences help develop a trusting confidence that they exist in a relationship which is fundamentally loving and accepting, then the Christian gospel has been preached experientially and effectively.5
May God extend the tent pegs of such ministry models for the glory of Christ’s church. And may that church boast not in its sparkling exterior of wholeness, power, and influence, but may it boast in its weakness so that the power of God may be displayed through it and God receive all the glory.
- Christine Pohl, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999),16.
- Ibid, 112.
- John Swinton, “Restoring the Image: Spirituality, Faith, and Cognitive Disability,” Journal of Religion and Health 36, no. 1 (Spring 1997): 24–25.
- Ibid., 25
- Ibid., 26
This article is adapted from Disability and the Gospel: How God Uses Our Brokenness to Display His Grace by Michael Beates.
Like it did for Paul, the truth should shape us, so that belonging to an ordinary gathering of unremarkable people becomes one of the highest joys and greatest privileges of our lives.
When we find ourselves weak, broken, disabled, we find that God shows up in unexpected ways.
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