By Tom Stolle, CFO/COO, Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware
I’ve asked myself this question at least 1,000 times. I know that God cares. I know it to the very core of my being. God cares, and not just intellectually. Christians believe He acts. We believe He is involved in our daily lives. But does His church care? This internal processing that goes on in my mind centers around this issue: ministry to individuals and families affected by disabilities.
MY SON JIMMY is now 16. He is a child with severe autism. He is nonverbal. Jimmy communicates using pictures and physical cues my wife Shelley and I have learned with him.
We learned very quickly that home was a comforting place for him. Through extremely difficult seasons we made changes to our home, changes in our lifestyle, and changes in our schedules to help Jimmy be all he can be. We are, to our core, a loving home thoroughly injected with the DNA of autism. We have learned to make it work. We care.
Jimmy attends an amazing school program in which his teachers and therapists work daily to give him tools to help him be all that he can be. Some seasons are difficult. Some challenges seem impossible, but Jimmy’s team valiantly continues to invest in him. They care.
However, in the life of a Christian, another key piece is expected to fill a vital role in the life of a family. That piece is the local church. Does the church care about individuals like Jimmy?
I believe the words of Jesus apply to ALL people when He said in Matthew 28:19-20, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Individuals affected by disabilities are part of ALL people, as Jesus consistently demonstrated His concern for them in all four Gospels.
If you are on church staff or are a member, please try not to be offended by my asking if the church cares. Look around. Think about it for a moment. Think about your church.
Where are the individuals and families affected by disabilities? The U.S. Census Bureau reports 56.7 million people, or 19 percent, of the population in our country have a disability, with approximately one half of these people reporting a severe disability. This is an enormous number.
Does your church effectively minister to this segment of the population? If it does, praise God. But ask yourself, if it doesn’t, then why not? If Jesus died so that all could come to saving faith and if we believe Jesus is the only way to get to heaven, then why not? If the church is Jesus’ representative here on earth, should people like my Jimmy have the chance to also interact and be impacted by the local church?
Is the American church more concerned about the presentation and production of its worship service, its “showtime,” than it is about making the Gospel available to individuals and families that do not so neatly fit into that box?
In the minds of many, disability is defined largely in a physical way. Accommodation may be made for access to those with wheelchairs or other devices that assist the individual in getting to and being as comfortable as possible in the space they are in. I am very thankful for this! Access provides the opportunity for so many that might otherwise be left out. Society has made progress in this area. Still there is much more to do.
However, many families affected by certain disabilities that are not only physical, but intellectual or developmental, or perhaps mental health challenges, may face enormous barriers to worship in the conventional church in America. Things that many take for granted can become massive barriers to some affected by these disabilities.
Many churches are very social. It may feel to someone with an intellectual disability, a developmental disability, or a mental health issue like “social on steroids.” Some churches have greeters in the parking lot, greeters (and sometimes huggers) at the door, then there is the “in your face” smiles and handshakes and casual conversations that happen on the way to where we are located to worship. Don’t get me wrong, I like all of that. It makes me feel loved. However, for some individuals affected by disabilities, it can be very uncomfortable. If it upsets a child with a disability, it becomes a barrier to that family to come to church.
Then there is the music. I like singing along with the congregation and praising God. I understand that music and worship help prepare the heart to receive the message that the pastor will deliver. However, for some affected by certain disabilities, it can be uncomfortable. As beautiful as it may sound to you and me, many people singing, clapping, drum beats, guitar sounds, keyboard sounds, and other noises can all create an awful cacophony of sound that affects individuals with certain disabilities, but not in a way that prepares the heart. It may create another reason to escape and further disconnect. It’s another potential barrier.
Then there is the seating. Everyone is expected to sit together. We must sit still, be quiet and listen to the preacher share the message. I love hearing the message. However, for some individuals affected by certain disabilities, this can be challenging. Many with certain types of disabilities may have trouble sitting still and being quiet for an extended time. This is another barrier for a family that lives in this reality to come to church.
In other words, church is not constructed for a portion of our population. If it’s not for them, why would they come? It is one reason why we don’t see most of these individuals and families in our churches.
To the church, “out of sight” can become “out of mind.”
William Temple served in the Church of England in the mid-20th century. He said, “The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.” I believe it is the responsibility of the church to share Jesus with all people. Allow me to be clear: all people includes individuals and families affected by disabilities. Any comprehensive evangelism strategy that does not include individuals and families affected by disabilities is not a comprehensive strategy. It is a partial strategy.
A recent LifeWay study revealed that the majority of the estimated 25 million adults with mental illness in this country believe that the church won’t welcome them. The way individuals and families affected by disabilities are consistently marginalized in our society teaches them they are not welcome almost anywhere. It happens everywhere, including the local church, and most who are unaffected are blind to it.
Individuals and families affected by disabilities are an enormous lost people group, perhaps the largest on earth. I believe if the church says we love them and care about them, we must make the Gospel available to them, even if it means that we must to do things differently or have a space they can fit into in church. In their mind, there is no reason to come to your church if they don’t believe they are welcome.
Do we as Christians believe scripture verses like these apply to individuals affected by disabilities?
Romans 5:8, But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
1 John 4:10, This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.
2 Peter 3:9, The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
John 3:16, For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
In so many ways, society tells individuals affected by disabilities that they are less. Perhaps the message is sent that they are less important, less worthy of attention, less worthy of resources, or perhaps even somehow less human. The church must be better than that.
If you are a pastor, church leader, or church member, I ask that you consider about how to make your church more inclusive for individuals and families affected by disabilities.
A journey begins with a single step. I am thankful that my church has begun this journey. It’s why my wife Shelley, Jimmy and I can worship together as a family. It’s not impossible. My church cares.
Where there is desire, I pray there is action.