Opening our eyes to today’s largest unreached people group

Sean Copley

June 14, 2017

Second annual special needs conference reveals growing passion to reach families and individuals affected by special needs

Amberle Brown, missionary to the disabled community, shares her testimony of how God redirected her ministry assignment through her experience with a life-threatening disease, which left her blind. Photo by Shannon Baker

BOWIE, Md.— When Amberle Brown was a child, she wanted to be a martyr for Jesus, or at the least, a missionary to an unreached people group. She never imagined she would one day become part of one.

“I became a nurse as a way to gain access to closed countries,” Amberle recounted at the second annual Special Needs Conference, sponsored by the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware (BCM/D). “I spent summers in other countries trying to discern where God was calling me, and I even refused to date boys who didn’t also feel called to be missionaries.”

But a few weeks after her 21st birthday, Amberle said she was admitted to a burn ICU for toxic epidermal necrolysis syndrome (TENS), an extremely rare and severe autoimmune reaction that affects one in 2.5 million people and kills one in every three people who have it.

Amberle’s body attacked itself, she explained, causing the skin and the lining of her organs to blister and slough off like a burn from the inside out. Over a month’s time, she lost 95 percent of her skin, the lining of her GI/GU tracts, and the lining of her eyes and ears.

“As my flesh melted away, I also felt that my dreams of being a missionary, too, in a remote part of the world also melted away,” Amberle conceded. “The lining of my eyes, the eyes that I thought I would use to see many unreached peoples come to know Christ, essentially melted off.”

She eventually left the hospital, mostly blind, though “with a deeper pain, a pain of not understanding why God would give me this dream, and what I felt was a calling, to be a missionary, and then take away what I felt was my ability to fulfill that dream as I had always envisioned it.”

She found herself following Plan B, empowering others in her stead to take health and hope across the globe.

Yet, “I still had a gnawing lack of understanding of why God had ripped my lifelong, seemingly honorable dream out of my white-knuckled hands, but God, being God, knew the answer to that question far better than I did,” she shared.

At a conference, she heard these startling words: “If people with disabilities were counted as a people group, they would be the largest unreached people group in the world.”

The thought gripped her heart.

“Could it be that God was revealing to me the people group that He had always intended to call me to, and could it be that He was even, moreover, making me a part of that people group, an indigenous member of that unreached people group?”

Amberle realized that after all her preparation to become a missionary, the only thing she couldn’t do was make herself a member of an unreached people group.

“No amount of praying or studying could make me Afghan or Burmese, but it seemed that God had done exactly that. That moment was life changing for me,” she said.

“It redirected my passions and energies towards becoming a part of the movement of Christians who are reaching out to people with disabilities who God wants to know Him and be in relationship with Him.”

Could it be that a movement is starting in Maryland, too?

Amberle’s realization echoed a growing sentiment at the Special Needs Conference, held May 6 at Cresthill Baptist Church in Bowie, Md.: “The disabled community has much to teach us about Christ and our need to depend on Him.”

Over 120 people from 27 churches, including five non-Southern Baptist Convention churches, became more and more convinced of this reality as they listened to testimonies and tips from those who were among or work among the special needs community.

All the speakers agreed on one thing: “Churches without a disability ministry are disabled themselves.”

“Without people with disabilities, we are prone to forget that this world is not our hope, and some of us will never function as we ought until we are in the presence of God,” Amberle cautioned. “Without people with disabilities, we are liable to idolize health and wholeness, and forget that God uses illness and weakness in profound ways to draw people to himself, and without people with disabilities, the church is likely to act as a thousand individual organisms, rather than one body that is dependent on each other and cannot afford to live in isolation.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly one in five people in the U.S. has a disability. The Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, in their paper, “A New Vision, a New Heart, a Renewed Call,” calls people with disabilities the “hidden and forgotten people.”

“If we were to place these 600 to 650 million people together, they would comprise the world’s third largest nation with the highest rates of homelessness, joblessness, divorce, abuse, and suicide,” wrote Joni Eareckson Tada, former senior associate on disability concerns for the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization. She is also the founder and CEO of Joni and Friends International Disability Center. “Only 5 to 10 percent of the world’s disabled are effectively reached with the Gospel, making the disability community one of the largest unreached — some say under-reached — hidden people groups in the world.”

Amberle urged her listeners to ask themselves, “Do our churches reflect these numbers? And if not, where are these people, and why aren’t our churches reaching them?”

Danny Hinton is pastor of preaching and vision at Gospel Community Church in Owensboro, Ky., which was planted two years ago with the primary purpose of reaching the deaf community. Photo by Shannon Baker

Danny Hinton’s church sure is trying.

He and the worship team from Gospel Community Church in Owensboro, Ky., shared about their efforts to plant their church two years ago with the primary purpose of reaching what he calls the fourth largest unreached people group, the deaf community.

There are over 35 million deaf people on the planet, said Danny, pastor of preaching and vision. “And every day, 750 deaf people die without hearing the Gospel.”

Hinton, who regularly uses sign language as he preaches and worships, urged the conference attendees to not seek to “accommodate” the disabled “so they can worship with us,” but rather to seek to “understand” the disabled so “we can worship together as brothers and sisters.”

Explaining that music is accessible to the deaf when it is felt, Hinton shared how drums and speakers are “front and center at his church” because “we understand the people who are in front of us.”

Likewise, Lainie Browning, founder and director of the Special Blessings Ministry at First Baptist Church, Whitehouse, Texas, shared practical ways to help members of the special needs community to be included in their church’s overall ministry.

Their church offers a self-contained Sunday school class and children’s church for children with special needs using “reverse inclusion,” when teen volunteers without special needs serve those with special needs. These “Buddies” additionally serve alongside children who want to be included in regular Sunday school classes. They also have a “Special Connections” Bible Study class for parents of special needs children as well as Moms’ and Dads’ Day Out and other respite opportunities.

These efforts have dramatically affected the teens who go to their church, said Lainie, who is mom to Trent, 17, who has Down Syndrome, autism and is non-verbal. The church’s teens now regularly include fellow teens with special needs in activities throughout the community, well beyond the local church.

Michael Crawford, state director of missions for the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware, barely holds back tears as he speaks on the theology of the disabled at the BCM/D’s second annual Special Needs Conference held May 6 at Cresthill Baptist Church in Bowie, Md. Photo by Shannon Baker

In explaining the theology of disability, BCM/D State Director of Missions Michael Crawford and Amberle’s husband’s Hunter, noted that disability was a direct result of humankind’s fall from grace.

“Sin not only brings about the existence of disabilities, it brings about the tendency for humanity to ignore, oppress, and exclude certain populations,” including those with disabilities, said Michael, who oversees BCM/D’s church planting efforts.

He admitted God had been doing a work in his heart. He may have a “young, hip and sexy church plant,” but the day he realized he was not reaching those with special needs, his life changed.

He had just learned about the daily challenges his colleague Tom Stolle, BCM/D’s chief financial officer and chief operating officer, faced with his son, Jimmy, who has autism and is non-verbal. He was haunted by questions, such as “If my church is all about Jesus, why aren’t people bringing people affected by special needs and disabilities to meet Jesus?” and more pointedly, “If my life is all about Jesus, why aren’t people affected by special needs and disabilities coming to me?”

Those questions set him on a completely different ministry trajectory, one that caused him to not see results in the form of church attendance and number of baptisms, but in the ways he and his church members’ respond to the hurts and struggles around them.

In direct result to this new call, Freedom Church, where he serves as senior pastor, has begun The Banquet Network, a community of churches striving to inspire, equip, and resource the Church to reach, serve, and include people with disabilities.

Interested in finding out more? Follow-up meetings are scheduled for on Friday, June 23, 12-1 PM or Saturday, July 29, 10-11 AM at Freedom Church (5310 Hazelwood Ave., Baltimore, MD 21206). RSVP by email to Sign up to receive more information at

Plans are also underway to present this same conference in Whitehouse, Texas, and Owensboro, Ky., which excites Tom Stolle, who initiated this focus on the special needs community while serving as BCM/D’s interim executive director.

“I’m so excited that God is opening doors of opportunity in Texas, Kentucky, and beyond. The fire is spreading,” Stolle said. “Sharing the Good News of Jesus with individuals and families affected by disabilities must be more than just a thought or an idea. It must be a commitment. It can’t just be a ‘We can do this.’ It must be a ‘We will do this!’ In Jesus’ name!”