The following is an excerpt from the book, Compel Them to Come In: Reaching People with Disabilities Through the Local Church.
By Charlie Chivers
A Disability Awareness Sunday can be a milestone in the life and vitality of the local church. Unfortunately, this event too often becomes a token offering to fulfill an obligatory date on the annual church calendar and appease a few vocal constituents with disability ministry concerns. This would include Disability Ministry coordinators, special needs Sunday school teachers, and those individuals and families directly impacted by physical or intellectual disability on a daily basis. These two groups of people, one with a lonely ministry call and the other with a daily cross to bear, are often disenfranchised from the body. They feel unnoticed and unwanted because they ride an unpopular “hobby horse” that makes others uncomfortable. They are rarely included or considered in the overall planning of the church.
For some reason, reaching people with disabilities is the unwanted stepchild of church ministries. Here are some facts for consideration:
- When building renovations are made, the building committee or architectural team rarely consults with Disability Ministry leaders or gets the input of those affected by disability. They don’t realize that blindly following state specifications can lead to costly do-overs. (A Christian camp in Illinois had to re-do all the “accessible” bathrooms in their new lodge because no one thought to test the specs with real people in real wheelchairs. The state specs did not take into account needed “turn around” room.)
- Major churches sometimes isolate and lose contact with their ministry to people with disabilities. The disability ministry becomes a church within the church that is never visited by the church leadership or the congregation at-large. Workers within the ministry are seldom encouraged.
- Members of the disability community within the church are generally overlooked as active participants in church life and ministry. Even though these connections are absolutely vital for people with disabilities, they are virtually ignored when people are recruited for activities such as teaching a Sunday school class, working in the nursery, participating in church dramas and musicals, Sunday school picnics, fellowship, and even work days. Since many people with disabilities have the desire and the skills to perform these functions, this lack of consideration sends silent signals that they are perceived as useless.
- When people feel disenfranchised, two things occur. Individuals and families affected by disability react by becoming very private and retreating even further into their own world. Some may appear self-involved, strange, indifferent, unfriendly, and unwilling to fit into the church family. Others will become manipulative, abrupt, and ungrateful, marking themselves as undesirable to be around.
At the same time, disability ministry workers in the church tend to become vocal advocates on behalf of those they serve. They become warriors for their people who are sometimes more than willing to risk being perceived as offensive or belligerent in pursuit of their righteous cause. There is nothing wrong with being an advocate or a warrior, but constant extreme behavior accompanied by continual “harping” can cause one to appear angry, single-minded, deaf, indifferent to the needs and concerns of others, and insubordinate. Such attitudes and tactics will never win the heart of church leadership. They only alienate good people, pushing them away instead of drawing them into supporting the ministry.
“Those who ride the white charger of disability ministry must be careful not to impale people on their lance.”
If disability ministry workers become lobbyists, using political muscle within the church to manipulate the pastor into supporting their agenda, then disability ministry ceases to be a worthy outreach and is reduced to a token gesture of political expedience. That kind of pressure leaves a bad taste in the pastor’s mouth and triggers a negative emotional response towards ministry to people with disabilities.
People with Intellectual Disabilities and the Worship Service
By Larry Campbell
Know Who You Are Trying to Reach
It is important to understand that ministry to people with low-functioning intellectual disabilities must be geared to their level. When they can understand and participate in it, everyone profits from the service.
People with low-functioning intellectual disabilities are real people with the same basic needs all of us have. They need love, acceptance, and understanding to experience accomplishment. Because of sin, they need the message of the gospel. They can learn spiritual truths when taught on a concrete level and within their mental functioning range. Learning takes place very, very slowly for people with low-functioning intellectual disabilities.
- They cannot keep pace with their peers without disabilities because their response time is so much slower. Some pastors and worship leaders may not understand this because they see people with low-functioning intellectual disabilities dancing, clapping, and loving the fast, syncopated rhythms, beats, and the speed of modern worship songs. They love the energy, but their minds cannot process the information fast enough to participate in the worship.
- They have short attention spans, and they cannot grasp abstract ideas well. Leaders must use concrete words, examples, and various types of audio-visual materials such as overhead projectors, slides, costumes, puppets, and drama to help them understand the message.
- Repeat simple truths over, and over, and over again, in many different ways.
- People with low-functioning intellectual disabilities do not have a normal curiosity to learn. Therefore, they are not motivated by normal internal and external motivators. However, they quickly form strong attachments to people, so significant individuals in their immediate environment may become the chief motivational forces in their lives and in the learning process.