“Dad, they acted like they didn’t even see us,” one of my children said. The words still ring in my ears to this day.
She made the remark at a large church in the suburbs where I was invited to speak. As we waited several minutes to enter the worship hall, we were surrounded by hundreds of people who were excitedly conversing among themselves. But for some reason, no one spoke to us. Maybe it was because we were visitors, or maybe it was because we’re a large family of seven, or maybe it was because of something else. Maybe it was because we were different. Different because we had a child who was obviously not typical.
Thankfully, experiences like that are few and far between — at least for me. But as I speak to other families who are living with disabilities, the experience of being overlooked is all too common. In fact, for many, it’s their normal experience, even in their own church. Because I know their pain, I am intentionally more sensitive to those in my church (and those who visit my church) who are affected by disabilities.
More Than Compliance
As any church leader who desires to be faithful at shepherding Christ’s flock, I want to ensure that no group ever feels overlooked or rejected because they’re different. Unfortunately, too many churches have not yet seen the need to be intentional at reaching out to the oft-slighted disabled people among them.
Apart from ADA compliance, some churches do very little, if anything, to show the familial love of Christ to disabled members who long to be a vital part of their local church. It’s a failure of leadership, but one that can be corrected by seeing the whole body as essential to a God-honoring, Christ-exalting, gospel-saturated church.
Most church leaders would never deny that the local church should be a ministry of inclusion for all those who profess faith in the risen Christ. I’m sure most pastors would embrace the vision of the church as a gospel banquet, which not only includes the typical, but the atypical as well (Luke 14:12–14). But there seems to be a glaring gap between notional gospel rightness and applicational gospel practice, especially when it comes to the disabled.
Seven Pleas for Pastors
Pastors and church leaders can change the landscape of congregations and ministries to better reflect the heart of God toward those suffering from and living with disabilities. As a fellow under-shepherd, I offer seven pleas to pastors to help assist in reaching out and connecting with those who often feel the most neglected in the church.
1. Seek out those in your congregation who are living with and caring for the disabled.
Many Christians living with disability stay on the fringes of the church. Like Mephibosheth, who was lame in both feet (2 Samuel 9), they live in exile in the land of Lo-debar (which means “no pasture”) because they don’t feel welcomed in the greener pastures of the church and its corporate body life. Pastors must be intentional in going after them like any other sheep who need to sense the inclusive and enfolding love and care of Christ (Luke 15:4).
2. Make them as much a part of the congregation as any other group in your church.
The thought of coming out of the shadows can be intimidating for families with disability. They’ve had to navigate the various roads of discrimination, rejection, avoidance, and patronization almost everywhere they go.
So, they need a different experience with their family of faith — an experience in which believing will, in fact, lead to belonging, because their shepherds see them with the eyes of compassion (Matthew 9:36). Even a simple lunch on a Sunday afternoon can communicate volumes of your commitment to them as their caring shepherd.
3. Preach the power of weakness for the full display of God’s redemptive glory.
Until a congregation is led to the reality that God’s transforming power is displayed most fully in the weak and broken, few will make the connection between gospel truths and those suffering with disabilities. Our gospel beckons “all who labor and are heavy laden” to come to Christ for rest (Matthew 11:28–30; Luke 14:16–24).
Fostering an effective disability ministry and culture in your church starts from the top and works its way down into the lifeblood of the church. There’s significantly more to be gained by doing a series on Jesus’s interactions with the disabled in the Gospels than by simply having wider bathroom stalls (although that’s important too).
4. Mobilize those who have a heart to meet the particular needs of those living with disability.
Like all ministries in a local church, servant-volunteers are critical. Disability ministry in the church is no different. To faithfully shepherd your families and members with disability, you will need to rally your congregation to crush the barriers of ignorance, indifference, and fear.
Understandably, many people in the church are uninformed about the lives of those with disabilities and are afraid to broach the conversation for fear of saying or doing something wrong. Pastors can provide forums for discussion and training to make the world of disability more understandable and accessible to the whole congregation.
5. Model compassion for your congregation by spending time with the disabled of your church.
To walk in the steps of the chief Shepherd is to spend time with those who are diseased, lame, and blind (Matthew 4:23–24; 15:29–31). Leaders who show this commitment will inspire others to follow their example. Like King David of old, who displayed the covenant love of God by bringing the disabled son of Jonathan into his home to eat at his table regularly (2 Samuel 9:7–13), Christlike pastors will shape and stir the hearts of many by their time commitments and shepherding efforts to the disabled among them.
6. Learn from other churches who have thriving disability ministries.
It’s not easy doing what you’ve never seen before. Thankfully, there are churches who have strong disability ministries, which can serve as a template for your church. Reach out to those ministries. If they’re local, go by for a visit to see the things they are doing to serve their disabled community. Attending a conference on disabilities in the church might just change the whole trajectory of your ministry. Imitate those who are already walking in the steps of Jesus (1 Corinthians 11:1).
7. Think long-term and holistic rather than short-term and programmatic.
When serving families with disabilities, the tendency is to focus on meeting their short-term needs. There’s nothing wrong with starting ministries to help them practically, but what’s more important is to enfold them into the full life of the church. The goal of any ministry should be growth in discipleship and obedience to the word (Ephesians 4:11–16). It’s no different for those with special needs.
For the Glory of God
Pastors’ plates are already full. I know that firsthand. I pray no hardworking church leader will feel any unnecessary guilt after reading this article. God’s grace covers not only our sins, but our weaknesses that may give rise to neglecting certain people in our churches. But we cannot fully glorify our great God if we continue to marginalize those who are the weakest and most needy among us.
Jesus calls us to reach out to all who come to him in faith and hope. May we have the courage to cross whatever barriers necessary in order to love and care for the disabled minority within the walls of our churches, so that the one from whom and through whom and to whom are all things will receive greater glory through us.