The Bible teaches there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free and no male and female; for all who have been born again are one in Christ Jesus. In the wake of this biblical truth, a select group of people in communities struggle still today to find a church where they can praise, honor, and worship God freely. They are treated by many as castaways, the unfortunate, and an unwanted weight to carry. They are people with intellectual disabilities.
“When our children were small, we tried to find a church,” said one woman, who prefers to remain anonymous, as she described the challenge of finding a church that would accept her three children who each have a special need. “Churches would ask us the ages of the children, and we, knowing our children understood and behaved differently than those without special needs, were put in the position of trying to decide where our children would best fit in.”
In the book, Special Needs Special Ministry, Pat Verbal stresses that just about every church has several unique ministries to meet various needs. He points out that there are men’s ministries, women’s ministries, senior adult ministries, children’s ministries, etc. More often than not, rarely does one find a church with a special needs ministry.1 It is even more rare to find a church where those with special needs are not merely tolerated, but integrated into the membership.
The mother of three further shared that it has been her family’s experience that most churches often fall short in one of two ways. The church either offers a separate program for people with disabilities, or it chooses to ignore the problem. She said that an independent ministry often does just that; it excludes people with special needs from the rest of the church membership, where those with special needs continue to feel isolated.
Nearly 50 percent of parents said they avoid religious activities because of their special needs child not being included or welcome, according to a Church4EveryChild.org report. The report also states that up to 32 percent of parents have left at least one church for the same reason.
Some churches are on the right track towards faith inclusion for everyone, such as Woodland Heights Baptist Church, located in Chesapeake, Virginia. “It’s not a sacrifice that we make to ‘put up with’ people who are different from us,” said Dr. Jason Hutcheson, who serves as an associate pastor at the church. “It’s what begins to make us whole.”
Hutcheson shared the example described by Apostle Paul in his letter to the Corinthian church. The apostle told the people that the body is not one member, but many, and he details how each member is unique and gifted for a specific purpose. Hutcheson’s point is that so are the people in the community who have special needs.
“We are each gifted individually to do the work that God calls us to, but the collective gifts of us all are needed to accomplish the church’s whole work,” said Hutcheson. “This is the essence of inclusion; we seek to bring healing to the Church’s brokenness that has persisted far too long.” He further shared that “God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong… so that no one may boast before him.”
To that, I can personally testify having been in special needs ministry for more than a decade. I discovered that people with intellectual disabilities have a natural innocence in their faith and genuine warmth when giving praise and adoration to the Lord. I have often heard that people with intellectual disabilities will always be limited in what they can achieve. Therefore, let me help add some clarity to the subject at hand.
“‘For I know the plans that I have for you’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope'” (Jer. 29:11)
While people with intellectual disabilities may never understand the complexities of our nation’s laws, they know God’s commandments. While they may never lead a corporation as CEO, they can lead someone to Christ. While they may never rise to be elected as the U.S. President, they will one day rise to sit on the throne with the King of kings. It would seem those of the world are the real underachievers in life.
On the day Jesus returns to rapture His church, the whole church will be unified and caught up to meet Him in the clouds. Since we are all of one body, the body of Christ, it is time for the church to act as one body, not one that tolerates each part, but one of acceptance and inclusion.
1. Verbal P. (2004). Why Your Church Needs a Special Needs Ministry. M. Keefer (Ed.), Special Needs Ministry for Children’s Ministry (pp. 8-19). Loveland, CO: Group Publishing.
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