Christian Horizons’ Vision is that: “People who experience disabilities belong to communities in which their God-given gifts are valued and respected.” This Vision is supported by seven unique Service Principles (you can find the list of these principles here). These Service Principles describe the ways in which Christian Horizons supports people. This is the fifth in a series of posts that takes a look at these service principles, to learn how they are important in serving others whether in social services or as part of faith communities.

Christian Horizons’ fifth Service Principle is: “We Encourage Continuous Growth and Development.”

We believe that people grow and develop throughout their life. We recognize that people with exceptional needs are at risk for not having access to opportunities for growth and development, therefore, we will work to support people to explore opportunities to try new things and pursue their goals.

Christian Horizons’ emphasis on lifelong growth and development is valuable because it recognizes the dignity and potential of every person, regardless of their chronological age or life stage. This is countercultural to North American society which frequently diminishes the skills of the young and undermines the wisdom of the aged population.

The growth and development of people who experience disabilities may be at particular risk because assumptions about a person’s limitations – often even more than their actual limitations – may impede or get in the way of a person’s growth. Family, friends, and service providers may operate on the misconception that people with intellectual disabilities achieve their maximum potential very early in life. Even if this seems to be the case, it is because our definition of growth and development needs to broaden beyond physical or developmental milestones. Growth and development take many forms including, but not limited to, practical skills, social, emotional and spiritual growth.

The principle of continuous growth and development is especially important for the church as it is reflected in Scripture passages such as Cor. 9:10, Eph 4:15, Col 1:10, 1 Thes 4:10, Heb 6:1, 1 Pet 2:2, 2 Pet 3:18, 2 Thes 1:3. The expectation of spiritual growth may be one of the most difficult aspects of the Christian faith to put into practice because growth of any kind is often difficult and even painful. Spiritual growth, in particular, is different for every person and it can be hard to measure, but God designed us to grow and develop through our lives because the results are rewarding. Growth and development foster reciprocity, as one can impart their knowledge or experience to others who do not have that knowledge or experience. Growth and development also ensure relief from negative life circumstances due to their impermanence. Our experience and spiritual maturity stay with us even through difficult times.

Despite the benefits of growth and development, many people who experience disabilities lack opportunities for it. Sometimes people refrain from encouraging people with intellectual disabilities to grow and challenge themselves for fear of upsetting the status quo or inconveniencing others. For example, if an adult with an intellectual disability appears content in the children’s ministry then why would we challenge them to engage in the adult ministry? There is no denying that such a transition may be uncomfortable, difficult, frustrating or even painful in the short term. Most growth spurts are! Yet, this adult may surprise fellow adults without disabilities by their depth of faith or spiritual expression. Adults with intellectual disabilities will likely benefit from opportunities to grow spiritually, socially and emotionally with other adults. They could also foster the conditions for adults who are typically-abled to grow in the ability to be hospitable and inclusive, similar to members of the children’s ministry. This is important because hospitality and inclusion are Christlike qualities that should be expected of faithful adults as much as they are expected of faithful children.

You can foster the growth and development of others, particularly people who experience disabilities, in your church or community by recognizing their gifts and talents, presenting opportunities for them to utilize their gifts, and encouraging them to develop their skills. It is important to remember that if people, like other living things, are not provided with the conditions that foster growth, they will rarely demonstrate the ability to grow to their fullest potential.

Barriers to growth and development for some people who experience disabilities may include (but are not limited to) a lack of finances, educational supports, or reliable transportation. In the face of such obstacles, it may seem preferable to the individual or those supporting them to give up, but this solution is very short-sighted in terms of an individual’s quality of life and the wider society may miss a valuable opportunity to improve! In the short term, you could make a significant difference by offering to support someone who experiences disabilities who is facing such barriers. In the long term, advocating for such barriers to be addressed systemically may be a meaningful way that you can show solidarity with people of all abilities and promote broader societal improvement.