The answer to this question seems to be rather simple. It would be ministry to people with a disability or special needs.

But what does that look like?

I recently encountered a comment by a church leader who was asking if it was worth having a disability ministry since they “only” have about four children with special needs in their church. To be honest, this statement shocked me.

I understand what the person was saying. They were asking if that is enough children to have an organized ministry that was aimed solely at children with special needs.

But is that the definition of disability ministry? Does disability ministry require its own staff person or volunteers? Does it require its own room and time to meet? As a parent of two children with autism, I would just assume that any church that we attended would provide ministry even if there were no other children with special needs. It would never enter my mind that ministry would have to wait until “critical mass.” I am not criticizing churches that have organized disability ministries that have specific events for large groups of people with special needs. I am just saying that is not the only form of disability ministry.

Those interested in disability ministry may find it interesting that there is an important conversation going on about the nature of youth ministry. There are some prominent voices arguing that the church made a mistake by having separate youth ministries and that the intent should have always been to have a generationally integrated church, that is the church should have become youth-friendly. As a former youth pastor, I do see the importance of youth groups but I can also appreciate the points on both sides.

There may be something in the youth conversation for disabilities ministries to learn from. What should the ultimate goal of the church be for those with special needs? Should it be to offer a disability program or should it be to make the church disability-friendly? A disability program may be a step toward that goal, but it is not the final goal.

autism-friendlyI recently wrote a book called How to Make Your Church Autism-Friendly (available in print or on Kindle). It is purposely not How to Set Up an Autism Ministry. As important as disability ministries are, they often miss the needs of the entire family. When a church becomes disability-friendly, it will begin to see the needs of the parents and siblings as well as the person with the disability.

If your church has an organized disability ministry, God bless you. Use that as one part of the goal of welcoming those with disabilities and their families into your community. If you are a small church with one person with special needs, God bless you. You have no less opportunity for ministry than the big church.

 

Stephen Bedard is married with five children and lives in Cambridge, ON. He is the director of Hope’s Reason and his website is www.stephenjbedard.com.

In the video below Stephen describes his journey to becoming involved in resourcing accessible ministry:

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4 Thoughts on “What is Disability Ministry?

  1. Branka Gudelj on June 18, 2015 at 5:17 pm said:

    Can you tell me a bit more about baptism of an adult with a developmental delay? How do various Christian faiths view this?

    • Hi Branka, thanks for your question! This would be responded to in many different ways across church denominations and faith traditions, which would require significant study. However, I can point you to one of the more thoughtful accounts from the Baptist tradition which could be shared with pastors who may have not thought through the issue in greater detail. Back in January we posted A place for Camille featuring Jason D. Whitt of Baylor University. He wrote the article on baptism to which I am referring, available as a PDF here: “Baptism and Profound Intellectual Disability”. I hope this is helpful!

      • Branka Gudelj on June 23, 2015 at 11:08 pm said:

        Many, many thanks for your speedy and comprehensive reply. Much appreciated.

        I have also concluded that to me, baptism of my son would be a public declaration of our family, of our congregation and cultural community that we welcome him into Christ’s kingdom. My son does not understand abstract concepts. I have therefore puchased Nativity Scene figures. Through repetition, he has learned the names of each figure. He has learned that Jesus is our friend and that he loves us. He can point out Jesus’ mommy and daddy and the 3 kings who brought birthday gifts. I can only teach this by using figures my son can touch and using the language he can understand.

        I would like the Godparents be those who will believe in Christ and show this love through acts of kindness and caring for my son, a person who may not be able to show appreciation, gratitude or loving emotion in return. How can I ask someone to love my son when he does not show love in return? I know that after a while most people give up…

        Also, my hope is that Godparents would check on my son when I am gone. To see if he is safe, clean, fed etc. I have high hopes. I know that I am looking for extra-ordinary Godparents. If you have any practical tips as to how I can bring potential Godparents closer to my son and together, closer to Christ, please feel free to let me know.

        The bottom line is that I want my son to be part of our community. I don’t want him to be like Boo, a character in ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’ who came out only at night. Again, his baptism, to me, would be our public declaration that we welcome and love him as he is.

        P.S. My son is an adult but mentally he is still a baby. He will never rob a bank, cheat on the stock market nor rape a woman. He is just not capable of such sins. He is a good soul. He can’t read and write or understand the Gospel. Still, I know that I love him and Christ loves him, too.. You’ve really put my mind at ease when it comes to that by sending me the attached articles. Thank you!

        • I love what you’ve said here Branka, you have hit the ‘nail on the head’ when you say that it’s a sign of welcome into Christ’s kingdom. Your example of the Nativity scene figures is brilliant!

          Your question brought to mind similar questions that we’ve been asked by pastors or families in the past around baptism, and I wanted to address it with a bit more space, so I actually put together a post on it based on one that Neil Cudney had written in the past. You can read the new post here: https://www.disabilityandfaith.org/should-we-baptize-people-with-intellectual-disabilities/

          I would love to read any comments you have at the post above. I am wishing that I had read your comment here before writing, as you identify many of the same concerns and ideas. You may wish to look into the “vertical habits” mentioned in the new post as a way for potential Godparents to connect relationally with your son and, in turn, with God.

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