Three Ways The Church Can Better Serve Special Needs Families
Luke 14:15-24 has been referred to as the “Lost Great Commission” or the “Lost Mandate.” In this parable Jesus tells a story of man who is hosting a large banquet. He sends out the usual R.S.V.P.’s. Much to his dismay, each of the invitations was refused. The man then turned to his servant and asked him to go find the poor, maimed, blind, and lame and bring them to his celebration. When room is still available he instructs the servant to go further out of the city and bring those along the highways and lanes. The desire of the host was that his great banquet would be filled.
One implication taught through this parable is the inclusionary nature of the Kingdom of God. Those who are marginalized by society because of disability find themselves welcomed by the Master. This story challenges the church today to model a similar acceptance in a cold and calculated culture where value and significance is measured by appearance and contribution. These measurements leave those who have a disability feeling unwelcomed and alienated. I believe a church that takes seriously this mandate will engage in three important practices.
1. Create a climate of inclusive hospitality.
Many churches have a plan for creating an attractive environment that immediately welcomes visitors. They have strategically placed parking lots attendants, greeters, and representatives in order to produce an inviting atmosphere. Yet, this plan does not often consider that the newest visitor to the congregation could be a person with a disability. An accessible church will formulate a plan so that a visitor who has a special need will be easily, conveniently, and enthusiastically accommodated in a welcoming atmosphere.
If a family has a child with a cognitive disability, who will be responsible to welcome the family, access the need through parental conversation, and suggest a suitable plan for the service? If a visitor arrives who is visually impaired, what plan is in place to ensure that he is included in corporate worship? The simple gesture of having a braille Bible available would go along way in making the guest feel at home. Strategically placed handicapped seating that is not confined to the back of the sanctuary and also allows for families to sit together in worship also demonstrates an expectant welcome.
When a church has a plan in place to welcome those with disability, they are demonstrating a generous and inclusive hospitality. It is a hospitality that says, “We have been waiting for you.” As the number of people with a diagnosed disability continues to rise it is essential for churches to thoughtfully consider how hospitable they actually are.
2. Minister to every member of the family.
Disability ministry is family ministry. This concept often eludes those who are implementing a disability ministry program in their church. The intention is to focus solely on the one whose life has been touched by disability. They invite interested church members to form a “buddy system” for the disabled child. Perhaps a specific Sunday School class is established for those who attend church and have a disability.
Each of these ministry opportunities demonstrates compassion and addresses a particular individual need. However, while disability affects one family member it impacts the whole family. There is mother and father who may not have been out on a date for some time because they do not know who to entrust with the care of their child. There may be a sibling whose adolescent apprehensions also include concerns for a brother or sister with a disability. Perhaps they even find themselves as the designated caregiver at times when they simply what to hang out with their own friends. An accessible church will consider how they can address the needs of the family as well as the needs of the disabled individual.
3. Engage in collaborative ministry as part of missional ministry.
To often the focus of disability ministry is one of mission rather than collaboration. In other words, churches will host an event or function that directly targets the disabled in their community. If the event is successful some will attend the church and perhaps even make a profession of faith. Yet, there is little consideration given to involving those with disabilities in the full body-life of the church. This is a tragic misstep.
God has gifted every believer for the work of the ministry within the church. Sadly, those with disabilities can find themselves on the sidelines because no one has taken the time to understand how they are uniquely gifted and can contribute to the body of Christ. This may not be an easy process but it will be a rewarding one. I believe a church that takes seriously the giftedness of their disabled members will experience firsthand the delight of worship without pretense. They will encounter a celebration of His redemption that is magnified in beautiful weakness and awe-inspiring honesty.
One way that the church can be a powerful example of the compassion of Christ is to model a ministry of acceptance and inclusion for those with disabilities. In doing so, the church will be welcoming those that Christ called us to bring into His great banquet.