Ministering to the disabled is not just a fine idea. It is an imperative.
Governmental and charitable agencies are giving more attention to the needs of the disabled in terms of architecture, education, employment, housing, rehabilitation, and transportation. In large measure, the disabled, comprising more than 25 million Americans, can be credited with raising the nation’s awareness of these needs. At the same time, churches, with notable exceptions, are missing the mark in developing effective ministries for these people.
As a disabled person, I rejoice at these secular strides, slow as they might be, but I am saddened that churches are dragging their feet in ministering to the emotionally, mentally, and physically handicapped. This is not due to disinterest, but because there is no well-defined implementation and context of ministry. Furthermore, other needs have pressed churches from all sides, pushing ministry among the handicapped into the background. A subconscious rationale suggests that “the disabled are always with us.”
At best, this is a poor excuse. It represents the antithesis of Jesus’ active and compassionate ministry to the disabled. He actively ministers to these people in roughly one-third of the gospel accounts. Jesus had compassion for their bondage, and sensed their potential. Churches must emulate their Lord; they must be motivated by compassion and sense potential in initiating a ministry, in the midst of other pressing needs, to which the disabled might well give help.
Another factor is that this ministry is needed both to check and to support secular advances. While these are important, there is no way all of the needs can be met. We are living in an economic crunch in which the disabled share. Under all circumstances, secular solutions are never the total answer; in fact, without a vital and growing spiritual dimension, the answer is very fragmented. Distinct Christian influence and input is needed to make realistic advances, to encourage help from the private sector, and to equip disabled persons with a Christ-centered spiritual understanding that recognizes real victory is never achieved through legislation but rather within one’s self. This comes when one has a viable relationship with Christ.
Reasons for starting an effective ministry among the disabled in the local church are perfectly obvious to many. They are not so obvious to others. In either case, those reasons need to be examined and thoroughly understood by both minister and congregation; action follows.
There are a number of important components that need to be examined. An important word in the vocabulary of a handicapped person is accessibility. Far too many churches silently say to the disabled. We don’t want you—demonstrating this by numerous architectural barriers. Granted, it is unreasonable to expect all churches to be completely accessible. But when a church undergoes renovation, accessibility features should be included wherever possible: ramps, handrails, an elevator. When a new church is to be built, a comprehensive study should be made of those features that ensure accessibility for people with a wide range of handicapping conditions: these should be incorporated into building plans.
Transportation is also a major problem for the handicapped. Churches should be able to offer transportation by car, van, or bus for those who have a legitimate need. Architectural and transportation considerations such as these have been described as “external evangelism.”
The vital components of a ministry to the handicapped are counseling, theology, and healing. Counseling is defined here as a perpetual relationship between a disabled person and pastor and/or congregation, nourished in Christ’s love and power. The relationship must be grounded in honesty, sincerity, and a mutual probing of meaningful answers to life’s gnawing “whys?” Static, pat answers are no good. A minister assuring a handicapped person from a distance that God loves him and that one day he will be rewarded is frequently of little comfort. But a mutual discovery of God’s love in the midst of pain and disappointment can bring joy and motivation.
Counseling ministry must reach disabled persons of all ages, as well as their families. Sometimes family members have a greater need to develop coping skills and to eliminate guilt. Ministers and concerned members also need to have a working knowledge of community resources for assisting the handicapped in education, rehabilitation, and vocational opportunities.
A positive understanding theologically of self and disability is closely related to counseling. Theology cannot be so much taught here as it is learned in the context of Christian fellowship. The person who begins to understand, finds a peace; his life is set in positive motion. That has been my experience. The answers are not static, but evolving and expanding, rooted as they are in Christ’s love.
While questions of this nature can never be fully answered this side of eternity, they are satisfactory if they are not spoonfed to an individual. He must discover them within the supportive love and nurture of Christian fellowship. It is a move on the theological spectrum from God’s punishment, to him willing the disability for a glorious reason, to him allowing it because a physical law was violated. In his wisdom, he allowed; but he also sustains. Empowered by the Resurrection, we can build purpose and worthiness from life’s rubble. There is no time here for pity, and it is in building that abilities are discovered. It is less important that we be at the same place on the spectrum than that we be constantly maturing into a fuller comprehension of God’s love.
In my experience, the word “healing” has been both terrifying and hopeful. There have been repulsive times when it was challenged that enough faith would effect healing—bringing someone wholeness. Such challenges are cheap, manipulative, and can cause much damage in creating guilt feelings. Many have discovered the healing process on a deeper level where it is mediated through God’s grace, and Christ’s power becomes a past, present, and future experience. The experience is both real and comforting. It is predicated not on one act, nor on a quantity of faith, but upon the willingness to make certain that spiritual growth is never ending.
We cannot, however, deny the physical healings of the New Testament. They were real. Mainstream Christianity is prone to sidetrack the issue, and this must cease. Ministers grounded in the integrity of the Scriptures need to inspire their congregations to pray with compassion, sincerity, and expectancy for all manifestations of healing.
An individual’s disability is secondary to his personhood, which needs a vital awareness and living relationship with Christ. When these dynamic dimensions are instilled in people, the transforming “I am living with Christ in both pain and joy” experience occurs—dimensions for all people.
Ministering to the disabled is not just a fine idea, it is imperative!
LOUIS MICHAUXMr. Michaux is a free-lance writer living in Richmond. Virginia, where he works with Handicaps Unlimited.
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