I have often thought that one of the most interesting stories in the Bible is the story of Jesus interacting with a blind man from the town of Bethsaida. This story is found in the gospel of Mark and is recorded as one of the few times that Jesus had to progressively work to heal someone. After having to touch the blind man a second time thus completing the healing process, Mark says that Jesus says something strange. “Don’t go back into the village on your way home” (Mark 8:26 NLT).
This was after Jesus led the man out of the village in order to address his needs. This is not the first time that Mark records something peculiar about the healing ministry of Jesus. Mark also records that Jesus had difficulty doing miracles in his hometown Nazareth (Mark 6:4-5).
Many scholars believe that one of the major reasons that Mark records these encounters is to demonstrate the critically important role of environment when observing the ministry of Jesus, particularly to the disability community.
The majority of Jesus’ miracles were performed in the earliest days of his ministry, and while he healed many people with disabilities, a summary of his ministry to the disability community suggests that his healing ministry was more about creating opportunities for true community than it was correcting people’s disabilities.
Mark’s gospel helps to emphasize the importance of having the right type of environment for developing a Christ-centered approach to meeting the needs of the special-needs and disability community, a need that is not simply centered around physical healing but finding a community of faith that they can call home.
As a pastor who is learning to navigate the world of my own autism diagnosis as well as the world of leading a church, I am often asked by special-needs families how to find a church that can help meet their spiritual needs. What are some of the ways that families can discover if the environment is right for the development of a healthy Christ centered ministry to the special needs/disability community?
While many churches are struggling to meet the needs of these families in their community, I have found that there are four characteristics of churches that already have the type of environment that can over time serve as a foundation for building a solid special-needs ministry for families who need their support.
People over programs.
Churches that value people over programs have the type of environment that is conducive to creating a great special needs ministry. More often than not churches in the beginning stages may be unable to meet the required resources for a complete special needs ministry, however a church that prioritizes people over programming normally has the proper attitude even if the currently lack the proper accommodations. Our church learned this valuable lesson a few years ago when we adjusted an entire summer program to ensure that we could meet the needs of one family with special needs children.
Celebrated not tolerated.
A church that has the right environment for a Christ centered ministry to those with special needs has an environment where difference is celebrated and not merely tolerated. Churches that value diversity normally already have a great culture for creating ministry for special needs families. Ethnic and racial diversity is important but in addition look for diversity of leadership, diversity of thought, diversity of age. Churches that value the voices of all types of people tend to have a strong value for acknowledging and celebrating the image of God seen in all people.
Circles over rows.
The Sunday morning worship experience is the gateway for most families into the life of the church but churches that have a strong emphasis on interpersonal relationships most often have a strong sense of community. Churches that have a focus on facilitating those type of relationships more often than not promote some form of small group involvement as the primary vehicle for relationship building and discipleship. Churches who focus on getting people into circles instead of merely settling for sitting in rows can be the type of church that has the right environment for creating a great special needs ministry. When relationships, friendships, and discipleship are a larger focus than Sunday worship, churches tend to be more open to developing a ministry that includes special needs families in their overall vision for creating Christ-centered community.
Pastor approval vs. Pastor apathy
Anything important that happens at a church is normally because it is important to the pastor and leaders of the church. As a pastor I can say that most pastors are extremely busy people with extremely unpredictable lives and schedules. On the other hand, as a pastor I can say that like most people, pastor’s make time for what’s important. They are mission and vision driven. Churches that have a great environment for building a ministry for special needs families are churches that have the pastor’s public approval and not just the pastor’s private acknowledgement for the need to care for the spiritual needs of the disability community. While the pastor doesn’t have to be the direct leader or overseer of the ministry, he or she should be a leading voice in exposing the congregation to the need to serve special needs families. This can be done in a variety of ways, but as the primary communicator to the congregation, the pastor must lead the charge. If you find a church where the pastor even periodically speaks about the need to serve special-needs families, you may have found a church that is headed in the right direction.
Dr. Lamar Hardwick is the lead pastor of New Community Church and the author of I am Strong: The Life and Journey of an Autistic Pastor and Epic Church: 5 Steps to Becoming the Church Jesus is Building. You can follow him at www.autismpastor.com and on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram