My daughter, Carly, has been in an adapted dance class for the past six years. She is a young adult with intellectual-developmental disabilities who absolutely loves music. She uses some signs and gestures when she communicates and prays. When we’re in church, Carly’s passions, faith and communication style are reflected in her very active worship dancing. So when she learned to do “Freeze Dance” in her Darby’s Dancer’s class, I started dreaming about a day when churches far and wide would be fully embracing the art and gift of diverse expressions in worship with people of all abilities. Little did I know how God would use a modification of a simple dance game to inspire my church in seeing worship and people with disabilities with fresh vision and a deepened spirit of belonging.
This came about as part of a disability awareness series launched at my church last summer. Intentionality about disability outreach in my church had seemed a long-time-coming. In fact, several people inside and outside of my church had been praying about it for at least two years. After a meeting with our elder board about some missions support, our leadership team had an awakening of sorts. One of the elders said, “We need to understand this better as a church,” and then asked, “How can we educate our people about this and do better together as it relates to our families affected by disability?”
You bet I was excited to hear that! But as I praised God that our leaders were gaining inspiration, I was still unsure about what the process of education and implementation might look like. I shared the 5 Stages of Disability Attitudes with my senior pastor, and conversations continued for several weeks. One day in the spring, my pastor approached me with an idea. He invited me to help produce a series of videos that would increase awareness and understanding. Together, we developed a list of individuals and families affected by disability in our church who may be willing to tell their personal stories about how they experience church.
The overarching theme of the series was “Special Friends with Indispensable Gifts.” These were our goals:
Celebrate and show value for people with disabilities and other special needs
Reduce the intimidation factors associated with disability
Build awareness about special needs challenges, hidden disabilities, related resources and associated opportunities around us
Encourage the church by demonstrating some “successes”
Inspire and empower people to engage with individuals and families affected by disability, chronic illness, aging-related conditions and other special needs
Ignite conversations about the future of ministry with people affected by disability in our community.
There were six short videos in the series, each ranging from 3 to 5 minutes long. The titles are listed below and linked to each video in the series.
Week 1: Valuing All
Week 2: Welcoming All
Week 3: Making the Gospel Accessible
Week 4: Caring for Each Other
Week 5: Worshipping Together
Week 6: Being a Friend & Co-Laborer
Week 3 was a Family Sunday and 4th of July weekend. Sunday School volunteers were given the weekend off. Though we don’t typically have a children’s story time during services at our church, our pastors decided it would be a perfect weekend to follow the disability awareness video with a special children’s story. They asked me to come read Jesus, Let’s Talk, which included teaching some signs and gestures. I came up after the video about Making the Gospel Accessible and shared a really special time with the children. You can watch it here.
On Week 5, our congregation had a “Freeze Dance” Worship Party at every service that weekend. Oh, how I wish they had videotaped that! What joy!
Feedback on the series has been very encouraging. Church leaders and I have heard from dozens of people in our congregation, expressing appreciation for the series and for helping them better understand others. Several people told me, “Damon’s story helped me see people with disabilities as so much more approachable.” Someone said,“Rita’s story gave us more ideas about how we can be a better friend to her and others.” Praise God that He is moving people to see and respond differently. There is new recognition about how prevalent disabilities are among us. There is special gratitude from parents who are raising children with special needs and aging spouses who have become caregivers, due to things like stroke, cancer and dementia.
Nationwide, this is an exciting time in the evolution of disability awareness and support for individuals and families affected by special needs. Resources abound for families and churches like never before. More than 90% of church-going special needs parents say the most helpful support they receive is a “welcoming attitude toward people with disabilities.”
I want to extend special thanks to Plymouth Covenant Church for investing significant time, resources, heart and prayer in this series and for prayerfully considering God’s next steps for our church. And thanks to our worship pastor for trying something new with us.
Here’s the bottom line: we need to start with prayer, recognizing that families of kids with special needs are in desperate need of local churches where they can experience the love of Jesus. And more than learning to “be nice,” let’s pray for church communities of diverse abilities and gifts that truly engage in relationships together—doing life together, enjoying God together and co-laboring with each other.
Hallelujah, our God is profoundly expressive and creative. Let us be so, too!
2 Samuel 6:14-15
“And David danced before the Lord with all his might, wearing a priestly garment. So David and all the people of Israel brought up the Ark of the Lord with shouts of joy and the blowing of ram’s horns.”
Lisa Jamieson is the author of books and Bible studies including the Finding Glory series of resources and a delightful children’s book on prayer called Jesus, Let’s Talk. She is founder-director of the Minnesota Disability Ministry Connection and co-founder of Walk Right In Ministries where she serves as a caregiver coach. Lisa and her husband, Larry, have been married over 30 years and have three grown daughters. Their daughter, Carly, has Angelman Syndrome and lives at home with them in Maple Grove, Minnesota.