We walked into the gym of our friend Lainie’s church in Texas and our jaws dropped. This gym didn’t just have bean bags or a box of sensory toys, it had a full-blown, McDonald’s-esque play area—slides, ball pits, the works. Maybe this kind of thing wouldn’t have felt like culture shock when I was living in Texas, but now that I live in Baltimore and go to a church plant of about two hundred people, this kind of set-up is definitely something that makes my jaw drop.
We may not be able to invest in a sensory wall or build a separate gym for kids with special needs, but there is a lot we can—and did!—learn from Lainie, as we figured out how to get started including people with disabilities in our own context. So if you’re a church that has an amazing disability ministry, here’s some practical things you can do to help extend your ministry beyond the walls of your own church, and help other churches take one more step on their special needs ministry journey as well.
Allow people interested in starting a disability ministry to observe or tour your facilities. So often, it is hard to imagine what something could be like when it is just an idea. Seeing how someone else has set up their inclusive classrooms, created sensory-friendly spaces, or made a stage or bathroom accessible can help make ideas more concrete, and help people start dreaming about what God might have them do! Even better than seeing the facilities, though, is seeing how your operations actually work in real life. Of course, this requires safety precautions and background checks, but ten minutes watching what your one-on-one volunteers do on a Sunday morning or hearing from a family involved in your ministry can make all the difference for someone who has never seen disability ministry done well. I think Paul recognized our tendency to take things we see more seriously when he told the Corinthians, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). What can others learn just by seeing what you model for them? Perhaps these relationships will turn into mentorship opportunities, as those who visit take what they’ve learned and apply it in their own context.
Support a missionary or church plant who is sent to the disability community. Our friends at ReachGlobal’s Marginal Ministry Network have missionaries all over Eastern Europe who are serving people with disabilities holistically, many of whom have no access to the services we have in the US. Recently, as we talked to some of these friends, they shared about a trip to a rural village where many of the Roma population lived. Not only did these people have a high rate of mobility impairments, they also had few to no wheelchairs or assistive devices, had experienced a polio outbreak and had no healthcare anywhere near their village. Missionaries are going to these populations, but they need support and encouragement to keep up this ministry.
Host an event to inspire other churches to get involved. We are so excited that churches like McLean Bible Church is hosting an event with us this summer to help build bridges between disability and something a lot of other churches in our area care deeply about—social justice. Churches who are passionate about disability ministry are perfectly positioned to inspire other churches to get involved by hosting a lunchtime talk to share your congregation’s journey or your own motivations behind including people with disabilities.
Share your curriculum or training materials. Many small churches or churches who are new to disability ministry may benefit from seeing the curriculum that others are using to teach their Sunday school students with special needs, or the training material for greeters on disability etiquette. Making your content available to others is a great way to build the kingdom and resource others with little additional effort. At The Banquet Network, we have seen churches benefit greatly from sharing their intake forms, curricula and materials with others.
Jesus said that the harvest is ripe. There are people with disabilities in every community, and yet not every community has a church with a thriving and welcoming place for people with disabilities. But Jesus also told his disciples this in response to the lack of workers—PRAY. Jesus didn’t tell His disciples to immediately jump into the work, believing that they could gather all the harvest themselves. He knew more than just the twelve were needed. Let’s remember that God can raise up more people passionate about including and welcoming people with disabilities into God’s kingdom, and let’s pray for Him to do that.
Hunter and Amberle Brown help lead an organization called The Banquet Network that is based in Baltimore, MD. The Banquet Network primarily works with church plants to inspire, equip, and resource them to reach people with disabilities who are on the margins of their communities. Hunter works full time at Goucher College and is a part-time Masters of Theology student at St. Mary’s Ecumenical Institute in Baltimore. Amberle works full-time for World Relief, an international health and development NGO, and is passionate about helping churches include and reach people with disabilities based on her own experience of becoming visually impaired and her encounters with people with disabilities in her work in developing countries.