Where do people who have profound intellectual impairments fit in the Church? Does it even matter if they go to church? Do they belong there? Does God have a plan and a purpose for their lives (Jeremiah 29:11), the way I believe He does for mine?
As a young mom of four children, two of whom have disabilities, including severe intellectual impairment, I asked God these tough questions. I imagine many ministry leaders wonder some of the same things but fear asking. It’s natural to wonder and it’s okay to ask. It’s in wrestling with such questions, pressing into Jesus in prayer and exploration of His Word we not only find answers but gain a deeper understanding of who Jesus intended the Church to be.
Why would we want to attract MORE people with disabilities?
In most parts of the world, ability, aptitude, and achievements are celebrated. Ableism is rampant. Most societies were built without regard for disabled people because such people were largely not visibly present. Many were excluded from opportunities to contribute and lacked true friendship. Thankfully, in my part of the world, society is the changing and the church culture is as well. However, church culture will always be more attractive if it is patterned after the life of Jesus.
People with disabilities were drawn to Jesus not only for the healing power they thought He might be afford them, leading to a better societal status, but because of the love and acceptance He freely offered to everyone. Jesus loved people outrageously and spoke differently than the religious and governmental leaders of the day, causing people from all walks of life to follow Him. Being near Jesus and hearing Him speak was life-giving. Jesus was irresistible.
Once He left this Earth, having accomplished the will of God for His life, He left His Holy Spirit and instituted the Church. All those who followed Jesus were no longer hopeless in their existence under the tyrannical Roman government. They knew Jesus was the long-awaited savior and found a sense of community among the believers. Each one had a personal relationship with the Savior and as the Church, they became a movement many others wanted to be part of, including Rome. As Rome witnessed the compassion the Christians had on the Roman babies who were considered “defectives,” hardened hearts were changed, infanticide abolished and Christianity was declared the national religion. The Church is incomplete when people with disabilities are missing. Creating a church culture that focuses on attracting people with disabilities is what will draw even more people to Jesus, to Jesus in us—the Church.
Is the Church responsible for fostering friendships?
People with intellectual impairments and social deficits have historically been devalued by society and are often not selected as friends. Many also lack the skills it takes to make friends, something most non-disabled people take for granted. Very often, people with intellectual disabilities only have interactions with paid relaters or family members. Since God highly values friendship, the Church can play a vital role for those who need support in this area. By creating an inclusive atmosphere, promoting participation in the life of the church, and uncovering where someone can serve, real friendships can naturally flourish. True friendship comes by spending time with, getting to know, and caring about someone else. Believers who become friends can then encourage, support and find ways for someone with a disability to serve.
Do people with severe intellectual impairments even want to serve?
It is fair to say that some people with profound intellectual impairments may be unable to answer questions regarding their spiritual gifts and preferred areas of service. A great starting point is to ask family members and/or caregivers and personally pay closer attention. I would guess that most people with intellectual impairments and their families have never been asked about where they can serve in the Church. This is different than asking which supports are needed. When it seems the person with the impairment is an unlikely to be able to serve, ask anyway. Asking is including. By seeing all people as value added, rather than situations to be tolerated or handled, the Church will be blessed as a whole. There are many areas people with intellectual impairments can serve; imagine the possibilities rather than fearing the disasters.
If someone can’t understand the message, then why do they need to be in church?
As a mom of kids with multiple disabilities and wills of their own, it would be much easier to stay at home on Sunday morning. Years ago the Lord spoke clearly to me: Just as you are working hard to nurture your two non-disabled children’s spiritual development, you are also to nourish your two disabled children’s spiritual lives. It wasn’t my job to worry about what they comprehended. My job was to do my best and lean on Jesus with every complex step. I wanted to obey and trust that we would be accepted, but the fear of rejection was real. When tradition says, “In church, we must sit quietly for this part, and stand reverently for that part and blend in for the most part,” we can’t help worrying. For many families affected by disability those worries aren’t unfounded. We don’t want to distract or irritate others, allow our kids to become a spectacle, or worse, be asked to leave.
As my children have grown, things have become more challenging and some Sundays we must gather on the couches as a family to watch a service online. We thank God for the option and freedom to do so. My questions keep coming and God keeps answering. All people matter to God; He has a plan and a purpose in disability and a place of service for each one because in the Church, everybody fits.
Andrea Foster is a disability ministry consultant, wife and mom of four teenagers. Her two youngest are twins who have Tuberous Sclerosis Complex. She is a certified Leader for Beyond Suffering – A Christian View on Disability Ministry (Joni and Friends). Follow Andrea at http://www.andreafoster.ca/ and on Facebook.