Several weeks ago, I was asked a question regarding special needs ministry that I honestly could not answer. When I could not answer the question, the person that asked the question replied by stating that they came to me because I was an expert in disability and special needs ministry.
I am a pastor. I myself have a developmental disability. I am a passionate advocate for disability inclusion in society and within the church. I have been blessed to attend some of the finest educational institutions from which I have acquired multiple degrees. I love what I get to do for a living and for God’s kingdom, however I will never be an expert.
Being An Expert
Truthfully, there was a time not too long ago when I wanted to be considered an expert. There seems to be a certain panache that comes with being considered an expert in your field. People look to you and look up to you. The church and the academy nod with approval and your words and your work find its place among the great thinkers and practitioners of our time. Being an expert seems to have its advantages. Then there are times when being an expert isn’t enough to help change someone’s experience. The old saying is true: people don’t care how much you know, they want to know how much you care.
“One day an expert in religious law stood up to test Jesus by asking him this question: “Teacher, what should I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25 NLT)
What follows is the commandment to love, and the story we have come to know as the parable of the Good Samaritan. In the story, Jesus tells a tale of a man who was temporally, if not permanently disabled by a brutal attack on his way to Jericho. As we all know, the point of this parable is found at the end when Jesus tells the expert to be a neighbor to those who are in need of mercy.
What’s most challenging about this interaction is that an expert of religious law had to be told that what God actually requires of him is to be a neighbor to someone in need. He was an expert, yet he didn’t know how to be an ally.
His intention was to test Jesus, but in his attempt to use his expert knowledge of religious law on Jesus, he got an education in ministry. Jesus would rather him be a novice and be a neighbor than to be someone who has notable knowledge of religious law, with no love for others.
Being Good to People
Jesus is not against religion. Jesus is against bad religion, and bad religion is good at teaching people how to be good without actually being good to people.
Creating churches that are inclusive of persons with disabilities and special needs does require some knowledge. Over the last five years I have had the distinct pleasure of meeting several highly qualified, extremely knowledgeable people in the field of disability ministry. Many of them have years of collective experience in this area of ministry.
Perhaps that is the problem.
One of the major reasons churches struggle to become disability inclusive is because they are waiting for someone who is an expert to lead the way. They are looking for an expert to teach them every tool of the trade. For some churches, there are only a handful of experts that can teach them how to do inclusion ministry. While we definitely need to access the wisdom of those who have the knowledge and training needed to serve the disability community, we must be careful not to use the badge of expertise as a method for justifying our lack of love.
The expert of religious law wanted to justify his lack of hospitality and love by narrowly defining who he was obligated to love. Sometimes leaning on expertise leads to being subconsciously exclusive.
The expert in religious law was intentionally looking for ways to exclude others, but the fact remains that when we believe that expert knowledge is needed to love those who are on the margins, we slowly and silently end up in the same place as the one who tried to test Jesus. We look for ways and reasons why it is okay not to love those who we are called to love and serve.
In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus provides a biographical sketch of all of the characters except one. He tells us there are priests and Levites. There are thieves and robbers. There is an innkeeper and a Samaritan. With very little information, we know what we need to know about each of these characters. The only person that remains unidentified is the injured man. The man is a nameless, faceless individual who becomes the focal point of neighborly assistance.
What if Jesus gives us no information on the man because he wants us to insert ourselves into his situation? Perhaps Jesus wants us to identify with the need to be loved and cared for by our neighbor. I believe that if you ask Jesus, the beginning of any meaningful ministry is not the presence and prowess of expertise, rather it is the power of empathy.
Love Your Neighbor As Yourself
What if God isn’t looking for us to wait until we are experts to be neighbors? What if God isn’t waiting for us to have all of the answers, but God is waiting on us to simply accept the assignment of loving our neighbors as ourselves?
When it comes to disability ministry and becoming more inclusive of those with special needs, I will be the first to admit that I am not an expert, but God doesn’t mind novices. God just wants us to start by committing to be neighbors.
We don’t have to be experts. We just have to be the church.