Evangelism and People with Disabilities

Evangelism and People with Disabilities

After carefully reading Evangelism and Disability, write a one-page, double-spaced review: paragraph one €“ summarize the main points; paragraph two €“ reflect on any new insights you gain.
Evangelism and People with Disabilities
By W. Daniel Blair

From Lewis A. Drummond, Reaching Generation Next. Grand Rapids: Baker Books. 2002

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With the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 came a major shift in public policy towards people with disabilities. At stake with its passage is the legal right of all citizens of the United States, regardless of physical or mental handicap, to full access to public services. Yet, while the ensuing decade of the nineties witnessed a long stride towards justice and equity for people with disabilities, it has become evident that political change is easier to achieve than attitudinal change. In other words, changing the law does not change human hearts.
Further, due to prevailing views of the separation between Church and State, churches are not legally accountable to ADA regulations (although the bounds of this interpretation are increasingly being tested). The sad consequence is that churches often lag behind civic and social organizations in their outreach and ministry to people with disabilities. Thus, the purpose of this paper is to remind the Church of Jesus Christ€”chosen by the Father, redeemed by the Son and regenerated by the Holy Spirit€”that we are bound by a higher law, namely, the law of love. Although as Christ-followers we are taught to respect and obey the law of the land, our ultimate moral and ethical allegiance is to divine justice and sovereign mercy. Hence, we are called and commissioned by our Lord to set the standard for human compassion and righteousness so that the world may see and know the glory of God and the reality of His salvation.
Through personal involvement with a growing number of graduate theological students with special needs, I have become increasingly aware of a consistent lack of understanding in the church and in the seminary regarding people with disabilities. My concern also stems from shared personal experience with my wife of ten years, who was born profoundly deaf. Angela lived the first twenty-five years of her life in the heart of the Bible belt before finally being presented with the basics of the gospel in her own native American Sign Language (ASL). The tragedy of her story is that she was in church constantly while growing up, but obviously overlooked.
Though this oversight was unintentional, it is far too common. Inaccessible facilities and inappropriate methodologies routinely prohibit people with disabilities and their families from attending church. Yet, if the remedy merely involved remodeling buildings and hiring interpreters, the discrepancy could easily (though not inexpensively) be eliminated. But the source of the problem is deeper than physical structures and special programs. The most imposing barrier is the common assumption that worship, Christian education and outreach should be designed only for those considered  normal, whatever that is. The flip side of this assumption is that all others must adjust and make the best of it or be left out. As we shall see in a moment, this attitude is the antithesis of the mindset and ministry of Jesus.
Thus, to begin the arduous task of transforming attitudes, I would like to suggest four biblical premises for the deliberate, intentional inclusion of persons with disabilities in congregational life. As pointed out already, the inclusion of people with disabilities in the life of the church does not just happen. It must be intentional. As one fellow Deaf minister frequently says to churches that are interested in starting a new Deaf ministry: you have to be called to this ministry or it’ll never happen! The fact is, as the body of Christ we are all called to this ministry!
Premise #1: the inclusive nature of the gospel and the personal ministry of Jesus€”a biblical basis. According to the New Testament, Jesus left no room for doubt about his attitude towards those whom society has tagged disabled. From the beginning to the end of his public ministry, he gravitated to those with special needs, and he did so in the face of a culture that was extremely hostile towards virtually anyone considered abnormal, defective, or deformed. Persons living with disability or disease were commonly presumed to be objects of divine retribution, ceremonially unclean and treated as social outcasts.
Yet, in stark relief to this cruel cultural backdrop, Jesus came onto the scene proclaiming freedom for the oppressed, justice to the marginalized, and redemption for the disenfranchised, promising a radical reversal of the cosmos in which the meek will inherit the earth. All of which was predicated on the uniquely divine act of atonement for sin.
In postmodern terms, we might say that Jesus came to bring equal access and opportunity to those in power-down, subaltern living conditions, to give voice and identity to those other than the dominant social elite, and to alleviate the ravages of capitalistic imperialism and colonialist economic aggression. Jesus signaled the breaking in of the reign and realm of God€”his kingdom, a spiritual realm€”which he authenticates not by overt power and dominance, but by acts of mercy, or should I say justice, towards persons who are poor, blind, deaf, paralyzed, autistic, psychotic, neurotic, dysfunctional, and infected.  The spiritual inclusion of social rejects is no tertiary  special interest topic to Jesus; his solidarity with outcasts is such that he himself was crucified outside the camp (Hebrews 13:11-14).  Throughout the gospels, especially in Matthew and Luke, Jesus relentlessly sought out people who had come to be stigmatized by society as disabled, handicapped, crippled, impaired, dumb, retarded, idiotic, mad, and even possessed  (not to mention racially diverse and female). Then and now, Jesus’ invitation, Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened (Matthew 11:28), constitutes the heart of the gospel. His call to salvation is truly universal, for behind each stereotypical label, Jesus aIDresses a human being endowed with the image of God.
Thus, considering the ministry of Jesus in particular, and the Christian social ethic of agape in general, it seems ironic that Christian theology as a whole offers no systematic biblical treatment of disabilities. Among evangelicals, theological treatment of disabilities is virtually nonexistent, owing at least in part to the false dichotomy of orthodoxy and orthopraxy, which fueled the controversy between fundamentalism and the social gospel early last century. Yet, it is this kind of critique that conservative evangelicals like Carl F. H. Henry level against earlier fundamentalism, that it did not present Christianity as an overarching world view but concentrated instead on only part of the message. They were too otherworldly, anti-intellectual, and unwilling to bring their faith to bear upon culture and social life.  Turning back a few pages further into our evangelical heritage, we find leaders such as George Whitfield and John Wesley, George Mueller, C.H. Spurgeon and D.L. Moody, who indeed brought their faith to bear on society with such clarity as to literally transform their respective cultures. As illustrated by the lives and ministries of these torchbearers and by the supreme example of Jesus, evangelical truth and social ministry belong together.
Assuming that the gospel is not incidentally but directly connected to social context, what does the Bible say about people with disabilities? Is the word of God silent on this issue? In fact it has much to say both implicitly and explicitly. For example, after Moses makes a seemingly convincing argument for exempting himself from God’s call to ministry based on his inability (disability?) to speak eloquently, God begins to educate his servant regarding disabilities:
Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him deaf or mute? Who gives him sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, the Lord? (Exodus 4:11)

Again, from the earthly ministry of Jesus, we read,
As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind? Neither this man nor his parents sinned, said Jesus, but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life (John 9:1-3).

Resisting for now the urge to theologize (or preach) on these verses, let it suffice to say that the basis of the entire Christian theological system€”the Trinity€”was established on less explicit textual matter than this. How much easier it should be, prima facie, to cull out a reasonable doctrine of disabilities from explicit question and answer passages like the ones above, not to mention many more with strong implications for ministry and disabilities.
Premise #2: the recovery of the classical pastoral care tradition€”a matter of practice.  A critical question that has not been satisfactorily aIDressed by the church is this: who is responsible for providing pastoral care for persons with disabilities? Although social conditions for people with disabilities of patriarchal and medieval (Western) societies were radically inferior to contemporary American standards, there was at least the assumption that pastoral care is the responsibility of the pastor, not of the psychologist, the therapist, nor civil government. Further, before the invention of modern social sciences, the pastor’s primary guide for pastoral care was the Bible. With the early church fathers, the scholastics, the reformers and the puritans, practical divinity and doctrinal divinity were afforded equal status as mutually supportive divisions of systematic theology. Classic pastoral theologies like St. Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care,  and Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor,  anchor a solid historical tradition of a biblical approach to the care of souls. Interestingly, the intricate biblical analyses of human conditions by these pastors anticipated many of the problems and methods posed by modern psychological counselors by over 1300 years.
With the coming of the Enlightenment and the rise of critical theoretical approaches to the Bible also came the near demise of theologically reflective pastoral care literature. Analytical practical theology was reduced to how to handbooks on ministry, and was in effect no longer considered worthy of the status of science.
More recently, theologian Thomas Oden, who in his earlier years drank deeply from modern critical theory, has helped revive interest in classical pastoral care with works like Care of Souls in the Classical Tradition,  and Pastoral Theology: Essentials of Ministry.  Along with Oden, there seems to be a groundswell of acknowledgement that modernist dependence on psychological methods of pastoral ministry is inadequate for spiritual care, and that the early church leaders offer time-tested, biblically based wisdom to every generation. In twenty-first century America, a day when even the secular government upholds the ethical rights of individuals to fully participate in society, the Church should be carrying the banner of inclusion and accessibility. In fact, the people of God should transform the so-called specialized ministries focused on people with disabilities once again into common aspects of pastoral care instead of handing them over to the professionals.

Obviously, for churches to embrace this ministry the leaders must see the need and provide support. This is precisely why the issue of ministry and people with disabilities ought to be a standard component of theological education and training at both undergraduate and seminary levels. How much better to equip Christian leaders at the front end of their careers instead of trying to remediate them mid-stream.
In her book, What to Expect In Seminary, Virginia S. Cetuk depicts practical, contextual experience in ministry as the hub of curriculum:
Rightly viewed, the field education program is the hub of the curriculum for the Master of Divinity student. Course work in the areas of biblical studies, church history, theology, ethics, religion and society, and pastoral theology are all potentially related to the practice of ministry. I use the word potentially because not all seminaries are as intentional about linking the classroom with students’ practice of ministry as they could or should be.

Evidently, the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), the accrediting body for seminaries and theological schools of North America and Canada, agrees with Cetuk’s assessment.  Standard 2.5, under the general heading of Institutional Integrity, states
In all cases, schools shall seek to assist their students in gaining the particular knowledge, appreciation, and openness needed to live and practice ministry effectively in changing cultural and racially diverse settings.

More specifically concerned with the Master of Divinity degree program, standard A.3.1.0 states
It (the MDiv program) should educate students for a comprehensive range of pastoral responsibilities and skills by providing opportunities for the appropriation of theological disciplines, for deepening understanding of the life of the church, for ongoing intellectual and ministerial formation, and for exercising the arts of ministry.

In other words, ATS expresses the consensus among theological educators and students that divinity curricula should be geared towards ministerial practice, and that ministerial practice should be culturally and globally informed. In this spirit let me re-emphasize that persons with disabilities help populate every culture group on the planet, and that human disability is truly a global phenomenon. Thus, the common response that ministry to persons with disabilities is a specialized skill, and therefore not incumbent on all ministerial students is simply out of touch with reality. Marketing specialists who target the beautiful, healthy and wealthy of the world might make such a claim, but anyone truly in touch with the ordinary people of any geographical, socioeconomic, or ethnolinguistic community is inevitably in touch with persons with disabilities. To get personal, each of us as individuals, unless taken by an untimely death, will sooner or later experience disability. And when (not if) that happens, I, for one, do not want to be placed on the shelf and listed as a shut-in. It may be that God’s grace will shine most brightly when I am least able to take credit for it, i.e., when my flesh becomes disabled.
Premise #3: the spiritual gifts and calling of people with disabilities€”an issue of integrity. Ministry to people with disabilities is not a one-way proposition. The able-bodied do not simply serve the disabled. In fact, many people with disabilities grow weary of being viewed and treated as invalids (try breaking that word down: in-valid or not valid). Like every other member of the body of Christ, people with disabilities who believe in Jesus are (1) re-created in the image of Christ and thus infinitely validated as persons; and (2) endowed with spiritual gifts and abilities intended for the edification of the entire body. Simply put, without these dear ones the body is incomplete. Thus, the full, unrestricted inclusion of people with disabilities is not merely a matter of mercy; it is more accurately a matter of integrity (wholeness) of the body of Christ.

Further, ministry to and with people with special needs is usually rewarded with special blessings, as eloquently attested by the late Henri J.M. Nouwen, widely acclaimed author, speaker, and theological intellect, whose calling ultimately led him to the l’Arche Daybreak Community for people with mental disabilities. Upon settling into his new ministry, Nouwen remarks
Not being able to use any of the skills that had proved so practical in the past was a real source of anxiety. I was suIDenly faced with my naked self, open for affirmations and rejections, hugs and punches, smiles and tears, all dependent simply on how I was perceived at the moment. In a way, it seemed as though I was starting my life all over again. Relationships, connections, reputations could no longer be counted on.
This experience was and, in many ways, is still the most important of my life, because it forced me to rediscover my true identity. These broken, wounded, and completely unpretentious people forced me to let go of my relevant self€”the self that can do things, show things, prove things, build things€”and forced me to reclaim that unadorned self in which I am completely vulnerable, open to receive and give love regardless of any accomplishments.
€¦It is here that the need for a new Christian leadership becomes clear. The leader of the future will be the one who dares to claim his irrelevance in the contemporary world as a divine vocation that allows him or her to enter into a deep solidarity with the anguish underlying all the glitter of success and to bring the light of Jesus there.

Premise #4: people with disabilities are one of the largest unreached people groups in the world€”an evangelistic priority. Termed by some as the world’s largest cultural minority, people with disabilities form a distinct corporate entity. Their numbers are estimated by the World Health Organization to range above 54 million in the United States (nearly one of every five persons) and 450 million worldwide. Yet, these percentages are generally not reflected at the congregational level. If they were, a congregation of 200 would include nearly 40 people with disabilities. In other words, our gatherings and actions would function quite differently with the presence of assistance dogs, interpreters for the deaf, wheelchair cutouts in the pews, and ramps leading up to the pulpit!

Closer to home (Birmingham, Alabama), according to research extrapolated from the census data, conservative estimates indicate 75,000 persons with disabilities within a thirty-mile radius of Birmingham alone.  To which I would aID that of the estimated 35,000 deaf people in Alabama, no more than one percent are in church on any given Sunday.
After many years of consulting with churches about Deaf ministry and special needs, there is no doubt in my mind that the people of God want to be inclusive. Granted, many still offer the classic response, but we don’t have anyone like that in our church. Evidently, these respondents are genuinely unaware of the multitude of people like that living in and around their own parishes. Thus, the burden of church leadership is to notch up congregational awareness of special needs in the same way we aIDress the challenges of racial and ethnic diversity or the realities of our socioeconomic context. Christian leaders must make a conscientious decision to become inclusive instead of exclusive, and to welcome and even celebrate diversity instead of requiring homogeneity. Once the issue of disability is brought to the fore, it is not surprising that people often begin to come out, disclosing personal struggles with disabilities that they previously endured anonymously.
So there is really no question as to whether or not churches under the lordship of Christ want to minister to special needs. Of course they do. The question is how? I have often seen ministers’ eyes seem to roll back in their heads and ring up dollar signs when the subject of accessibility comes up. They mistakenly imagine that the only strategy for becoming accessible and inclusive is complete renovation, which would certainly prove cost prohibitive for the average church budget. It is a sad fact indeed that the local pub is often more accessible than the local church edifice, especially the older, historic cathedrals of stone, replete with elaborate staircases, massive, heavy doors, and tiny restroom facilities. In most cases the best answer to this challenge is a systematic, well-advised, one-step-at-a-time approach. Simply put, the fact that the church cannot do everything at once is no excuse for doing nothing. Again, a sensitive and willing attitude speaks more forcefully than physical structures and programs. And before leaving the topic of cost and effort, exactly what value do we assign to the leading of precious souls for whom Christ died into right relationship with God, otherwise known as evangelism?
In conclusion, there are hopeful signs of potential transformation on the horizon. The convergence of certain trends in both the church and theological education, such as increased attention to multicultural diversity, an emerging global perspective€”which I understand to include the universe next door as well as across the ocean, and the aging of the baby boom generation, seems to be creating fertile conditions for the birth of a wonderfully humane and godly movement among the body of Christ, which will teach us to celebrate the fullness of God’s redemption in ways we never imagined. As Brett Webb-Mitchell reminds us in his treatment of the weIDing feast parable (Luke 14:15-23), there will be unexpected guests at God’s banquet.


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