Disability and the Gospel (Part 5 of 5)

(First posted on http://irresistiblechurch.org/disability-gospel-part-5-5/#)

First Christian Church in Canton, Ohio, has always been progressive in the field of disability ministry. They have had a class for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities for over 35 years. I am honored to be the full-time Disability Ministry Pastor at this church. Despite being disability friendly and striving to create inclusive environments there have been obstacles for people affected by disability at our church when it came to baptism. Several years ago, I remember hearing a story from a family that had attended First Christian for several generations. Their son wanted to be baptized, so they approached a pastor that was on staff at the time about arranging a baptism for him. The family was surprised to learn that the pastor would not agree to baptism him. Why? Because the pastor said the boy was not capable of giving a verbal confession of faith. You see, while their son was able to communicate in different ways he was nonverbal. This became a huge stumbling block for the family. It wasn’t until years later when this pastor was no longer on staff that an elder of the church stepped in to make the baptism happen for this boy.

I would like to believe this was an isolated incident at my church, and it didn’t happen anywhere else. I know, however, that this is an all-too-common occurrence. Not only are people not granted the opportunity to become baptized believers, but many are not even welcomed into a church because of their disability. The gospel message, in a church setting, is unfortunately often not accessible.

This saddens my heart, and I believe it saddens God’s heart too. We see that in Jesus’ ministry He predominantly spent His time with people on the fringes of society. The vast majority of people that received healing were people who had disabilities.

In His final instructions to His disciples and followers, Jesus gives an inclusive message saying; “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15, NIV). Notice that Jesus didn’t say “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to anyone that that you think can cognitively understand it.” Jesus also didn’t say “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to anyone that can give a verbal confession of faith.”Jesus clearly told His followers to go “everywhere” and tell “everyone.”

Why were these instructions important? They are important because they are consistent with what we know about the condition of our hearts. We are all broken on the inside. Romans 3:23 is clear, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (NIV). Paul doesn’t qualify some who have sinned; he says “all” have sinned.

Even though scripture is clear about the gospel being inclusive, it is surprising how many church leaders will argue against disability ministry. Let me explain.

Having worked at churches my entire career I know how things are measured. There is a phrase in the church world about the only two metrics that really count. Can you guess what it is? It goes like this – “People in the seats and cash in the plates.” I recognize this is a very cold and heartless approach to ministry. And, while no one would ever openly admit that this is the only thing that matters, it is true that these are two very important components of a church. As strategic plans and annual budgets are determined by church leadership much is determined by projections on attendance and giving.

So having said all that, I often have conversations with church leaders from other churches who do not see the need for disability ministry. They don’t see how the ministry will bring in new people. And even if it does, those people likely won’t be “high-capacity” people. “High-capacity” people are individuals who have influence, financial or otherwise. In fact, some church leaders may argue against disability ministry because it would cost the church more money to become accessible and inclusive. It may mean paying for reconstruction of facilities or purchasing new sensory tools.

Beyond the “classic church metrics argument” I have also heard leaders oppose disability ministry based on Romans 3:23. The argument goes like this, “What’s the point of disability ministry if people can’t learn?” This viewpoint comes from a worldview driven by ignorance. The idea behind this viewpoint asserts that even if people with intellectual and developmental disabilities know they have sinned, how can they possibly understand how to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior? I have even heard others say “How do we really know if they’ve sinned? I mean they’re non-verbal, they use a chair, and they need total personal care.” Essentially, these people believe that Romans 3:23 doesn’t apply to “all people.” They believe that individuals with varying degrees of disabilities are not capable of sin because of their condition, and therefore, there is no need to share the gospel with them through disability ministry. Anyone ascribing to these viewpoints is holding onto faulty theology.

We can either accept Romans 3:23 as true, or not true. I believe that it is true – that “all” means “all.” Romans 3:23 gives no qualifiers. All have sinned, and all are in need of a Savior. We are called to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation” – there are no exceptions.