By Vangie Rodenbeck
For 10 years now, since he was diagnosed with autism, I have lived with the tension of finding ways to include my son, Noah, in the life of the church. However, because of his social barriers, aspects of any communal life are difficult for him. Even small group discussion is difficult because of a speech and language delay.
Beyond that, the increasingly popular programs, styles, and modes of doing church, which seem to draw such huge crowds in our entertainment-driven culture, enhance that barrier. For instance, popular, performance-oriented, high-energy worship is a terrifying experience for Noah. Though often touted as “culturally relevant,” these modes are completely irrelevant to people like Noah—without considerable adaptation. And quite often the adaptations appear so foreign, complicated, and cumbersome that they aren’t considered sustainable by the people running the programs. Unfortunately, people like Noah just aren’t considered worth the trouble by a lot of churches.
I do not mean to appear critical of our programs. I understand that a lot of people like them. Yet my heart cries out, “Doesn’t Noah belong in and to the church too? Isn’t he a part of this body of believers? Isn’t he as welcome by Christ to be a part of his church as anyone else? Doesn’t he deserve the gospel as much as the rest of humanity? Have our styles of worship become a sacrament that we are unwilling to give up to make everyone welcome?”
Inclusion & Integration
One solution is creating an alternative environment for Noah. In this educational model, we call it a “self-contained classroom.” Sometimes this is a good option for Noah. The lack of stimuli allows him to learn at a slower pace while other church members participate in their program.
However, separating Noah from the body of Christ every time the programming might become uncomfortable leaves little for him to be a part of. Even if a self-contained classroom is the best place for Noah, isn’t including him about more than where he spends time during the worship service? Inclusion is about so much more than where learning happens—it’s about how people like my son are integrated into the life of the church.
Ironically, the places most open to making sure Noah is included are in the secular realm. The public school system and other government programs have offered multiple opportunities for Noah to be a part of the public community. But I have often wondered how we can receive so many services through secular sources yet be so frustrated as we try to include him at church. Wasn’t the gospel inherently inclusive? How did we get left out? Why is the world doing it better?
Yes, there are churches across our nation with ministries dedicated to people with disabilities; but they are more the exception than the rule of practice. Additionally, placement in a Christian school setting has been nearly impossible for special-needs kids. The common reasoning: “We just don’t have the resources to accommodate people with special needs.” And it is not an insincere statement. The church feels under-resourced for ministry to children, adolescents, and adults like my son.
The under-representation of people with disabilities as members of the church isn’t new. It may be traced to the enlightenment period of the nineteenth century, when people began to associate the image of God with the ability to think. As a result, ministries to the “handicapped” were often seen as little more than missions of mercy and charity. In other words, these people were in need of our help but could never really be part of the community because, in a way, they really weren’t fully “people.”
In the twentieth century the emphasis shifted to the ability to contribute in a capitalistic economy. A person’s value was based on earning a wage and contributing to society. The “handicapped” would never be able to support themselves or have a “fulfilling” career. As a result, many churches now view the disabled community as a weak “market,” which, at best, won’t contribute to their bottom line as well as a typical family, and, at worst, will represent a drain on their resources. Why spend precious resources making accommodations for them when there are plenty of contributing families out there ready to consume a prepackaged program?
As our twenty-first century church culture has adopted more entertainment-driven modes of worship, the disabled have been forgotten.
Methods, Models, & Mindsets
What is the solution? Let us dispel a few likely suggestions. The previously mentioned self-contained room is helpful, even welcome, at times; but it keeps people like Noah away from the body if used all the time. Similarly, Noah doesn’t need a church to fill itself with certified, medically trained personnel. I can assure you that most parents of special needs children received little to no training before their child’s diagnosis in preparation to love and bond with their child.
The challenge before us is to abandon nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first century cultural values and adopt a biblical approach. Stanley Grenz, in Theology for the Community of God says, “No assertion moves us closer to the heart of our human identity and our essential nature than does the declaration, ‘We are created in the divine image.’”
The image of God is not measured with worldly standards. The Gospels teach us of a God who finds beauty in weakness. Jesus’ parable of the great banquet (Luke 14:15-24) tells of a Creator who values and cherishes the small, the weak, and the marginalized. Similarly Scripture shows us that Jesus, who reveals the nature of God perfectly (Hebrews 1:1-3) and who took on weakness (2:10), abandoned all of his culture’s assumptions about the weak, the sick, and the lame. He touched them, loved them, and treated them as brothers and sisters. He seemed passionate about including people like my son in his kingdom.
When we study Jesus, we find that the gospel message is inherently two things: inclusive and relational. Ultimately people who engage in loving the people Jesus loved (typical or differently abled) find that kingdom ministry boils down to a simple choice to prioritize relationships over programming. This does not mean that we go into ministry events without a plan of action, curriculum, or structure. It does mean, however, that when the details included in a program are not effective ways to minister to an individual, that we gladly change or adapt them. After all, wouldn’t we change them if they ceased their effectiveness overall?
More than a ministry of charity, the gospel message implies relationship. In her book, Same Lake, Different Boat, Stephanie Hubach notes how Jesus demonstrated a relational posture for us to follow in John 9. Not only did Jesus proclaim that disability is not the result of sin, he showed how his interest in the man went far beyond any healing he had to offer. Hubach writes, “It reads, ‘Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and when he found him . . . .’ Jesus went looking for the man. He was interested in more than just his disability. He was invested in him as a person.”
At the end of a 10-year struggle to answer the question, “Does Noah belong to the church?” I can say I believe that the answer is yes. But it won’t be easy for churches to do. It will require our churches to prioritize relationship over cultural values. It will require them to desire to make changes in what they do because they want to value people the way Jesus did—not for what they can contribute to an economy but for what they represent to the kingdom. It will require the leadership of our churches to dare to lead our members to consider inclusion of all God’s people over their preferences—a challenge which will often make quick growth difficult. But it’s worth it.
Many people, after getting to know my son reply, “He is really a neat kid.” Relationship helps them recognize the ways Noah has been made in the image of his Creator and is loved by God.
Vangie Rodenbeck is the executive director of PURE Ministries and ministers with her husband, Jason, at Castle Christian Church in Cumming, Georgia.
If you’d like to discover more about ministry that reaches all types of needs and abilities, Vangie has compiled a list of books, blogs, curriculum, and more on her website.