Whenever I am asked what makes me most proud of the church that I get to serve, Christ Presbyterian’s emphasis on people with disabilities and special needs always makes the list. Although I have written about this before, and have made public this related talk that I first gave at a Joni and Friends event, our church’s story would be woefully incomplete without the first-hand perspective of the amazing Gigi Sanders.
Gigi is director of our Christ Presbyterian disabilities and special needs ministry. Below is an essay that Gigi wrote, borne from her experience in our community. Her words are also intended for any home, community, or church wishing to welcome the gifts and goodness of this “very special” group of people into its life and culture. As you read Gigi’s words, I hope you are as enriched and inspired by them as I am.
What can happen in seven years? In seven years, a child could lose several baby teeth, could learn to ride a bike without training wheels, and could progress through elementary school and part of middle school. What if seven years meant how long a family didn’t go to church because it was just too hard to attend with their child with special needs? This is what happened to Jack and Amy as they spent seven years of being away from the church family because their child couldn’t handle the sensory input and the church wasn’t equipped to accommodate the child. It just became easier to stay home rather than continuing to advocate.
This narrative is often heard from families with special needs as they try to navigate church and all the stressors that may occur with varying abled children. Why do we have to be the ones who act? Can’t other churches take care of this issue instead of our church? Why does it matter? It does matter . . . because it matters to God.
A Great Banquet
In Luke 14, we get a glimpse of Christ’s heart for those who are often dismissed by the world. He had been invited to a meal by a ruler of the Pharisees, and Christ noticed that the guests at this meal were quick to choose the “places of honor” at the table (v. 7). So he said to the man,
. . . When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. . . . (vv. 12–14)
Jesus went on to tell a parable about a master whose invitation to a “great banquet” was refused by those were invited. In response, the master then told his servant to extend the invitation to a rather unlikely group:
. . . Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame. . . . Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled. (vv. 21–23)
Imagine if the church took these words literally—it would be filled with those who are often dismissed. Making the gospel accessible to people with all levels of abilities is following the example Christ has given us. He has said we will be blessed when we are a church where all belong.
Welcoming those with disabilities in the church can lead to genuine friendships with their families. A first step would be to extend an invitation to attend. Begin with hello! Who can we ask to come to church and who has the Lord put in front of us where we live, work and play? If the invitation is accepted, attending can lead to friendships within the church community. The hope would be that the church would include individuals and families with special needs, and then move toward connecting with the families on a deeper level so that there is a genuine belonging that happens. When one truly belongs in a church, it matters if he or she is not there. The person is deeply missed.
Scripture also tells us that in order to fully function in the church, we should consider how the body needs all of its members (1 Corinthians 12:12–26). Just as all parts in the human body are important, all parts of the church body are valuable and needed. The body doesn’t function well when a part is missing, and the church is not operating at its full capacity when people with disabilities are not a part of the community of believers. God’s heart is for the whole body to be built up in love (1 Corinthians 13). Throughout Scripture, the Lord shows us His heart and His view of each of us, with whatever level of ability we have. He has made each one in His image, and He is the author of life.
How can the church become a place where those with all abilities are welcomed, invited, and belong? What are some ways the church can make the gospel more accessible to all people? Taking a look at the different types of barriers that might be present and deciding which barriers can be addressed is a good starting point. Barriers can be physical, such as features of the building or signage. Some suggestions to overcoming physical barriers could be as simple as providing accessible entrances for those in wheelchairs or providing clear signage designating accessible seating. Another type of barrier can be an invisible barrier, such as fear. A good place to begin the journey of growing in acceptance and inclusion of those with special needs in the church is with prayer. Ask the Lord to lead and guide the church in becoming an accessible place where all can hear the gospel. He is faithful to answer.
We Get the Blessing
As families with special needs become an integral part of the church body, the community gets to benefit from the gifts and strengths God has given to those with special needs. Individuals with disabilities can serve the church in a variety of ways. In our church, we have a young man with autism who precisely fills the communion trays with cups each week, and who serves alongside another church member as they pass out bulletins together. Another man with Down Syndrome helps set up the tech needed for a class and greets those who are entering the corporate gathering. Another person with a disability helps at the communion table, welcoming people to the Lord’s Supper. A young lady who is non-verbal shows others how to worship by her excitement over a song or recognition of a person. The church changes and grows more in the likeness of the Father as people of all abilities serve and connect. It progresses from caring for those with special needs to being served by and cared for by those with varying abilities.
Now think back seven years. How much could the church grow in seven years by including those with varying abilities in the community? When the church invites, welcomes, includes, and equips those with disabilities, the love of Christ Jesus is shared in a broad and diverse way. God’s love is seen and experienced more fully by the world as He shows more of Himself through the whole body. So, yes, it does matter that the church cares for those with special needs because the church matters to God. Not only do we have to care, but we get to! How lavish of the Father to invite us into where He cares and what He is doing in and through those with special needs!
Help your church get started by . . .
- Praying that the Lord would open your eyes to those already in your community and for opportunities to invite others into your church.
- Investing in the friendship and get to know the person for who they truly are in the Lord..
- Caring for the whole family (parents, siblings, and individuals with special needs).
- Looking for their abilities and finding ways for them to serve within the church
This essay first appeared at radical.net, and is reposted here, in its entirety, by permission.
Gigi Sanders grew up in Alton, IL, and graduated with a Bachelor of Nursing degree from Vanderbilt University, After several years of pediatric nursing, she raised a family of five children with her husband, Carl. Gigi now serves as the Director of Special Needs ministry at Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, TN. She has ministered to both children and adults with special needs and their families for the past 14 years.