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Disabilities and Mission

By Paul Leichty

​Messiah's Missional Ministry

Jesus answered them, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. Matthew 11:4-5.

In recent years, Mennonites and other church groups have taken hold of the word “missional” to describe what the church should be and do in today’s world. While precise definitions of the term are elusive, everyone who uses it seems to agree that “missional” describes a movement of the church to reach out to the world instead of ministering only to its own internal group.

Outreach Efforts

Recent generations have seen various emphases promoting outreach to those outside the church. Whether we speak of evangelistic campaigns, mission teams, church planting, church growth, natural church development, or becoming missional, the goal has usually been to bring new persons into the church as quickly as possible.

An emphasis on evangelism can inadvertently focus efforts on attracting the wealthiest and the most capable. With this approach, persons with disabilities may be seen as outside the mainstream and thus a distraction. They are likely to be neither capable nor wealthy and thus outside our “nets.”
To their credit, some congregations do incorporate a few persons with disabilities and then develop a heart for such persons. When resources permit, they may establish special ministries for persons with disabilities.

However, integrating persons from the special ministries into the larger life of the congregation remains a hurdle. Unless conscious efforts make it a priority, it usually doesn’t happen.

Evidence that Jesus is Messiah

When John the Baptist sent disciples to talk to Jesus, John wanted to know if Jesus was indeed the Messiah. Although Jesus was attracting crowds, he wasn’t exactly following the “Messiah script” that John was expecting. He did not generate a groundswell of enthusiastic followers sufficient to challenge the political power of Rome. So John wanted to know, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Jesus sent back his answer without citing numbers of followers or revealing a strategy for overturning Roman occupiers. He did not become defensive or put a “spin” on what was happening to show success. He did not tout the money coming into the treasury.

Instead, Jesus pointed to those with disabilities, the weakest and the poorest. He said, in effect, “Study the scriptures and see for yourself the signs of God’s rule. Recognize the presence of the Messiah by what God is doing among the people thought to be poorest and least capable.”

God’s Big Surprise

This doesn’t mean that Jesus ignored the masses in order to minister to a few isolated individuals with disabilities. On the contrary, Jesus knew that authentic ministry among the weakest and the poorest was the best way of reaching ordinary people.

Consider our situation in the U.S. today:

• 20.9 million American families (28.9%) are affected by a disability.

• One person in 20 in our country is dealing with a serious mental illness at the present time.

• Depression affects 1 in 5 of us at some point in our lives.

• In a nationwide poll, 84% of those with disabilities said religion is important. But only 47% said they attend church once a month, compared with 65% of those without disabilities.

Father Chester Watson of Faithnet NAMI draws this conclusion simply by looking at those with a disability of mental illness: "Churches could increase their membership by at least 20 or 30 percent by welcoming—openly, publicly welcoming—the mentally ill and their families into congregations."

The Upside Down Kingdom

To be missional today is to reach out as Jesus did. Rather than seeing outreach to people with disabilities as an optional specialty ministry, we need to take seriously Jesus’ answer to John. Offering healing and hope to people with disabilities is an essential mark of God’s reign and a sign that Jesus, our Messiah, is present and active.

We know that ministry with persons with disabilities does not always come naturally and easily. That’s why ADNet is your network for books, videos, online papers, and links to other resources for your journey. Browse our website or contact us to find out how we can support your mission in your congregation.

 

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