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Disability ministry as community building

By Paul D. Leichty

This article, written by ADNet’s founder and former executive director Paul Leichty, describes several contemporary approaches to disability ministry, concluding with the Anabaptist-influenced approach that ADNet emphasizes.

In recent weeks, I have had opportunity to attend two inter-denominational gatherings. I have also fielded more requests for resources for "disability ministry." These experiences have challenged me to clarify my own assumptions about what "disability ministry" is and to further define ADNet's role is in the wider church.   

Such challenges allow ADNet to direct persons and congregations to appropriate and often excellent resources offered by other groups.  We also understand more fully where the gaps are, particularly for resources suited to Mennonite congregations. This enables us to start filling those gaps to meet current and future needs. 

Let’s look at three main themes in disability ministry today: Advocacy, Evangelism, and Community Building.  

Disability Ministry as Advocacy

I recently attended the annual meeting of the Committee on Disabilities (COD) of the National Council of Churches of Christ (NCC).  COD consists of leaders of denominational and para-church disabilities ministries, both member churches of NCC and non-members (such as Mennonites). COD focuses on advocacy ministries within its respective denominations as well as society as a whole. 

The reports presented by each of the various groups reveal a multitude of resources being produced by church-related organizations.  In addition, committee members serve on working groups to develop additional resources together.  Information on resources already produced can be found on the Committee's website.  One example is the planning tool, "Equal Access Guide for Meetings, Conferences, Large Assemblies and Worship." 

Advocacy ministries tend to reach out to the whole society with a focus on equality and justice for persons with disabilities.

Disability Ministry as Evangelism

Disability ministry as evangelism tends to focus on outreach to the whole person (rather than the whole society).  Such ministry is often seen as a tool toward the larger goal of reaching more people with the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ.  Projects tend to focus on meeting the concrete needs of particular people, often in special separate settings. 

  • Wheelchairs are produced and provided to persons with physical disabilities. 
  • Special groups such as adults with disabilities are targeted with their own resource materials, including entire curricula for Sunday School. 
  • Special group ministries, complete with respite services provide for families of children with disabilities. 

I also attended a Disability Ministry Summit near Chicago sponsored by Joni and Friends (JAF).  JAF is the largest and most successful evangelism-focused group with an ever-growing array of programs and resources.  JAF is increasingly building networks with other evangelical Christian organizations that specialize in developing books, videos, curricula, and inspirational materials designed to reach out to hurting individuals and families.  Among other services, JAF lists "Churches and Organizations with Disabilities Ministries" (who agree with their statement of faith).

Disability Ministry as Community Building

ADNet represents a hybrid between focus on the individual and focus on society.  Viewing disability ministry as community building helps us focus on the whole person in community.  Individuals and families find salvation, healing, and hope by being included in God's saving community, the church.

This community starts at the congregational level with ministries that welcome and include all people regardless of abilities. Specially targeted separate "disability ministry" may be a means to build community, but not an end in itself.  Neither is the goal to save isolated Christians but rather to enable persons to experience and "work out" their salvation in the saving community of the Spirit.  As the community grows, it reaches out to others in widening circles of witness to God's faithfulness and healing power.

ADNet’s resources enable the church to reach out with the Good News (evangelize) in both word and deed to those who are isolated and marginalized. As local efforts extend in larger circles to conferences, denominations, and beyond, the resultant inclusive community of faith models truly Christian advocacy by being a credible witness within the larger society to the saving work of Christ.

 

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