Where’s the Justice in That? The Social Exclusion of Adults with Learning Disabilities and What the Church Can Do to Fix It

WP_20160610_003   Who is welcome at your church?  What makes you so sure?  What evidence do you have to prove this?

It was a typical Sunday like any other.  I walked into the sanctuary at 10:30am, quickly found my seat in the balcony with my friends and prepared my heart for worship.  I love my church very dearly and I was excited about this being one of the few Sundays I had off work where I was actually able to take in the whole service without rushing off afterwards.  However, my thoughts were elsewhere.  You see, this past weekend I attended the Tio Conference for Disability Theology and Ministry at Belfast Bible College and I could not get the presenter’s prophetic words and challenge to the church out of my head.  Dr. Jeff McNair (the keynote speaker) had made the case that less than 20% of adults with severe learning disabilities are being properly included into the life of the church.  He mentioned the various ways people with disabilities are often ignored at worst and tolerated at best, and he poignantly asked how we, as church leaders, can claim to love our neighbours when our neighbours so blatantly do not include those who are different from us.

Sitting in the balcony provided the optimal opportunity to survey exactly who was in our congregation that Sunday.  I was very pleased to note the wide range of age demographics and cultures represented.  I find it an incredible testimony to my church’s witness in the community that we have young adults and seniors worshipping side-by-side, and that we have at least 30 nationalities in attendance (which for a city like Edinburgh that is much less multicultural than Toronto or London is quite impressive).  I was touched to see that people of all socio-economic ranks were welcomed, and I was happy to note that people in various stages of their faith walk were affirmed.  However, my heart lurched in disappointment at the lack of people with disabilities who call this church their home.    Dr. McNair mentioned that the mark of a exclusive church is silence… and what did I hear during the morning service?  Not loud cackles, not an excessive humming or stemming, and not vocalisations… but sheer silence.  The sound of a passive audience listening to a sole presenter (which is exactly what the majority of churches around the world are subjected to on any given Sunday).

During the conference, McNair mentioned that we were part of history.  He noted that there are very few seminars and gatherings for church leaders around the world to discuss topics related to disability theology.  He asked the question “why is this?”  It is to our great shame that even developed countries like Canada, the U.S., and the U.K. that are so far ahead on so many other areas of ministry are so far behind when it comes to relating to those with intellectual and physical limitations.

This is why having a conference such as Tio (a derivative of the classical Greek word meaning “to lift up, to honour, to advance, to value…in essence to bring someone from invisibility to visibility and to give them a voice) is so important.   Having been in the disability field for the past three years I can attest to the not having many of these opportunities previously available to me, yet I was inspired by the amount of people who attended this inaugural event.  Roughly 100 people were in attendance from Northern Ireland, England, and Scotland and the participants included Sunday school teachers, pastors, lay leaders, parents, and scholars as well as a few people with developmental disabilities themselves.  Sessions were inclusive for all people with a separate option for a specifically designed seminar for people with special needs.  I was also beyond thrilled to see the wide range of experience represented.  We had people who were basically “thrust” into the role through having children with disabilities, people who chose the field for themselves and have been pioneering ministries for the past 20 or 30 years, and people (like myself) who are relatively new to this area.  We even had a few ministers in attendance who admitted to not having a specific passion in disability ministry, but who nevertheless came out because they see the value in at least beginning to question and think about some of these topics.

The sessions ranged from highly academic to more practical and I am happy to inform you that all the materials will be made available for your personal download (at a small fee) in the near future.  Personally, I got a lot out of the conference, but I also realize the need to now start putting these thoughts into practice.  Otherwise, they will forever stay at the level of academic rumination.  Therefore, I would like to suggest a few simple ways that your church can become more inclusive for people with disabilities:

  • Rethinking Loving Our Neighbour

Our fundamental calling is to impart the love of Christ to each person drawing them deeper into God’s immeasurable peace. We are called to love our neighbour as ourselves – to affirm their worth and to give them greater honour than we give to ourselves. BUT valuing another person takes sacrifice- it’s hard work. It is about recognizing the inherent worth of each person, their gifts, their strengths, and the presence of the Christ light in them.

For too long we (as individual Christians, the church and general society) have failed to do exactly this especially when it comes to people who are different than us – primarily people with disabilities. Many pastors will claim they love all people equally and want all people to come to the church, but often the lived out reality and logistics communicate something extremely different. Christians are called to be trail blazers, set apart from the world, but unfortunately, we often mirror worldly ways of approaching someone with a disability, further adding to hurt and marginalization.

It is not enough just to “tolerate” a person with a disability. On all sides and in every way we need to move from exclusion to inclusion, from complacency to change. We need to start thinking about these things and not being okay with the fact that even after all these years less than 20% of people with profound learning disabilities are welcomed and fully included into the life of our church. People with learning disabilities also can be jaded by the church and subsequently reject Christ so we need to think long and hard about the implications our apathy can have on others.

To quote Wolf Wolfensberger: “Indeed without significant cost, an action should not be viewed as advocacy…even if it is otherwise valuable action.”

  • Putting Yourself In Another’s Shoes (Quite Literally)

Last year I was able to present a seminar at the Cahoots Festival near Milton, Ontario.  At this conference I provided participants with a number of activities to begin thinking about what it might be like for someone with a disability.  Two of these activities included trying to peel an orange with one hand and trying to stand and walk with a handful of marbles in either shoe.  The people who tried these activities admitted that both tasks which normally would be quite easy and done automatically were hampered by having an apparent disadvantage.  Yesterday when I was at church I began thinking about how to take this even further.  Do you ever wonder whether or not your church would be accessible to people with disabilities?  Why not try to wear heavy earplugs during the service and see if you can still get something out of a primarily aural experience?  If you need glasses to do virtually anything, imagine what church might be like if you took off your glasses or contact lens for the duration of the service.  On a much smaller scale, as someone who struggles with hyperactivity… I try to imagine what would happen if I didn’t bring my little stress ball to church or if I failed to bring my notebook and pen, then I try to magnify that by about a hundred.  You get the picture.  So much of what we do in our churches is simply NOT accessible to people with physical and intellectual disabilities because we do not KNOW what it would be like to be in their shoes.  So why not ask someone with a disability what their experience of church is and then try some of these activities out for yourself?

  • Making Disability Ministry a Priority

I get it.  We all have different passions and different areas that we think are the most important to focus on and personally I think that’s great.  I think it really adds to the diversity of the Body of Christ and that we can all learn something from each other.  But sadly, it seems that while many churches are focused on church planting, evangelism, and outreach (very important roles), few churches care enough to think about what it would be like to plant a church that includes people with disabilities.  Few churches employ a pastor with a huge heart for disability ministry and few mission organizations ask their participants if any of them would be interested in creating a ministry experience that works side-by-side someone with a disability as a co-labourer.

Think about your church.  Is disability ministry a priority?  Why or why not?  Do you have any interest in making it a priority?  I believe that the Christian calling encompasses all people.  That we are called to witness and reach out to everyone – including, and perhaps especially to, people who are quite different than we are.  Those who are marginalized and often ignored and overlooked.

In his inspiring article entitled What Would Be Better? Social Role Valorization and the Development of Persons Affected by Disability found on the incredible website: http://www.whatwouldbebetter.com/ Jeff McNair and Marc Tumeinski pose the following question:

What does our shared vision of Christian community look like? Who is present in our biblical vision of community? How can the inclusion of vulnerable people better reflect the Gospel vision and therefore strengthen our church community? How can we more closely approach this vision here and now within our church? Given the actual makeup of our membership, might we unintentionally or unconsciously be putting some groups of people outside of this vision? What would be better?

How would you answer this question in regards to yourself?  Your church?  Your Christian university, seminary, or intentional community?  The global church?  Society as a whole?

I believe the key to good disability ministry lies in having an inclusive approach, not in merely being insular.  What I mean is that first and foremost we need to find ways to minister and include people who are different from us.  BUT then we cannot stay on the level of our church having an outreach – we need to also think about how we can more fully integrate with society.  For the past three years I have worked with L’Arche (a Christian intentional community for adults with developmental disabilities).  L’Arche does good work.  L’Arche is an excellent sign and beacon to the world that people with learning disabilities belong and should be valued for their contributions to society.  L’Arche is a great service provider and care home for many adults who would potentially have nowhere else to go.  BUT L’Arche also has one major flaw – we have the tendency to become extremely inwardly focussed.  Working in L’Arche in both Canada and the U.K. I am often surprised at how few people (even in local churches) know who we are or what we are about.  Those who have heard about L’Arche often only know it from the writings of Jean Vanier and Henri Nouwen, rather than as a result of visiting our community for a chapel or supper and actually experiencing the mutual life-giving relationships we share first hand. This lack of general knowledge has sadly even led to a few people believing that I am involved in a cult!  To me this points towards the fact that although we, as a community, are thriving in so many areas, we still need to improve on becoming more outwardly focused.  On thinking about how to work with other service providers and churches to continue to create and foster more opportunities for disability ministry rather than just the needs of our own immediate community.

I have given you a lot to think about here, but I hope it helps set you on the path towards establishing and maintaining disability ministries within your own context.  Next time you go to church, why not have a look around and make a mental note of who is in attendance and what you can do to bring those who aren’t already there into the fold.  And next time the service is completely quiet, why not make some noise… because an inclusive church should never be silent.



7 Habits of Successful Christians


So, I recently posted my list of 5 things that Christians should really stop doing… but what about things that Christians SHOULD do in order to be successful in their walk with Christ?  You’ve probably all heard of Stephen Covey’s book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, but what about 7 Habits for the effective Christian?  Hold on, hopefully that is not already a book… So, I’ve decided to include my ideas here:

1)      A Successful Christian Will Pray – Prayer is the cornerstone of the Christian faith and it is from this practice and this discipline that the rest of our life flows.  When we pray we become intricately connected to God’s plan and we become more aware of His love for us.  The Bible reminds us to pray at all times (without ceasing).[1]  It reminds us to pray in every circumstance because God will take care of us.[2]  Lastly, the Scriptures remind us that because God is love He wants us to come to Him with our requests.  In the story of the Persistent Widow, the Judge was an ungodly man who didn’t care about anyone’s welfare other than his own.  This widow came to him day and night and wore him out.  Finally, the judge said, “I really don’t care about this woman or what she wants.  I just want her to go away.  I’m not answering her request because I want what’s best for her, but she’s worn me out with the same request so I’ll answer it so she can leave me alone.”  Jesus reminds us that if that judge, being evil, did this for the woman, how much more will our Heavenly Father provide for our needs when we pray, but how many of us actually take Him up on that offer?[3]

2)      A Successful Christian Knows They Can’t Do It On Their Own Strength – A successful Christian is one who understands that God’s grace is magnified and perfected in their weakness.[4]  At the end of the day when they survey their lives they see instances of God’s faithfulness and understand that they could never have made it through without His guidance and support.  A successful Christian can acknowledge this and humble themselves before God in order to be raised up by Him.[5]

3)      A Successful Christian Shares Their Burdens With the Community – Successful Christians know that they can’t do it on their own, they need others. The book of James reminds us that when we are happy we should gather people around us to sing happy songs with us, when we are sick we should call the elders of the church to anoint us with oil.[6]  Bringing others on board is a way of receiving help and giving them the opportunity to care for us just like we want to take care of others.

4)      A Successful Christian Meditates On Scripture – David often meditated on God’s Word.  He tells of how he mused about God’s deeds.[7]  The book of Ephesians reminds us that God’s Word helps us to fight against the evil schemes of the Devil.[8]  Someone who is successful in their walk with the Lord allows Scripture to pour into their lives, they memorize it, they think about it when they go to bed at night and when they wake up.[9]  They also teach their children to follow the Bible.[10]

5)      A Successful Christian Follows God’s Will On Their Lives – A person who is successful in their walk with the Lord tries to discover God’s will in their lives.  They are so in tuned with Him that when they start going the wrong way, God’s voice gently redirects them back into the right path.[11]  A person who is living for Christ wants to put God in charge of their lives and to value His will even before their own desires.[12]

6)      A Successful Christian Belongs To A Larger Body (Church) Which Helps Encourage Them and Builds Them Up – Successful Christians know that they cannot grow on their own.  They know they need Scriptural teaching, encouragement from others who have walked in the faith for a lot longer than they have, and corporate worship.  The book of Hebrews cautions us to not give up regularly meeting together as some are in the habit of doing.[13]  Some Christians believe that they can grow on their own, but without having people to walk alongside you and encourage you when you start feeling weary, your faith and love for God will soon grow stagnant and cold.

7)      A Successful Christian Seeks First After God’s Kingdom – Successful Christians know that God will provide for them so they don’t have to worry about where their life is headed.  Paul reminds us not to worry about anything, but instead with prayer and supplication to make our requests known to God.[14]  Jesus also says in the Sermon on the Mount that we don’t have to worry about any earthly needs because God knows about them and will provide for them, but instead we should SEEK FIRST THE KINGDOM OF GOD and the rest will fall into place.[15] NOTE: This does not mean we shouldn’t be good stewards.  Paul reminds us to leave no debt outstanding.[16]  A successful Christian will practice good financial budgeting and stewardship principles, but in the end of the day they will also know that their help comes from the Lord.[17]

BONUS: A Successful Christian Has At Least One Accountability Partner – Successful Christians open themselves up to respectful correction of others who are stronger and have walked longer in their faith.  A successful Christian accepts discipline knowing that it produces further character growth and morality.[18]  A successful Christian also gives themselves the opportunity to correct erring brothers and sisters with the hope that they can win such a person back to their faith.[19]

Youth Ministry – A Christian Endeavour?

Image The following blog post will critique the article: Youth Groups Driving Christian Teens to Abandon Faith (CharismaMagazine) written by: Abby Carr.  The article can be found here: http://www.charismamag.com/spirit/church-ministry/18920-youth-groups-driving-christian-teens-to-abandon-faith.  I’m also drawing on the book “A Weed in the Church” by Scott T. Brown (found here: https://ncfic.org/uploads/products/A%20Weed%20in%20the%20Church.pdf) and the documentary “Divided”.  Please note that while I may not agree with everything said in these places, that I do hold much respect for the conversation which they have enabled and for what they have taught me about youth ministry that I was unaware of before.  The article, book, and movie are exceptionally well-done and worth using for personal or research purposes.  Highly recommended.

If you’d like to read more about my thoughts regarding young adults in the church you can check out my sermon looking at the book “Hemorrhaging Faith” put out by the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada here: https://debdebbarak.wordpress.com/2013/06/02/restriction-and-retention-why-canadian-young-adults-are-leaving-the-church/.

For years, youth ministry has been one of the most important aspects of the Christian church.  Although more popular among Evangelicals, even the mainline groups have picked up on the movement over the last several decades and have made an effort to reach out to the high schoolers in their neighbourhood.

Throughout my junior high and high school days I was a faithful youth group attender.  I went to all of the sessions and once in my later years of high school even began occasionally helping to lead classes and events.  It was then no surprise that by the time I was a student at Tyndale I was interning at various churches working closely with the youth pastors.

What do I remember from those high school days in terms of my relationship with the church?  While, there were definitely times of struggle in my own spiritual life in those days.  Nothing crazy.  I never walked away from the church and experimented with the things of this world.  I knew already by that age I wanted to be in the ministry and was thinking about how everything I did would affect my life’s path.  I remember many happy memories in youth group, but to be honest, what I remember the most is probably how much fun I was having.  It wasn’t until I went to Tyndale that I experienced really hard core Christian youth groups.  Youth groups where the teens were truly on fire for Christ, sharing their testimonies, praying for one another fervently, and really living the Christian life.  What I experienced, by and large, before Tyndale was probably just the average youth group.  A bit of sharing, some snacks, and then lots of fun in the gym.  And on the surface level there is nothing wrong with that.  At the very least when kids are in the church they are in a safe place away from the pressures of the world and if they hear about Jesus and learn some good morals while they are at it, well, so much the better.

By the time I was in my graduating year at Tyndale and definitely by my first year in seminary I really began to have my serious doubts about where churched young adults were headed.  This has been an area of extreme concern especially as I envision my future in ministry.  If the youth are leaving the church then will there still be a church to pastor 10, 20, or 30 years from now?

One haunting line from the documentary “Divided” is this, “We had lost them long before they had left the church.”  Sure, it’s great if we can have fun with the kids while they are in our midst.  If we can impress them by being a “cool youth pastor” and a hipster, but in the end of the day that is not enough to sustain a willingness in anyone to maintain their Spiritual life.  They will out-grow us as their youth pastor and by the same token they will “outgrow” God and the church.

I truly believe that this is an area that we can’t ignore but that we need to give much consistent thought to.  By the time I had finished grade 12 my church had already decided that not enough youth were attending Sunday school and so maybe we just shouldn’t have it.  This should not have had to have been the case.  At age 20 I was interning for a very liberal Christian denomination where I was explicitly told that I was “overwhelming kids with religious aspects only and should focus more on fun.”  The point of the youth group was not so much for religious instruction but to be entertaining.  Personally, I’m not there to be a “religious clown”.  I do (or at least I like to think that I do) have a fun side to me and I love adventure.  I’m down for motorcycle rides, bungee jumping, and scuba diving, but in the end of the day if that’s what you’re expecting of me as your youth pastor, I’m sorry.  I just can’t do it.  I’m into leading kids to that real relationship with Christ which is ultimately the most exciting journey anyone can live.

Now, I also don’t completely take the angle of this article and documentary which I believe to be fairly conservative compared to where I stand theologically.  I did find it an interesting argument to say that age segregation came from pagan roots and, to be honest, I think it has its pros and cons if we use it in the church.  But do I think we should get rid of youth groups entirely?  No, I do not.  I know that statistically it is proven that only a handful of young adults remain in the church, but at least it is a handful.  If a youth group can lead even one kid to Christ then it is enough.

For me, youth group was totally worth it and without youth group I don’t know where I would have found my spiritual fuel.  Service trips and conferences may be short lived, but I still find myself drawing on those experiences 7 and 8 years later.  Who knew that a trip to Toronto would end in me being an associate member of the church we stayed overnight at 5 years later?  Who could envision me still remembering this one line from a conference I attended in 2006 “You can’t be a vanilla Christian.  You got to be chocolate, rocky-road or something”?  Thanks, Mike Preschon!  And the trip to Mennonite World Conference in 2009 still shapes the way I approach my seminary studies and my keen desire to get to know people from different cultures.  No one could have envisioned the type of impact those things would have on me – after all, I was just a 14 or 15 year old kid!

So, I would encourage churches not to knock youth ministry down at all.  It definitely has its place and is a useful tool for encouraging kids to really get to know Christ.  When I was in Indiana I attended a really wonderful Charismatic church for their youth group.  The funny thing was I was 21 and I was hanging out with kids as young as 12 and yet there was something about this group that really drew me in.  This church didn’t believe in age segregation.  They had the pre-teens mixed with the young adults.  The idea was that the young adults would mentor the pre-teens and we would all grow up Spiritually together.  It was a wonderful concept.  The youth pastor always delivered timely messages to us that spoke to me as a 21 year old just as it did to the 12 year old.  The youth pastor also combined having fun with really solid Scripture.  He once told me at a pool party “Not to sound sacrilegious but I can worship God in this pool or while I’m at church.  The idea of our faith is not to separate the two – we got to live them both out!” He could not have said it any better.

When I think of the future of youth ministry in the church I do get worried.  I don’t know if youth groups will still be around in my kid’s time or grandkid’s time.  I don’t know how many of my high school buds are seriously plugged into a church and will remain that way.  But there is something far scarier than this.  I’m more afraid of churches completely losing the vision and completely giving up on the youth and young adults in their midst.  I’m more afraid of churches believing so hard in the fact that their youth ministry will fail that they don’t even make the effort to be that positive mentor to one kid.  It’s for this reason that I urge you pastors and you churches to keep pressing up.  Even in the face of what might look bleak remember that Christ has a purpose and a plan.  Remember that He has entrusted these high schoolers into your care and that He isn’t asking you to take all the responsibility on yourself.  He isn’t asking you to change the statistics completely and start a revolution where all young adults end up back in their parent’s churches.  But He is asking you to be faithful to the flock and to that one young man or woman who really needs your help and support.