Disability Ministry: What It Is and Why It Matters
What is Disability Ministry?
When people hear disability ministry or special needs ministry various images may come to mind. Some think of a large programmatic ministry that can only be operated by a megachurch with professional staff members. Others think of outreach to a focused portion of the population of people who have disabilities, such as people with intellectual disabilities. And these are good examples of disability ministries that can be found in some churches.
More than programs. We see disability ministry more broadly than specific initiatives. We think of it as making the gospel—the good news of the coming of Christ’s kingdom—accessible to all, in word and deed. From this perspective, disability ministry is not program-based, but relational by nature. It means recognizing that, for all people—no matter what combination of God-given abilities or disabilities we possess—our deepest need is for God himself. And this central need can only be met through a saving relationship with Jesus Christ.
Two dimensions of making the gospel accessible. First, there is a spiritual dimension: the gospel in word. This is proclaiming the good news of the coming of Christ’s kingdom in ways that people can understand. In other countries, we proclaim the gospel in the languages that people there can understand. Proclaiming the gospel to people with disabilities means sharing the good news in ways the Deaf can hear it, the blind can see it, people with intellectual and developmental disabilities can comprehend it, and those with physical disabilities can enter the places where the Word is preached.
Second, there is the practical dimension: the gospel in deed. This is the power of God released through the hands and feet of his people, bringing his restorative power to bear on difficulty and brokenness in the world wherever we encounter it. Those who live with the relentlessness of disability know that it brings its fair share of difficulty in this life. When Christians reach out to people with disabilities and their families with practical supports and encouragement, the coming of the kingdom is proclaimed as God’s power and goodness are demonstrated in tangible ways. Jesus’ disciples are his agents of restoration, sharing the good news in word and bringing the good news in deed.
Removing barriers to faith in Christ. In a nutshell, disability ministry is simply the local church’s effort to acknowledge that barriers to the accessibility of the gospel—in word and deed—exist in the congregation and to act with intentionality to remove those barriers. These obstacles are not usually intentional. Instead, they generally exist because of a failure to see, to value, and to respond to people with disabilities. Often we do not even recognize people with disabilities or genuinely value them as the glorious image-bearers of God that they are. When we do recognize people with disabilities, we tend to fail to see their need for accommodations. Or, worse, we define them exclusively by their needs.
Transforming the church to be more like Christ. Even when we see the person and see the needs, we often hesitate to respond. For an established church, beginning a disability ministry is a transformative process. It means applying the gospel to church life by allowing repentance and faith to change us and how we operate as a body. For a new church being planted, it means building in “gospel accessibility” to the church planting process from the beginning.
Why Does Disability Ministry Matter?
Because it mattered to Jesus. Ministry to and alongside people with disabilities ought to matter to us, first, because it clearly mattered to Jesus. Throughout the Gospels, we find Jesus very intentionally engaging people touched by disability with the good news of the coming of his kingdom. Not only did he model this for us, but he also proclaimed it as central to his message when he inaugurated his ministry in Luke 4.
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Luke 4:18-19
Because it matters to the Church. Second, not only does disability ministry matter to God, but it matters to his Church. Not once (Romans 12), not twice (I Corinthians 12), but three times (Ephesians 4) Paul explains the significance of the diversity of the body of Christ and the value of all its members. When the Church attempts to operate without all of her parts, it is as if the body of Christ itself is disabled. How tragically ironic this is! People with disabilities not only need the blessings of the local church—but the local church needs the blessings, gifts, and abilities that people with disabilities and their families bring to the community as well. One of the great benefits of disability ministry in the local church is that it is akin to “pushing the refresh button on the computer screen of the gospel” in the life of a congregation. It reminds us that it was because of the profoundly disabled condition of our hearts that Christ came to make access to the Father on our behalf. In other words, disability ministry serves as a three-dimensional reminder of the heart of the gospel for all of us. And that the gospel is to be shared with everyone, in word and deed.
Because it matters to people living with disability. Last, but certainly not least, disability ministry matters to those who live with disability as part and parcel of their daily lives. As a popular Christian song from some years ago stated it so clearly, “People Need the Lord.” Yes, people need the Lord. All of us do. All of us need his saving grace, his abiding presence, and the hope of his good and sovereign plan for each of our lives. And all of us need the practical assistance of Jesus’ agents of restoration found in the hands and feet of the local church. In other words, all of us need to experience the coming of his kingdom in word and deed. For families affected by disability, this can mean the difference between surviving or thriving on every level of life—spiritually, emotionally, and physically.
Being for the life of our neighbors. As the Church, we need to broaden our perspective of what it means to be pro-life. Being pro-life is much more than just being against abortion. It also means being for the life of my neighbor—from conception to natural death. It means putting the gospel into practice in the way we live and relate to others around us. It means rolling up our sleeves and making intentional efforts to bring flourishing to the lives of our neighbors—on every level. And this includes our neighbors touched by disability.
Belonging in the body of Christ is for everyone. It is not only important why we minister to people affected by disability, it matters how we minister. Paul writes:
But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. I Corinthians 12:25
We believe disability ministry shouldn’t be a “disability rights” group within a church. It should be a ministry that blesses and builds up all the body of Christ. While it is not always easy to address the barriers to gospel accessibility that exist in a congregation, it is possible to find solutions that remove those barriers. It is important for solutions to be enacted in ways that demonstrate “equal concern for each other”. That doesn’t mean that “perfect solutions” can always be achieved. But when love and grace are our motivations, not fear and self-protection, “win-win” solutions can usually be found.
A church where all are equally valued and where all demonstrate mutual concern for each other is a loving community. A community where everyone is welcome and everyone belongs. A community that is genuinely making the gospel—the good news of the coming of Christ’s kingdom—accessible to all, in word and deed!
Steph Hubach is the author of Same Lake, Different Boat: Coming Alongside People Touched by Disability, Revised and Updated (P&R Publishers, 2020). To learn more about Steph or access additional resources, visit her website.
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