Mark 10:13-16 tells us Jesus was indignant. ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the Kingdom of God belongs to them.’ We are entreated to receive the Kingdom of God as a little child. Jesus embraces the children and blesses them.
Children have a special place in God’s kingdom as do people with disability. We are encouraged to bring our children up in the training and instruction of the Lord.
This is why as a former child and youth minister, I believe in evangelism amongst children. In fact I have a passion to see ALL children and youth responding to God and growing in faith, irrespective of ability. It is also clear in reading the Gospels that Jesus has a special place for the disabled. Their encounters with Jesus transform their lives.
When we think of evangelism and work with kids and youth, where do those with disabilities and additional needs fit in? Are they even part of our thinking when we write our plans and goals for future mission?
It is sad that in many churches, children in general are not part of the official outreach programme, never mind children with additional needs and disabilities. When we think of additional needs and disability, all too often people see the disability and the problems first.
I would love our churches to see beyond potential difficulties and see, firstly, a precious child or young person of God with the potential for faith and a life lived with God. But often we don’t see the child or young person first but see the diagnosis instead. We look to find volunteers for a problem that needs sorting out rather than asking people to catch the vision for enabling this child or young person to be everything they can be in Christ and fully included in our church communities.
Embracing Ministries offers workshops to help churches and young people catch the vision. When I run training days with the CBM Luke 14 resources, I find people want me to fix the ‘problem’ with a quick fix. It takes a long time to shift the focus from ‘problem’ to ‘purpose and potential’. Through the workshops we teach that inclusion is about attitude, not just about ramps and accessible bathrooms.
Usually, the only children and youth with disabilities and additional needs in our children’s ministries are those whose families are already part of the church community. Often midweek programs such as Mainly Music or youth groups have children with additional needs who come from families on the edge of church. With these groups we struggle, so how on Earth can we cope with bringing more in?
When we started our Spring Holiday program seven years ago for children with physical and intellectual disabilities – I loved it! Our churches and church camps excluded these people, because it was all so hard. Many children came to know Jesus in a very real but simple way, but, where could they go when the week was over? For a child with quadriplegic cerebral palsy, whose parents don’t want to go to church, how do we help them access church, and how do we keep them there? In rare cases churches have made it work, but, as a rule, it doesn’t.
I’m still in touch with most of the participants and families of that first program – all of them now adults. Some have chosen not to follow Jesus, some have other beliefs now, some have returned to faith, a few are on the edges of local church communities with the help of their family. Churches failed many of them.
I have learned much from them, both then and now, and I am grateful and honoured. So who is reaching out to children, especially those with additional needs and disabilities, in our communities today?
Well, some are, but not enough. I’ve already been ‘realistic’ – now I’m going to be brutally honest. Many children have life limiting disabilities – I’ve been to far too many funerals! These children and young people have less time to hear the Gospel than others. The need is urgent!
I have to add here that I’m not just worried about short life spans now, but the fact that so, SO many children and young people with additional needs are being rejected by the Church. This is now the bigger problem – they are leaving the Church in much greater numbers and not returning.
We believe in the Gospel, we believe in spreading it, but do we believe in taking it to some of the most vulnerable people in our communities? Is ‘The Church’ brave enough to step up to this challenge and not to see it as a problem but huge potential?