New MTIOPC Course: Disability and the Church

Stephen J. Tracey

Like many pastors, I did not really think about ministry to those with disabilities until a little covenant child with disabilities was added to our church.

I am still surprised by this. In my own family background, I had an aunt with Down Syndrome. She was part of my life until I was forty years old. She was part of my home church, and yet I never thought how churches should help families impacted by disability or how churches could reach out to find people with disabilities. The subject never came up in the late eighties when I was in seminary, nor do I remember anyone discussing disability and the church during my early years of pastoral ministry.

So I think that what happened to our church—Lakeview OPC in Rockport, Maine—is that I started to hear the experience of this one family as they ministered to their child. Then I started to see. Then I started to listen. Then I started to look.

In 2018, 12 percent of Americans reported a disability, including hearing, visual, cognitive, ambulatory, self-care and independent living disabilities (see Erickson, Lee, and von Schrader, “Disability Statistics from the 2018 American Community Survey,” Cornell University Yang-Tan Institute, www.disabilitystatistics.org). That would be one out of every eight people in your church. Some states have higher percentages. For example, 16.3 percent of Maine residents reported a disability (or roughly one in six people). There are people with disabilities in your church. There are people with disabilities that have never been to any church.

Every church is on a journey in its ministry to those with disabilities. We may still be unaware of the need, or we may have started reaching out to serve, and serve with, people with disabilities. Ministering to families impacted by disability is not about offering them something; it is about sharing. It’s about learning how to say, “sit beside me; come eat with me; ride with me; visit with me; come to the park with us; come to church with us; worship with us.”  The New Testament is full of little phrases about “one another”: love one another, greet one another, encourage one another, accept one another, bear with one another, bear one another’s burdens, serve one another, and show hospitality to one another. Disability ministry is one way in which we fulfil these commands.

At some point, our session realized that our whole congregation needed to begin to learn how to serve, include, and disciple people and families impacted by disability. This was not an extra program, but something the whole congregation needed to participate in.

The church should minister to people impacted by disability because we must seek to serve everyone with the whole of the gospel. It’s not an optional app for our iPhone church menu, it is simply our responsibility to take the gospel to every creature: “He said to them, ‘Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation’” (Mark 16:15). And it is our responsibility to disciple all who come: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19).

A Reformed Perspective on Disability and the Church

A new MTIOPC course is designed to help pastors, elders, and members to think biblically and practically about disability and the church. It provides an introduction to disability and the church from a Reformed perspective. Readings are selected to review the major theological themes of creation, the fall, providence, salvation, the church, and the resurrection.

The course will emphasize, among other things, that:

  • Every person you meet bears the image of God (Gen. 1:27).
  • Every person you meet suffers from the effects of the fall into sin in Genesis 3. The whole of creation is groaning under it, too (Rom. 8:23).
  • Every person you meet needs the Savior, and he offers himself freely to all (John 3:16).
  • Every person you meet is heading to an eternal state; there will be a resurrection of the body (1 Cor. 15:42–44).

Following the assigned reading, there will be an in-person intensive training session in Rockport, Maine, to think more carefully about practical issues. In it, we will address these areas:

  • Assessing your church: barriers, accessibility, attitudes
  • Welcoming people and families with disabilities: signs of hospitality
  • Christian education: classroom, adapting curriculum, friendship, buddies
  • “The other six days”: respite, support, diaconal assistance

The author is pastor of Lakeview OPC in Rockport, Maine.