Don’t Neglect the Most Neglected in Your Consulting
By David Smith
Medical doctors use their knowledge, training, experience and best available tools to diagnose and treat their patients. Sometimes, it’s the “lose a few pounds and get some more exercise” conversations and other times it’s the “I’m sorry, but…” conversations. Church consultants are not completely dissimilar from medical professionals in this regard. We bring our knowledge, experience, training and best available tools to bear as we come alongside local churches to diagnose recommend treatment options for churches. Sometimes, it’s a serious revitalization conversation and sometimes it’s less serious course corrections or suggestions to improve health and gospel effectiveness.
If we’re not careful, we will inadvertently overlook one of the largest and most neglected communities of people in the world. In doing so, we’re leaving our churches to languish in an unhealthy state – and maybe not even know we’re doing it.
Disability affects every people group, every culture, every country on earth. In truth, people living with disability are one of the largest unreached, and often overlooked, people groups on the planet. The American church is not reaching and retaining people and families affected by disability well. Today, more than 15% of the world’s population, over 1 billion people, lives with some form of disability. The United States has an average disability rate of 13%. That means about 43 million people, or 13 out of every 100 people in the US, live with some form of disability – and that doesn’t include their family members or caregivers who are equally affected by their disability.
Many churches believe they’re welcoming to families affected by disability, but the current research proves this is simply not the case. More than half of special needs families have reported staying away from church and church activities because either their special needs child was not supported or the family felt neglected, overlooked, or mistreated in some way by church leadership or its members. Almost 1/3 of church-going special needs families reported leaving at least one church for the same reasons. Studies are finding that parents, especially mothers, of special needs children have stress hormone levels similar to combat veterans or Holocaust survivors, with many evidencing issues akin to PTSD. Among married couples with children diagnosed with ADHD or Autism Spectrum Disorder, the divorce rate is nearly double the national rate in America. With 1:68 children in America currently being diagnosed on the autism spectrum, the need for special needs marriage discipleship by the church has never been more pressing. Yet, most local churches don’t consider special needs families as a specific group within their congregations, or are ill-equipped to evangelize, disciple and serve them. Among faithful, church-going special needs families, 90% say their local church needs more education and training about disability.
Failing to intentionally consider special needs families when we consider a church’s health misunderstands 1 Corinthians 12:12-26 as the picture of church health the Apostle Paul intended it to be. A church can score extremely healthy in all 6 areas of church health – worship, evangelism, fellowship, discipleship, prayer, and ministry – but if people living with disabilities are not intentionally being integrated in the mainstream participation of the church’s ministries, then the church remains biblically unhealthy.
This is where the ministry of Joni and Friends becomes a key tool in your consulting toolbox. Joni and Friends envisions a world where every person living with disability finds hope, dignity and their place in the body of Christ. The ministry exists, in part, to mobilize the church to evangelize, disciple and serve people living with disability. As a 28-year pastoral veteran and parent of 3 special needs children, I understand firsthand the impact, both positively and negatively, a church has on families affected by disability. Joni and Friends is a resource to help you come alongside the church to equip her to see real, healthy culture change that sees the church embrace the biblical commission of Luke 14:21-23 so that she can become the model of healthy integration Paul extoled in 1 Corinthians 12.
The Joni and Friends Christian Institute on Disability provides you with tools to give churches a biblical theology of disability through our college and graduate level course, Beyond Suffering. We can provide you with tools to walk churches through the practical process of culture transformation through our free resources in our Irresistible Church series. We have a growing and unparalleled bank of resources consultants can use to help local churches ensure their existing ministries are accessible and welcoming to people of all abilities without having to reinvent the wheel.
In addition to the consulting resources at your disposal, the 21 local Joni and Friends area ministry offices around the country also provide practical ministry mentoring to equip churches to serve families living with disability through respite training, buddy training, moms’, dads’, parent and marriage support groups, children’s ministry leader certificate programs, internships and much more. We also come alongside the church to provide for her what she is not equipped to provide. Family Retreats, Marriage Getaways, and Warrior Retreats allow us to partner with local churches to evangelize, disciple and serve people living with disabilities in unique ways that are having eternal impacts.
I’ve been privileged to work with Joni and Friends since late 2019. Even during these unprecedented pandemic times, I’ve seen God use the resources and relationships of this ministry to change churches from the inside out. I’ve been able to come alongside churches in my local area to equip and mobilize them to greater health, specifically as it relates to families affected by disability. The churches that have done the hard work are poised to see great reward for the gospel.
As we help the church transition out of the pandemic and back to our new normal, it behooves us as consultants to understand better the disability community within our churches and communities. Families affected by disability were among the first to stay isolated during the pandemic and will be among the last to return en masse to the church. Healthy churches who are ready to welcome and integrate them will be poised to see a significant gospel impact among these families and individuals.
If you’d like more information about the ministry of Joni and Friends or how they can equip you to serve churches better, please contact Dr. David Smith, Area Director of Joni and Friends Missouri for more information. firstname.lastname@example.org