“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” George Orwell

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

A lesson from Pagan Christianity

I've just finished reading a book that was recommended to me by a friend called Pagan Christianity by Viola and Barna.  I have no doubt that it is considered a very controversial book, in fact it begins with the publishing company's statement that it doesn't necessarily represent their position on the issues it discusses.  But in a nutshell, it takes many of the most foundational practices of the Christian church and traces their roots.  Where did the practices come from and are they based on the Bible or were those practices adopted from the world.
I was intrigued by the book because I have long felt that there are many church practices, church structures which are an impediment to the full participation of persons with various disabilities.  I personally cannot believe that a church based exclusively on Christian principles would be an exclusionary church, so I have wondered where many of our exclusionary practices have come from.

But after reading Pagan Christianity, it struck me that in disability ministry, we may be beginning to do or are actually doing exactly what Viola and Barna claim the church has done in the past.  That is, build church structures (meaning church practices) that are based upon or mimic secular practices.  For example, Sunday school looks surprisingly like regular school with just a different topic of study.  The focus is just as knowledge based as the public schools are.  You could further look at supposedly, "Christian schools" where people with disabilities are excluded and recognize that they may be Christian in some ways, but are also very far from Christian in other ways.  In each of these examples, the Christian church has copied the way the world does things in both cases to our detriment.

But back to disability ministry.  One of the first steps, it seems in disability ministry, is to do inclusion programs.  Well, where did the idea of inclusive programs in schools come from?  Clearly not from the Christian church.  It was a development of the secular world as a way to integrate children with disabilities into the regular classroom.  The secular world has found this has not entirely worked as a strategy because public school curriculum is so knowledge based.  However, we in the Christian world, copy the knowledge focus of schools, then try to integrate children with disabilities into our knowledge based Sunday schools, and find we have difficulty in the process.  The end result is that the children with disabilities are excluded, or at best just tolerated and treated as if we are doing them a favor by allowing them to participate.

But I would argue that the focus of Sunday school borrowed from the public schools is probably pretty much wrong, so the starting point takes us in the wrong direction.  I have visited many classrooms where adults with severe intellectual disabilities sit while they are read a lesson from a teacher.  Why do we do that?  What do we think we are doing when we do that?  If we want to engage people with intellectual disabilities, then lets think about how people with intellectual disabilities are engaged.  They have intellectual disabilities.  They are not going to be engaged by sitting in a classroom and having dry knowledge dropped on them.  They have intellectual disabilities.  They are not going to make applications to their lives from content about Noah's ark or the 6 day creation of the Earth.  They have intellectual disabilities.   If we were to copy the practices of the world, do you know what the most important skills are to be taught to adults with intellectual disabilities?  They are social skills. NCLB has gotten us back into teaching content in the public schools to persons with intellectual disabilities, but by and large even the public schools have moved away from a knowledge based, content oriented approach to education for persons with intellectual disabilities.  But we in the Christian church continue to copy programs that are basically irrelevant in their knowledge focus.  Must I repeat again that the folks have intellectual disabilities.  They are not going to get it.  Then we borrow the inclusion practices of the public schools which again are probably not the best way to integrate someone (take for example people with intellectual disabilities...sure, lets integrate them at their point of greatest weakness) and we wonder at the problems we face.

As the Christian church, we can pretty much do anything in terms of faith development for our children.  We can also pretty much also do anything in terms of working to include persons with disabilities in the structures of the church.  So what do we do?  We mimic the public schools.  And as I have argued elsewhere in this blog, if our practices are exclusionary of persons with disabilities, then most likely our practices are wrong, perhaps not even Biblical in their roots.

So as we look to do faith development in children and in adults, we might consider developing models that go beyond the lazy copying of secular practices.  Is the only difference between Sunday school and public school that I can pray in Sunday school?  Are the goals just the same with only the content being different?  Or could there be alternative methods leading to a qualitatively different outcome called faith development in our students, because we are working to develop something far different than just knowledge.

Is our goal for ministry to persons with disabilities no different than the goals of the public schools?  Much of the data on the outcomes of inclusion in the public schools are not that great.  People know each other's names and not too much past that.  Is the goal for our teachers to be like the teachers in the public schools? Or would we prefer to see involvement in the lives of persons with disabilities as not just a job, but more of a lifestyle?  Do not blindly look at the secular world, Christian, and just do what they are doing.  Think Biblically.  The secular world is doing some good things.  But we have the potential to do greater, powerful, world changing, Spirit inspired things if we will seek God's guidance to do them.



Julie said...

Amen and amen!

Impossibleape said...

a great challenge
well put

If it is answered properly this could revolutionize the church and give us a future we do not seem to have in our present mode of propogating the faith

I'm glad to see you are still doing such a good job of articulating the call God is making thru PWD's

mark said...

It seems to me that ministry among persons with disability ought to be primarily experiential in nature. We should not talk about why it is important to love, we should not be teaching or talking about what love looks like or what what love feels like; we should simply love. If you want to call it teaching, we should be shaping and modeling love, by loving. As the song says, "...and they'll know we are Christians by our love."

I recently heard a presentation by Erik Carter, from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He talked about the way church ministers to people with disabilities (and Anyone else , for that matter) as "a progression of prepositions."
In the beginning we:

Minister apart from persons with disabilities. This is where most of the church is now.

Later, we minister to persons with disabilities.

We come to minister with people with disabilities.

Finally, we experience ministry from people with disabilities.

I will argue that the last stage of disabilities ministry begins as soon as they are present within the church body. We experience ministry by persons with disability because their deficit in social skills force us to decide how we react to them. We can get better at Christian love, or we reject those people. We walk away from that experience knowing exactly WWJD, and comparing our response to that knowledge.

It seems the discussion on this blog has been focused exclusively on this particular issue for some time now. But what other issues are there? Really? When will we ever learn?