People with intellectual disabilities are a prophetic presence to the Christian church in that they cause the church to become what it has the potential to be merely by their presence. By this I mean, when a person with an intellectual disability is present, their presence changes me in terms of what I am able to do, and what I might now be required to do. If I don't reject them, they will cause me to be a servant, they will cause me to look outside of myself and not be as preoccupied with myself. They will cause me to step back and consider what is really important in life and in human interactions. They will grow my faith in what is sometimes the messiness of their lives that needs help through no fault of their own. They will teach me to love them when they stretch me with atypcial social skills. They need not do anything but be, and they speak through their presence, they challenge through their presence.
I can also exclude their prophetic voice in a variety of ways. I can simply not allow them to be present. I can make deliberate efforts to exclude them. I can claim I didn't know they were out there in the community. I can say they are not a priority.
I can also remove them from the church and create disabled churches. Those who create these settings are very well intentioned.
I do not question their motives.
However, they have an absolutely WRONG notion of the Body of Christ and what it should be. They take what are perhaps the most weak, the most challenging members, and take them away from the larger body. By doing that, they allow the church to continue on on its self absorbed way, not having to change in response to the prophetic presence of people with disabilities. Using 1 Corinthians 12:22 once again, they take the indispensable parts away from the Body, thinking they are doing something helpful. Yes the intellectually disabled adults are happy in their segregation as are the nondisabled adults happy in their lack of integration. But both are WRONG. I cannot take a group of people and decide I don't need them to be with me (check 1 Corinthians again) and those who do these segregated churches are actually doing harm to the larger Body of Christ because they are removing the prophetic presence from the larger church that would cause it to change.
But people celebrate these types of programs because they are uninformed or have never critically thought through the issues involved. Once again, I don't question their motives. However, there are many people who do things that are not good things to do for the best of motives. I will not generate a list here, but segregated churches for people with disabilities is definitely on that bad idea/good motivation list. No doubt.
Who am I talking about? Here is an example. There is a Christian magazine called World. In the recent issue, they list one of these segregated churches as among those being considered for a special award. I don't mean to be unkind but I honestly pray that group will not receive the award, because it sends the exact wrong message about what the church should be doing relative to persons with disabilities. The answer is not to separate them from those without disabilities but to fully integrate them so that their prophetic presence will change us to be what God intends us to be. Both World magazine and this group are actually impeding the prophetic presence, and by impeding their presence, they impede the prophetic will of God.
Having a segregated church for those with disabilities reminds of the civil rights movement. We are taking a group of people we believe may be inferior and moving them out somewhere else, rather than encompassing them and welcoming them openly into our congregations for “normal” people. There is so many preconceived notions about those who may be disabled and instead of learning more about them we turn our backs. We as a society, especially us as Christians, should be striving to include them with our services, as Jesus taught us to love everyone and treat them as we would want to be treated. By excluding the disabled, we are in essence excluding Christ, which no one would ever want to be accused of.
I completely agree with not wanting this church to be rewarded for segregating those with disabilities from those who have no “problems.” Everyone encounters difficulties in life and would not enjoy being sent to another church due to this. But as we take a look at how we serve, or do not serve, our disabled community, it can be said we are guilty of doing just that.
It is amazing to me that a church would do this and as you said, leave out the parts of the body of Christ. A church cannot be made “whole” until it accepts everyone and does not ship them off to another congregation.
I really appreciate the perspective you brought both on the prophetic presence of people with disabilities in the body of Christ and the harm it brings to the body as a whole when we exclude them. Many in our society today are so self-centered, focused on their needs, wants, and comforts; quickly milling about to accomplish whatever might be on their agenda. Sadly I believe much of this mindset has crept into the church (I do not set myself apart from identifying with these things at times), and with this attitude present not only do we need to ask for the Lord’s forgiveness but and as we set our focus on God learn to be others-centered, seeking how we can serve God by serving a person with an intellectual disability, stepping out of our comfort zone to establish a place for them in the body. God gave the admonition in His word about the importance of each part of the body, that one part cannot say to another part that it doesn’t need them. In the same way, we as a people without disabilities need to enfold those with disabilities into the body and seek to grow in our faith as we glean from the quiet yet prophetic presence of those with intellectual disabilities.
I completely agree with your position on inclusion in the Church.. Christians everywhere can serve the Lord by acting with compassion for and to include people with intellectual disabilities.
Having a seperate church for people with a disability can be wrong because having a variety of members in the body of Christ is important. By this I mean that a person with a disability is just as important a member to a church as anyone else in the same way that the janitor or parking attendant or sound guy is just as important as the pastor or teacher or worship leader. Everyone has something to bring to the table. I like what you said about the prophetic presence of individuals who have the ability to demonstrate the heart of a church that will serve alongside everyone.
That said, I attend a deaf church. I don't consider myself a good representation of the typical member (I am not deaf.) Although, I am involved in leadership in the church. Deafness can be seen as a disability to some, however no one in my church would ever consider it that. Many deaf people see themselves as a linguistic-cultural minority group and not "disabled" or "impaired". The purpose of our church was not to segregate deaf members from hearing members of the body of Christ. Many hearing family members, interpreters, ASL students, and hearing friends are welcome and invited to participate. The church is here to provide an outlet of worship that meets the needs of deaf members in such areas as language, worship, and missions. Because deaf people have their own language, they do not "hear" the message given in english in the same way that english speakers do. Humor, idioms and other tools used by speakers do not translate in the same way in ASL. For this reason, while supplying an interpreter is a great aspect to allow equal access and invite deaf into the church, it is not the best way to commmunicate the bible to deaf people. Rather, a sermon specifically prepared and taught with the deaf audience in mind either by a deaf or hearing pastor who is well involved in the deaf community reaches this audience in a more accesssible way. Also, a worship service designed around a choir or band playing great music, doesn't reach the deaf in the same manner that it appeals to hearing people. A hearing church may begin a prayer with, "Please bow your head and close your eyes in prayer." A deaf church signs, "let's pray" and all members turn and look at the signer and watch them pray with their hands.
So there may just be a time and a place in which a group of individuals that the hearing church would consider "disabled" to meet together.
Excluding people from the church is the exact opposite to what we are called to do as believers. Christ is for everyone, not only for the non-disabled. Just like it is not right to segarate according to race or gender (for there is no Jew or Gentile, male or female), it is not acceptable to exclude people with disablilities from worshipping with people who are not disabled. By completely separating the two groups of people, a message is being sent that these people are too much of a distraction and not worth the effort to allow them to worship in the same area with the church body.
Yes, sometimes it is difficult, distracting, and very challeging to work with disabled people. However, this is true for all people. In every ministery I worked with, with the people I live with, and with the people I encoutner daily, it can be very difficult to stretch beyond myself to meet their needs. Some people are more difficult then others, but we all need love. We all need acceptance and someone to care for us. If we are not willing to reach outside ourselves to show love, kindness, and compassion to those with disabilities, why would we expect others to reach out to us? This whole Christ thing is about loving others and thinking of others needs abover our own, and often times this will mean that it is challenging and at times unpleasant.
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