At the Evangelical Free Church of the Conejo Valley in Newbury Park, Calif., Rhonda Cattley’s greatest prayer warrior is a 26-year-old Jewish believer who is legally blind, has cerebral palsy and suffers from seizures. Anytime Cattley speaks at churches to encourage them to start or expand a ministry to people with disabilities and special-needs children, her friend calls to pray for her.
“She has such a pure love for God and a pure faith that God is going to take care of things,” says Cattley, director of the church’s disability ministry. “And by her actions she shows that she believes that.”
Cattley, who helped start All Believers Loved Equally Outreach nine years ago, is one of a growing number of people across the country answering the call to start or expand a disability ministry at their church. Currently, only 12 percent of churches have ministries for those with special needs, a rapidly growing population now numbering 650 million worldwide.
In the United States, 50 million people are affected by disabilities—about one in five. As the baby boomer generation ages and the number of autistic children soars, this number is expected to grow substantially in the years ahead. They remain one of the largest groups unreached by the church.
Steve Bundy, managing director of the newly created Christian Institute on Disability at Joni and Friends International Disability Center in Agoura Hills, Calif., says these people present an incredible opportunity for the church. “Never before have we seen the number of those affected by disabilities so high,” Bundy says. “The church has the opportunity to reach out to this large community and welcome them in, embrace them and include [them] in the life of the church, not only to fulfill the command of Christ, but to receive the blessing of such ministries.”
Founder Joni Eareckson Tada, who was left a quadriplegic after a diving accident in 1967, adds, “We simply can’t ascribe disability outreach to the lowest rung of the ministry ladder. I’m convinced disability ministry is God’s way of altering the landscape of the church when it begins to nestle back into the green pastures of serving without sacrificing.”
To start a disability ministry, Bundy recommends pastors talk to their congregations about Jesus’ mandate in Luke 14:15-24 to bring the “poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame” (NIV) into the church and recruit volunteers for the ministry. Volunteers can push people in wheelchairs around the church, transport them to church and back home, help with shopping and home repairs or be a “buddy” to a special-needs child during Sunday school. Pastors may also want to set up classrooms for children with disabilities and special needs, have someone provide sign language interpretation for the deaf and look at how parts of the church could be made more accessible.
“[It’s about] creating a friendly place that is welcoming, that is accepting, a place that doesn’t highlight differences, but recognizes everyone’s abilities,” Bundy says.
Many pastors fear trying to minister to each person with special needs will drain the church’s resources. But Bundy says he’s found churches that reach out to those with disabilities end up increasing their membership because family and friends of the special-needs person start attending the church too.
“We have seen this repeatedly where the extended family ends up becoming part of the church as well,” Bundy says. “In one way, it’s actually a way to grow the church.”
Troy Anderson is a freelance writer and reporter with the Los Angeles Daily News.
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