I’m John Barber, Area Director of Joni and Friends TN, a CSPC missions partner. CSPC does a great job including individuals with disabilities, but as the parent of an adult son with autism, I’ve seen firsthand what it’s like when churches don’t. A lot of times we run into churches who say, ‘We just don’t know what to do.’ So that’s where Joni and Friends comes in- we train churches, here and around the world, to serve, evangelize, and disciple people with disabilities. In a lot of churches, the initial impulse is ‘Disability ministry is an issue for kids’, so when we engage, the first place we’ll often get referred to is the children’s ministry. But kids with disabilities grow into students with disabilities, who grow into adults with disabilities. One in five people in East Tennessee is living with a disability, and the truth is… if you’re not living with a disability, eventually you probably will. You could lose your eyesight, or get hit by a truck, or have a degenerative disease- something’s going to happen if you live long enough. So disability touches everybody and every age group- it’s not just a children’s ministry issue. Also, disability can mean a million different things- from the person who needs a sign language interpreter to the child with the sensory issue who might need noise-cancelling headphones. Of course, church staffs need processes in place to make Sunday morning happen, but that makes it difficult to cater to individuals with special needs because usually, out of necessity, we’re building a machine to cater to large groups (I know- I’ve spent many years as a pastor!). In disability ministry, we’re asking ‘How can we include the individual?’ How do we help them encounter Christ in this insanely powerful way on Sunday mornings or through the week? The disconnect isn’t usually that churches don’t want to do it- it’s that they don’t know how or think it means hiring more staff. But usually that’s not true. It starts with having one or two church members who are passionate about seeing these people included. From there, it’s about figuring out who in your church has a disability, and then figuring out how to meet their individual needs.
The good news? During my two years in this role, I’ve really seen a growing spirit in Knoxville to welcome people who don’t conform to our normal Sunday morning environments. Please pray the Lord just keeps growing that! I see lots of local churches making culture shifts so people with disabilities aren’t just welcomed, but fully able to exercise their spiritual giftedness- that’s what they’re for! People with disabilities have spiritual gifts just like everyone else, and they’re for the benefit of the Body. To us, a mature church is fully integrating people with disabilities into every aspect of the church. It’s heartening to see more and more churches in Knoxville desiring that.
In terms of practical needs you can pray about, we have Warrior Getaways coming up. Those are our events for veterans and their families where they get to encounter Jesus in a more personal way. Honestly, we need some more people to come. They’re free for these families; we have space, so just pray that people will come! We also have a Marriage Getaway for parents of kids with disabilities this fall, so keep those parents in your prayers. And we’re toward the end of the year, which means our budget needs must be met. We appreciate prayer for all of those things, but again, the overarching need is to pray that churches in Knoxville will learn to include these people, and not just those who come in through the front door. There are people with disabilities who live all around our church buildings who don’t come in because they don’t think they’ll be welcomed. The disability community is the largest unchurched community in America. We need to be asking- how can we as believers reach out beyond our doors to those people, love them deeply, welcome them in, and give them the hope of Christ?