When my husband and I teach our children, we adjust our approach as necessary based on their different ages, genders, temperaments, and personalities. The message of Christ remains the same, but the strategies we employ are occasionally different as we consider God’s unique design in each of them. As we seek to train them in the way they should go (Prov 22:6), we acknowledge that God’s perfect design as he knit each of them together (Ps 139:13-14) resulted in precious but different children.
This approach of maintaining one message through different methods isn’t new. Christ taught in the temple, on the countryside, by the well, the road, from a boat, and many other venues. He taught individuals, small groups, and crowds. In the Early Church, the apostles considered the context of those to whom they preached; for example, when Paul preached in the synagogue, he expected listeners to have more familiarity with the law and the prophets than he did when preaching to the Gentiles. If you asked five people in your own church how each came to know Christ, each testimony will be unique but Christ will be the same in each.
In the same way, when we teach children and youth and adults with disabilities in our homes and in the church, what we proclaim (the gospel) doesn’t change but how we do so (our strategy) differs in response to God’s good and different design in each person. When I taught writing to middle school students with disabilities in Rio Grande City, Texas, I sought the same outcomes through different means, depending on the individual strengths and needs of each student. In the same way, as I coordinate Access—the special needs ministry of Providence Baptist Church—I modify my approach as I teach each individual and equip their par- ents and caregivers.
With my experience and graduate training in special education, I am not intimidated by the idea of modifying my methods while teaching the same message of Christ. Most of our teachers don’t share my background, though, so we created the Special Needs Ministry Quick Reference guide to equip our volunteers. (Editor’s Note: You can find a PDF copy of the Reference Guide here.) We hadn’t planned to use it as a family-equipping tool, but it became one when parents began asking for their own copies and using the tips while discipling their own children and leading their families in worship.
At Providence, we have chosen to invest in welcoming people with disabilities and their families in the church because we believe, in the words of 1 Corinthians 12:22, that the parts that the world calls weak are actually indispensable to the body of Christ. As we consider the Great Commission, we recognize that one people group is absent from many churches—the group of people with disabilities and their families. We follow the Lord who taught the parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7, Matt 18:12-14) in which the shepherd leaves ninety-nine others to pursue one lost sheep. If we modeled our ministry after that par- able, one family would be enough to make special needs ministry worthwhile. However, the prevalence is much greater than that: a study published in the May 2011 issue of Pediatrics indicates that one in six children in the United States has a developmental disability.
If it is worthwhile to pursue the one missing sheep out of a flock of a hundred, how about the one family in every six who is affected by disability (1)?
(1) C.A. Boyle, S. Boulet, L.A. Schieve, R.A. Cohen, S.J. Blumberg, M. Yeargin-Allsopp, S. Visser, and, M.D. Kogan, “Trends in the Prevalence of Developmental Disabilities in US Children, 1997–2008,” Pediatrics 127(May 2011):1034-1042.
About the Author: Shannon Dingle (M.A.Ed. in Special Education) coordinates Access, the special needs ministry at Providence Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina with her husband Lee. She is the writer of a popular special needs ministry blog (theworksofgoddisplayed. com), a contributor to the Treasuring Christ curriculum (treasuringchristonline. com), and a long-time volunteer in children’s, youth, and music ministry. She and Lee have three children, Jocelyn, Robbie, and Zoe.
[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in The Journal of Discipleship and Family Ministry 3.1 (2012)]