By Kathryn Wright
Recently I participated in a podcast interview with Broken Vessels, Hidden Treasures Ministries in Idaho. I was asked how churches can best demonstrate the love of Christ to people with disabilities and their families. Even though I have two sisters with disabilities and have been attending church all my life, I don’t think I have ever been asked this question. I had never considered how I would respond. After some thought, I have two suggestions that I hope will help churches and individuals with their interactions with those who have special needs.
SERVING THOSE WITH SPECIAL NEEDS
My suggestions spring from Rom 1:11-12. As Paul begins his letter to the church at Rome, he writes:
For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift, so that you may be established— that is, that I may be encouraged together with you by the mutual faith both of you and me.
In verse 11, Paul tells the church at Rome that he longs to see them. He desires to serve them and “impart some spiritual gift.” Ultimately, the question I was asked was, “How can I serve someone with special needs?” This is a godly question. As the body of Christ, we are called to serve one another. Like Paul, I think people often genuinely desire to serve others, especially those with special needs.
However, this question implies something that I think is a common misconception. We assume that in order to demonstrate Christ to a special needs person, it requires a special kind of service.
When it comes to serving those with special needs, it can seem overwhelming. In our churches, there is a sense in which people don’t know how they can help. It’s one thing to serve a church member during a difficult situation like losing a job or the death of a family member. We have a list of things we know to do when those things happen. However, to serve those with lifelong disabilities seems to require more.
A few years ago, there was a TV show called “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” The basic premise was that a team would find a family, often with a special needs member, and they would build them a million-dollar home with all kinds of
fancy equipment. This is what people often have in mind when they want to help those with special needs. Because the disabilities are “extreme,” the service needs to be extreme too. We want to build ramps or make a GoFundMe page to raise a bunch of money. While that’s all lovely, I would like to suggest a shift in thinking.
I would like to change the question and simply ask, “How can we demonstrate Christ to people?”
Paul wanted to go to Rome because he wanted to use his spiritual gifts to build up the church. That’s pretty simple and not very exciting. You probably won’t be put on national television for exercising your spiritual gift. However, demonstrating Christ to someone (anyone!) doesn’t have to be a grand gesture. If fact, I would argue it rarely is. I strongly encourage others to serve those with special needs just as you would anyone else at church. If you have the gift of prayer, pray for them. If you have the gift of encouragement, exercise that gift to your special needs members just as you would with your able-bodied members.
One of the greatest ways you can serve a person with disabilities is to be his or her friend. Sit next to the person during the service. Talk with him or her. You would be amazed how often people with special needs are just outright ignored. I can’t begin to tell you how often people would bypass my sisters and ask my parents how old they are or if they are still in school, even though my sisters were right there and could speak for themselves. Just talking to a special needs person can be a huge encouragement, not only to the person but also to the families. As the body of Christ, we are called to use our spiritual gifts to edify one another. As Paul desired to go to Rome and share his gifts with the church, we should do the same.
You don’t have to build the special needs person a house. You can simply have a role in building up the church. Those with special needs are a part of the church.
LET THEM SERVE YOU
Paul is an example of a believer who longed to serve the church by using his spiritual gifts. In Rom 1:12, we are given more insight into the thinking of the apostle. He goes on to say that he wants to be encouraged by those in Rome.
Zane Hodges writes regarding this passage:
Paul is not so proud, however, as to imagine that only the Romans will benefit from mutual interactions with him. On the contrary he anticipated that he and they would be encouraged together by means of their mutually shared faith. The Christian teacher who thinks that other believers can no longer bring him spiritual enhancement is a teacher in urgent need of additional wisdom (Romans, pp. 32-33, emphases his).
There is a spiritual trap that we all can fall into when it comes to serving those with special needs. Just as a teacher, or anyone with a leadership position, can start to think that he alone can offer edification, able-bodied people can have the same mindset. We can lose sight of the profound truth and example found in this verse. We need each other.
Disabled people are often treated as secondclass church members. They are rarely given the opportunity to exercise their spiritual gifts. In this verse, however, Paul gives us a principle that we can certainly apply to our interactions with those with special needs. Those with special needs can also serve you! As we long to serve, consider that those with disabilities often long to serve too.
As I mentioned, I have two sisters with disabilities. One could not walk until 2020 when she went to be with the Lord. She couldn’t dress herself or feed herself or even go to the bathroom without aid. She was constantly being served. However, one of the greatest joys she had was when she was given the opportunity to serve someone else. She loved to pray for others. She spent hours every day praying for people. If you talked to her for more than five minutes, she would start talking about Jesus. The week before she passed, she was evangelizing one of her nurses. I could go on, but time does not permit me to write of all the ways she demonstrated Christ to me.
My other sister loves to read the Scriptures for church and do special music. It brings her joy to have a role in the service. In turn, our church lovingly gives her those opportunities as they minister to her and my family.
It is a wonderful thing to serve and be served by those with special needs. I would encourage everyone to adopt the attitude of Paul in this passage. Look for opportunities to serve them. Long for those opportunities, and act upon them when you see them arise. In addition, be reminded that we need them too. None of us are above learning and being served. Disabled people often feel like a burden. Look for opportunities for them not just to be served but to join in the service. Remind them of their value, that they have equal membership in the body of Christ. Tell them how they have helped you. Just as the Lord gave you a spiritual gift and role in the body of Christ, He also did the same for the disabled believer. Don’t become so misguided as to think you don’t need them to edify and build you up as well. This too is a way of demonstrating Christ to those in your churches.
Kathryn Wright is the GES Missions Coordinator and does far more work than that title suggests.