Working with people who have additional needs pushes us to reconsider the essentials of what it means to accept the gospel, says Phil Moore
As a missionary, parent and church member, London City Mission Training Field Director Phil Moore is deeply committed to inviting people with additional needs – children especially – into the life of the church and into the kingdom of God.
His view of church as the body of Christ totally reverses the outlook of the wider culture. ‘Our common starting point is to focus on delighting in all Christ does for us with extravagant grace, not on what we can do for him.’
A consumer society like ours measures the value of a person in terms of their potential to provide for ourselves and for others.
That’s a problem for people with learning difficulties and disabilities – many of whom may never be able to work or pass through expected stages of life such as establishing a home or starting a family. Their capacity to generate wealth, to materially improve the lives of others, is severely limited.
When churches absorb the values of a consumer culture, it leads to unhealthy outcomes – a false self-sufficiency for the more able, and a deficiency for those who are struggling.
In the words of Lesslie Newbigin, using the language of his day, ‘The handicapped, the oppressed, the deprived are utterly indispensable to the Church’s authentic life, not simply as those on behalf of whom the church is called to labour in healing and in action for justice, but as those who now, as the deprived and handicapped within the membership of the Church, have a part to play, and a witness to give, without which the Church will not be fully Christian.’
Once we have stripped away any concept of worth measured by ability, and see ourselves united as equal bearers of God’s image and recipients of his grace, the need for churches to create an environment that is safe and welcoming for people with additional needs becomes much clearer.
This means carefully understanding people’s unique personalities and needs, learning about how to cater for their preferences and finding extra resources to help them participate.
This forces us to ask what it means to share the gospel with people who have learning difficulties or a communication disorder.
‘It’s easy for any of us to fall into a way of sharing the gospel that satisfies ourselves in that we feel it’s intellectually and theologically robust,’ says Phil. ‘That’s the wrong way around: our priority as evangelists is to communicate not what is satisfying for ourselves, but what is meaningful to the person we are sharing the gospel with.’
Whatever your mode of operation you’ve got to come back to Jesus, he says. That’s always where you ought to be going with evangelism.
In a church setting we can really only begin to understand how much of the gospel a person with additional needs has absorbed when we are talking one-to-one with them.
It is important to let them set markers and to set the pace – where are they taking the conversation? Don’t try to force the conversation or to push theological ideas.
And then, when the opportunity presents itself, even using very simple language, it’s possible to ask some key penetrating questions. In words of one syllable:
— What did Jesus do?
— What do you think about Jesus?
— Who is Jesus?
It may be that some things – the hope of being reunited with pets in heaven, for example – feature large when we feel they ought not. It is wise to be relaxed about this.
Be confident with people having a significantly different understanding of the gospel.
There are degrees of what is acceptable.
In many cases it’s enough if they say ‘I Love Jesus', or that ‘Jesus is King’, especially if we can see they are engaged with worship and find it meaningful.
If they do – who are we to say that Jesus is not at work?