Breaking the Barriers to a Vibrant Youth Ministry

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By Terry DeYoung, Coordinator for RCA Disability Concerns and Mark Stephenson, Director of CRC Disability Concerns

Most churches have ministries geared for children and youth, but many kids with disabilities don’t feel at home in these ministries. For example:

  • Students with autism may lack the social skills necessary, such as sitting still when asked to do so.
  • Those with dyslexia feel embarrassed in a class that takes turns reading aloud.
  • Some with physical disabilities are not able to participate in certain activities that the rest of the group can do easily.

Beyond feeling isolated or embarrassed, some children and youth with disabilities get teased and even bullied. Healthy churches prevent such hurtful behaviors while also working to engage all of God’s children in ministry, including the 13 percent who live with various disabilities such as autism, mental health challenges, ADHD, dyslexia, and hearing, visual, and mobility impairments.

In our conversations with youth leaders, they acknowledge that teens with disabilities generally have not been on their radar. Plus, many families leave church before their kids with disabilities ever reach teenage years, so the opportunity to minister to adolescents with disabilities is reduced because they and their families are not attending church.

The best youth ministry engages youth in the life of the church rather than having a youth ministry that’s separate from the rest of the congregation. Children and youth who use their gifts in church are more likely to be engaged in church when they are in their twenties, including youth with disabilities.

Many people assume that disability ministry needs to be a separate, stand-alone program. Rather than engaging people with disabilities in the entire life of the congregation, they imagine a kind of “special education mentality” that segregates rather than mainstreams.

However, the majority of today’s younger generation is experiencing the full inclusion of peers with disabilities in most environments — except in the church. This separation reinforces the familiar complaint that the church is out of touch, antiquated, and irrelevant.

RCA Disability Concerns and CRC Disability Concerns are jointly recommending that the RCA General Synod and CRC Synod “encourage the inclusion of, and engagement with, children and youth who have disabilities as an important part of congregational ministry and denominational youth ministry programs” by:

  • engaging in activities such as ministering to families affected by disability;
  • including peers with disabilities in their leadership, worship, youth gatherings, Bible studies, and event planning; and
  • building awareness and changing attitudes about people with physical, intellectual, behavioral, and other disabilities, and mental illnesses, throughout their youth programs and especially within their leadership structures.

Such inclusion and engagement will make a positive impact on families with disabilities and the entire congregation. Since many teenagers with disabilities do not go on to college or participate in typical rites of passage experienced by many nondisabled youth, a vibrant youth ministry can help these members of God’s family transition to adult roles within the congregation and in the community. When children and youth with and without disabilities are given the opportunity to interact with peers who are different from themselves, and when youth and adults interact across generational lines, all involved gain a deeper understanding of the broadness of God’s love.

All people are created in God’s image. Baptized children and youth are members of the covenant who need to be nurtured in faith by the church and engaged in the ministry of the church. Further, all believers are called and gifted by God to accomplish God’s mission and to fulfill an essential function in the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12).

Inviting children and youth who have disabilities to engage in ministry reflects the welcome our Lord gives to all people (Luke 14:15-24). In healthy churches and ministries, everybody belongs and everybody serves (1 Pet. 4:8-10).

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