I'm attending the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) synod this week in Pella, Iowa. During a break today I was talking with Rev. Justin Carruthers, Director of Congregational Life at First CRC in Hanford California, and Mark Langenbach, a candidate for ministry in the CRC. Justin is a delegate to Synod, and Mark was presented with the other candidates for ministry this morning.
Besides congratulating Mark on his candidacy, we talked about ministry, and in particular about the Friendship group at the church Mark has been serving as an intern in Racine, Wisconsin. Mark talked about the significant involvement of the Friendship group “friends” (people with intellectual disabilities) in the life of the church. Mark told us that the members of the Friendship group did important work within the congregation in a variety of ways, including helping the congregation think about and practice hospitality in new ways.
Some churches have Friendship groups that use their space, but otherwise have no other interaction with church members. Other churches engage with members of a Friendship group in meaningful ways, so that friends and church members develop healthy relationships. Mark’s church is in the latter group. He said that many of the Friendship group members attend worship; some have made profession of faith and become involved members of the congregation.
Mark, Justin, and I observed that the churches that engage in meaningful relationships with their Friendship group members tend to be more hospitable congregations than those that do not. In fact, we noticed that when churches engage meaningfully with their Friendship group members, hospitality within churches rises in both degree and breadth.
As congregational members who do not have intellectual disabilities engage week in and week out with those who do, everyone learns and grows. People have to learn how to talk with others who are much different from them. That requires everyone, disabled and non-disabled, to take risks, to reach out to one another, to have awkward conversations that will, over time, become less awkward. Hospitality grows by degree.
The experience and skill gained through these conversations expands to conversations and relationships with people who may be different in other ways such as race and ethnicity, social class, and age. Hospitality grows in breadth. Justin said, “Even if a homeless person walks in, or someone with poor social skills, members of the congregation will have had practice in hospitality.” Exactly. Members of the congregation, disabled and non-disabled, can overcome anxiety about talking with someone quite different from them because they have been honing their hospitality skills for years.
Justin summarized our conversation well, “Let’s have some awkward conversations.” Yes, let’s do that. (Not that everyone with an intellectual disability is socially awkward.) Let’s not fear people who have intellectual disabilities or anyone else. Let’s start Friendship groups that not only minister to a few people with intellectual disabilities but allow those same people to minister to and within the congregation. When we engage in ministry with lots of different people, the church will be richer for it.