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This article is the second in a two-part series (click here to read part I of Steve Nyenhuis’ story of the Friendship Ministry at Anaheim CRC). Here, we ask him what he has learned along the way and what suggestions he has for CRC church planters who want to learn to fully include people with disabilities. Although Steve’s focus has been on people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, much of what he writes could apply to engaging with people who have other disabilities too.

A great place to start is by checking out our attitudes towards people with disabilities. Dan Vander Plaats, Director of Stewardship at Elim Christian Services, developed a useful tool called The 5 Stages of Disability Attitudes, which walks us through the attitude of ignorance all the way to the attitude of co-laboring. Because attitudes prevent churches from becoming the inclusive communities God intends them to be, The 5 Stages tool helps everyone both examine their attitudes and learn ways to change those attitudes for the better.

It can be easy to see a Friendship group as something the church does, but that you don’t need to participate in. Cadets and Gems are for boys and girls. Youth group is for teenagers. Adult Sunday School is for adults. Friendship Ministry is for “those people with disabilities.” But actually, inclusion should be a part of all of our ministries; all of our groups should be willing to learn how to welcome and include people with disabilities. The Bible calls us to come together as parts of the Body of Christ. We are all given different gifts and abilities. When we exclude certain people, we miss out on a lot of potential joy and growth.

Our congregation is very supportive of our Friendship ministry, but one of the challenges we have faced is participation by church members. The blessing of having such a large group of people that we need two services can also be a drawback, because most church members have not experienced the excitement of Friendship worship or the joy of building new relationships with our friends. We keep praying that more members will give our service a try.

I would recommend a few resources to pastors and church planters:

  • Pastors need to be challenged to include people with disabilities in their ministries before they graduate from seminary. They should be expected to spend some time in a church with an active disability ministry. Part of their studies should be a course like Beyond Suffering by Joni and Friends, where they can look at questions such as “What does the Bible say about disabilities?” and “Are all people, including people with disabilities, made in God’s image? “
  • Another resource is the Disability Concerns ministries of the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in America. These ministries have done lots of work to promote and encourage CRC/RCA churches to take disability ministry seriously. There are many resources on their websites. Every year CRC and RCA Disability Concerns hosts a training conference for disability advocates from Canada and the USA.
  • Friendship Ministries is another important resource. Tom VanWingerden, LaVonne Carlson, and many others have been working very hard to update their materials with the new Together Series. This series was developed to be used in typical Friendship style groups as well as small group settings intentional about including people with and without disabilities. Pastor Joel and I took this one step further and have had a lot of fun using it as a sermon series on Seeing Jesus.

No matter where church planters are, they are not alone. While encouraging congregations to be fully welcoming and inclusive with people with disabilities will bring challenges, there are many churches from many denominations and many groups who are doing the same thing. I have found that being part of Facebook groups like the Special Needs and Disabilities Ministry Leaders Forum and the Institute on Theology and Disability have really been an encouragement to me in this ministry.

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