Children and families impacted by special needs are often isolated from their peers and community. In foreign countries, disabilities are highly stigmatized to such an extent that those affected by them are unable to leave their homes to attend school or participate in their communities. In the United States, families and people with disabilities statistically have a much harder time attending church, which furthers their isolation.
As Christians, there are a few key reasons why we should seek out relationships with those affected by a disability. First of all, every person is made in the image of God and deserving of respect and connection. Furthermore, building a relationship with someone with special needs can present an opportunity to share the gospel with them or their family, or to welcome them into your community or church. Finally, it is a sweet blessing to develop relationships with those impacted by special needs.
Made in the Image of God
The foundational truth that should spur us on to foster relationships with those who have special needs is that they are made in the image of God and are inherently valuable to God. Scripture is clear that each human being is an image-bearer of God and is therefore not less valuable than anyone else (Gen. 1:27). In the gospels, Jesus’ interactions with those who have disabilities are clear reminders of the value of each person and they exemplify the deep compassion of Christ. In John 9, Jesus’s disciples see a blind man and ask Jesus what sin caused the man to be born like that. In response to this question, Jesus replies,
It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him. – John 9:3
This response can not be fully appreciated or understood without recognizing how countercultural it truly was. First off, it should be noted that even those closest to Jesus assumed that this man’s blindness was a result of sin. In the article, “Disability in the New Testament”, Candida R. Moss writes,
In the ancient world, people thought that when individuals were disabled—they were blind or they couldn’t walk or they had some kind of physical infirmity—that they got this infirmity because they had done something wrong, because they had angered a deity and they were being punished, and it was really their responsibility, either they had sinned or perhaps even their parents had sinned. So disability was divine punishment.
Clearly, Jesus’ response to this question was unexpected and did not fit into the cultural view of the time regarding those who have special needs. It is also noteworthy that Jesus did not merely answer the basic question that was asked of Him but instead went on to explain that this man was specifically born blind so that the works of God would be shown in him. Pity is often a common response to a disability, yet this passage reminds us that God can and will use disabilities to bring glory to Him.
In Exodus 3-4, God commands Moses to go speak to the Pharaoh, and Moses declines by saying, “I am slow of speech and tongue.” In response to this, God declares,
Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, The Lord? Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak.
– Exodus 4:11
This verse clearly reminds us that God is sovereign in how He creates each person and that God is not unaware of or removed from disability. He is sovereign in the midst of it and is never limited by a disability. God continues by reminding Moses that He will be with him each step of the way and will work through Moses’s “weakness.” God did not work in spite of Moses’s speech problem but instead displayed His power by calling Moses to be a voice for the Israelites. In a message entitled “Disability is No Accident” John Piper says,
I am not going to walk up to any disabled children at any stage in their life and say, “He didn’t mean you.” You could shoot me dead before I’ll say that. He meant you. He loves you. He’s got a purpose for you.
This statement perfectly sums up the undeniable fact that every person with a disability is made in the image of God and not a surprise to our sovereign and all-knowing Lord.
An Opportunity to Share the Gospel and Welcome People in the Church
A devastating, yet often unrealized fact is that many families impacted by disability find it very challenging to attend church. Ryan Faulk explains this in “The Largest Unreached People Group You’ve Never Heard Of.”
The strangest part of this sad reality is that most churches don’t intentionally exclude people with disabilities. But because the world is, by default, a poor fit for people with disabilities, the church is also a poor fit, unless we intentionally include people of all abilities.
A lack of accessibility to the Church results in families impacted by disability being left without gospel teaching and community. It is so essential to foster relationships with those affected by special needs so that you can share the gospel and welcome them into a church.
A crucial reminder in Ryan Faulk’s statement is that the world is “by default a poor fit for people with disabilities;” therefore, as Christians, we must intentionally make an effort to develop these relationships. These relationships do not “just happen,” but instead require a commitment and desire to reach people and families.
Neither the gospel nor the Church should be limited to a particular type of person or level of ability. Yet, the statistics show a gap between churchgoers who are impacted by disability versus those who are not. Ryan Faulk unpacks some of this data in this same article:
Multiple studies show that people with disabilities are less likely than their peers to attend church even once a month. Of the 61 million American adults living with some sort of disability, there are about 2.25 million who—statistically speaking—should be attending church, but don’t. A 2018 study from Clemson University shows that children with any kind of disability are less likely than their peers to attend church and children with autism are nearly twice as likely to never attend a religious service.
May we always remember that families and children impacted by disability need the chance to hear the gospel and to be welcomed into a church community. God is sovereign in disability and in how He works within those who have a disability. He is certainly not limited by a certain cognitive level, mental capacity, or physical malformation. In the book Beyond Our Church Walls, it says,
Every single person on this earth needs the gospel. Just because a person is unable to respond verbally or fully articulate the gospel, we cannot doubt that the Holy Spirit is working in their heart. We do not have the privilege of understanding how the Spirit is at work in an individual’s life, we must simply share the gospel.
We are called to share the gospel even when we do not see any visible response. We are called to share the gospel even when we are told that someone won’t understand it. The Holy Spirit moves in hearts in unseen, mysterious ways and works in minds that the world may label as broken.
So, where do you start? Maybe you have never been around people with special needs and do not even know where to begin. Perhaps it terrifies you to think about trying to build a friendship with someone with special needs. An easy and practical starting place for this is look at the volunteer options at your college or ask your church about their special needs ministry.
From there, I know you will discover what a joy and privilege it is to create these new friendships. Always remember that this is not some sort of special favor or incredible deed you are doing but instead a blessing and an honor.