the shape of leadership

Disability and Discipleship

Principles for effective ministry

Joanna French on August 17, 2022

John* is a quiet, solemn 15-year-old with autism. For a long time, I thought he disliked me.

Still, every Sunday, I greeted him with a smile and an enthusiastic, “Hello, John!”

He always nodded back.

Then one Sunday, John initiated a conversation, asking, “Are you OK?”

Realizing he must have heard about my recent car accident, I assured John I was fine and that my only injury was a broken toe.

“Oh, good,” John said. “I was worried about you.”

I smiled and thanked him for his concern.

What John said next was genuinely surprising: “You’re my friend.”

Since that time, our friendship has grown — and so has John’s interest in following Jesus. At our Christmas Eve service, he referred to our church as “my church.”

In March, John asked me how to study the Bible. In April, he requested a consistent Bible study time with me. A few weeks later, he casually expressed an interest in water baptism.

John is a remarkable example of what can happen when you love people as they are, point them to Jesus, and pray for them. Isn’t that what discipleship is all about?

I have served as a special needs pastor for nearly six years. During that time, God has continually shifted my perspective through friends like John.

For years, I thought people with disabilities needed the Church. Now I realize the Church also needs them. The difference in these viewpoints may seem insignificant, but it’s not.

The apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 12:27, “You are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” Every member has something to contribute. Each person has experiences, gifts, and strengths God can use for His glory.

This is no less true of people with disabilities. Yet we miss out on all they have to offer when we fail to welcome and disciple them as God desires.

The good news of the gospel is no matter who we are, God has a plan, purpose, and place for us.

Disability doesn’t change the gospel, but the way we present it sometimes needs to change. Below are 10 principles to keep in mind when ministering to people with disabilities — or anyone else, for that matter.

1. Initiate conversation. Everyone wants to feel welcome, loved, and accepted. Even if an individual is not particularly social, a friendly greeting can help break the ice.

Listen intentionally to those who want to talk. Help them feel heard and understood.

2. Meet needs. Despite our differences, human beings share the same basic needs, such as food, water, shelter and safety. We all need friends and community as well. We cannot expect to see growth in other areas until basic needs are met.

People with disabilities may require assistance or accommodations related to their needs. This is an opportunity for the Church to follow Jesus’ example. Knowing we could not fulfill our need for redemption, Christ died for us.

When we consider needs from that perspective, we should want to serve others and make our ministries as accessible as possible.

3. Build relationships. Get to know people — their likes and dislikes, interests and quirks. Spend time together outside of church. Become friends.

Make space for all kinds of people — including those with disabilities — to lead, minister,
and use their spiritual gifts.

Talk about God’s love and friendship, sharing what He has done in your life. For people with developmental disabilities, keep the conversation at an appropriate level.

4. Provide support. Be there during times of stress, sickness and sorrow.

Don’t downplay a person’s feelings. Some struggles may seem insignificant, but they matter to the person who is experiencing them.

For example, an autistic person’s sensory issues can be difficult to understand, but they are not trivial. Dismissing such things damages relationships.

5. Tailor your approach. Paul wrote about giving the Corinthians spiritual milk until they were ready for the “solid food” of God’s Word (1 Corinthians 3:2).

What that looks like can vary depending on the discipleship situation.

For a person with a developmental disability, it may mean starting with a series of simple truth statements. For example: Everyone sinned. Jesus died for us and rose again. We can choose Jesus. God wants to be our friend.

6. Use creativity. Be willing to think outside the box and find teaching methods that work.

I have shared the gospel using sensory items like rice and water beads. I have explained the concept of the body of Christ using a Mr. Potato Head toy. I even used the Minecraft video game platform to build a replica of Jesus’ final week before His crucifixion.

Such discipleship methods may seem strange to some, but I have seen the Holy Spirit use them to open hearts and minds to God’s truths.

7. Maintain consistency. Discipleship requires consistent interaction. Whether you check in during a weekly group meeting or a monthly lunch conversation, your faithfulness and consistency matter — especially to those who are often forgotten and marginalized.

8. Celebrate victories. Growth is worth celebrating. Celebrate graduations, jobs, and especially spiritual victories.

Be sure people with disabilities who want to follow Jesus in water baptism have an opportunity to do so, whether that means adding a wheelchair ramp or having extra helpers on hand to provide assistance.

9. Create opportunities for service. God created us to do good works (Ephesians 2:10). Yet many people with disabilities feel excluded from the life of the Church.

Help everyone find a place to do good works. Consider their personalities, but don’t let that limit the possibilities.

As an example, John is introverted. Although he would not want to be a greeter, he is open to helping out in some social settings. In fact, John served beautifully at a recent special needs event.

10. Create opportunities for leadership. Some people with disabilities are full-time ministers. Others serve in key volunteer leadership positions in their local churches, from board members to Sunday School teachers.

Make space for all kinds of people — including those with disabilities — to lead, minister, and use their spiritual gifts.

Jesus said, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:19–20).

There are no caveats. No exceptions. The gospel is for all. Everyone is welcome. Everyone has a place and a purpose in God’s kingdom.

Discipling people with disabilities is often a lot like discipling anyone else. Other times, it can stretch us beyond our limits and into places of total reliance on God. Regardless, making the gospel accessible to all is central to the Church’s mission.

Even when ministry is hard, we can trust Jesus’ assurance that He is with us — always.

*Name changed to protect privacy.


This article appears in the Summer 2022 edition of Influence magazine.

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