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Kirsty Jones is a KLICE Research Associate and has recently completed her MPhil in Old Testament at the University of Cambridge, with a research interest in Disability in the Old Testament and Biblical Ethics of Disability.
Those of you who have followed Joshua’s journey through two earlier issues of KLICE Comment (Nov 2015, Apr 2016) will remember that we left Joshua in the church youth group. In this final issue, we move forward to a 24 year-old Joshua. Joshua is fortunate to have secured funding for, and a place at, a supported living centre, where he participates in activities and is helped to retain independence in his day to day life. He still attends the same church, and enjoys his time with the church family on a Sunday. In this piece, I discuss two key issues for adults with additional needs within the church and suggest some practical ways in which churches of any size can ensure that the community of believers embraces all and truly represents the Body of Christ.
‘For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve... ‘ (Mark 10:45a)
Whilst at a friend’s wedding, where I helped with the reception, I realised how much easier it is to be oneself when one is serving others. Serving requires us to recognise our weaknesses and strengths, forcing us to rely on others and look beyond ourselves. The precedent for this may lie in Genesis 1; humans, made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26), are first created and then given a task and a responsibility. We become more like Christ when we serve because we align ourselves with what being made in the image of God entails.
Most Christians serve in their churches at some point, and report the benefits of a practice with precedents in biblical and church tradition. Adults with additional needs, however, are often not found serving in the church. There are many reasons for this: the assumption that they lack the desire or ability to serve; the presumption that including someone with additional needs in a team will make extra work for other team members; and the fear that asking someone who has a disability to serve is somehow exploiting them. These assumptions and fears need challenging and praying over with reference to specific individuals. As ever, communication is key.
A case in point can be made through a young lady I have known for ten years, Chloe. Chloe is 17 and is kind, sensitive, has a great sense of humour and a lower cognitive and emotive ability than her peers, functioning at the level of a 4- or 5-year-old. She will, if asked what she likes to do, tell you that she likes to ‘help Kirsty’, doing things like washing up and making tea. She may not have the ability to draw up a flower rota, plan a Sunday school session or play the keyboard, but she certainly has the ability to wash up the coffee cups after a service, giving her the opportunity to serve, making less work for everyone, and leading to enjoyment rather than demonstrating exploitation.
Of course, including people with additional needs in serving is not always this simple. One often needs to be a bit creative and empathetic to find a solution which works for the individual first and foremost, for their family/carers and for the church. It is important to think ahead how a particular individual would communicate that they do not want to do something, as well as how they would like to serve. This can be demonstrated by returning to Joshua.
Joshua has two main interests at present: babies and making paper planes. He has expressed the desire to help in crèche, but when a taster session took place, Joshua’s noise sensitivity and tendency to handle the children too roughly led to disaster. Serving in this area was not, for him and the church, a practical or safe option. An alternative avenue was found through Joshua’s other interest: with some creative thought the church assistants, Ben and Jane, decided to ask Joshua to help folding the service sheets once a week. These young people are the same age, so Joshua benefits from interacting with peers outside of his supported living environment and has appropriate male-female interaction modelled by Ben. Ben and Jane have fewer service sheets to fold, all three adults have fun, and Joshua enjoys the camaraderie and achievement which his service provides.
If the Body of Christ is a body which is served by Christ and serves God and the community, people with disabilities should not, indeed can not, miss out on being served or serving. If service to people is person shaped, should service by people not also be person shaped?
Another central element of church life for adults is midweek small groups or home groups. Some churches have groups specifically for people with additional needs, which can be a great way of providing ability-appropriate teaching. In the absence of these groups, however, many adults simply attend the Sunday service and do not enjoy the companionship and teaching which small groups provide.
Joshua’s parents and many of his peers attend small groups, and he has expressed the desire to do the same. However, the church leaders worry that the content of the teaching would be inaccessible to him and that he would feel excluded from the discussion, and not gain anything from attending. In a situation like this, I would suggest finding a small group nearby Joshua’s supported living (but not his parents’), and which has members keen to involve Joshua, even if it means a little extra effort. Joshua could join in with the meal and social element of the group, and the prayer session at the end, and during the teaching section spend time with one member of the group discussing the same passage or teaching as the rest of the group in a manner which meets his needs. A little extra preparation work would be needed, but if the members of the group did this on a rota basis, each member would not need to do much, and would probably benefit from spending time thinking about the passage.
Growing up with Joshua has, I hope, challenged and encouraged you. Thinking about people in your community, celebrating their abilities and ensuring that they are active members of the church is challenging, both individually and collectively. But I have suggested that churches can quite easily be accessible, welcoming communities, and that expert knowledge is less important than willing service. Such a large proportion of the population in the UK has a disability (over 11 million, with around 1.5 million of these having a learning disability), and people with disabilities face societal hardships on many levels. Despite this, disability is rarely on the agenda for churches. You do not need to wait for a Joshua, or someone with a heart for or experience with people with disabilities to start thinking about disability and your church. You merely need to think about what community means.
Throughout, I have emphasised that it is not really a case of church communities being inclusive of Joshua. It is a case of churches being communities. In a community united by a love of God and obedience to Scripture, disability and ability must be acknowledged but made ancillary to being made in the image of God. Joshua, a young man bearing God’s image, may have a cognitive and social disability but your church could be the community within which his spiritual needs are met and his spiritual ‘abilities’ are nurtured and flourish.
If you have any comments, questions or would like to discuss any of the issues raised in these comments, please feel free to email me (email@example.com). I would be more than happy to talk.
Kirsty Jones has recently completed her MPhil in Old Testament at the University of Cambridge, with a research interest in Disability in the Old Testament and Biblical Ethics of Disability. Her thesis, 'Inclusion in the Prophetic Utopian Visions', investigates the role of inclusion of individuals with disabilities within Isaiah and Jeremiah, and the implication of healing/non-healing tropes within the wider biblical text. She spent time in the Autumn of 2016 in Montreal, working at the Centre for Sensory Studies, where she studied sensory anthropology, and the ways in which multi-sensory language in the Psalter and its impact on understanding cognitive-emotive approaches to worship and revelation. Kirsty is passionate about effecting change within Church practice with, for and by people with additional needs and their families.
 See: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/
file/321594/disability-prevalence.pdf and http://www.learningdisabilities.org.uk/