Why are leaders from a church planting mission in Europe attending a conference on disability in L.A.?

Our SERVEurope Catalyst Team, Tom Becker and I will be heading for California next week. While we hear they have sunshine in abundance there, we are seeking a different sort of enlightenment. We will be attending the Global Access Conference, put on by Joni and Friends, a wonderful organization with which ReachGlobal has a solid partnership (which we would love to see expanded!).

2014-10 DSC01411 DSC08452 livezeni home roma trip family polio (Large)OK, fine. So what does that have to do with “multiplying healthy, transformational churches in Europe”? More than we ever imagined.

For years, many of us have been impressed by the Lausanne’s movements definition of missional evangelism as “the whole church taking the whole gospel to the whole world.” That’s what we mission workers live for… that’s the kind of thing we try to catalyze.

But, frankly, when we look at the church, it doesn’t often look all that “whole.” We’ve been learning a lot about living with disability lately, and one thing that blows us away is how little the majority of us have any practical connection to, experience with, or relationship to people who are differently abled, either physically or cognitively. This – particularly among those who claim there is “one body,” ALL the members of which are in need of each other (1Co 12.12-27) – is scandalous.

scapegoatAs author Katherine Quarmby points out, in the UK nine out of ten people have never invited a disabled person into their home and only two out of ten disabled people have non-disabled friends. This means we live in isolation one from another. This rift allows constructed images instead of reality to define their identity in our minds and hearts, which cements our alienation.

More subtly, it leads us to normalize our own level of physical or mental ability. When this happens, the only “difference” that exists is located in the body or mind of the “other” person. Instead of “we are different from one another” we hear “they are different.”

yongOver time, “we” begin to use this “ableism” as a lens through which we read and apply Scripture. We thus become unable to read “the whole Gospel” because we are unable, through our lack of fellowship with differently abled people (which shows we’re not being the “whole church,” either) to deconstruct the way our readings have become distorted over time. (Amos Yong, who will also be presenting at the Global Access Conference, has written a great book showing how biblical theology can be pursued in this light.)

So, although we’ve been clearly warned not to, we are telling those who are not “normal” as we are that, practically speaking, “We have no need of you.”(1Co 12.21).

So if we want to be effective in mission, in evangelization, we need to become and be that whole church by embracing all, not allowing physical difference to become an alienating “handicap.” And we need to be on mission with the whole gospel that can only be apprehended when the hermeneutical lens that is the church is itself whole.

And then we need to take that to the whole world. To many church planters, any sort of “disability ministry” is seen as a “niche ministry” or a specialization… it’s not appreciated as being essential to an authentic embodied enactment of the Word of truth. That’s why this is not a fringe issue… it goes to the core of our being a Gospel people.

So we’re jumping headlong into the Global Access Conference because we hear the aims of this conference are to

  • practically and effectively promote disability ministry in the Christian community

We want to talk together about how to get those who are starting churches – at the front end of working to spread the Kingdom – equipped to do so with a healthy theology of disability and a clear sense of the vital importance of disability ministry to a being “transformative church.” We’re hoping to do this at Global Access.

  • create and pursue advanced disability initiatives within church and cultural communitiesGA-Social-Media-Graphic-NickV-6

We would love to see our organization – together with many others – taking initiative: articulating and living out the knowledge that a full practice of evangelization involves engaging issues of disability in our churches and our communities. But even more, we would love to help make mission (in general, and our ‘mission’ in particular) accessible – where every member of the body is embraced as a “worthy candidate” for anything in mission that’s worth doing. That’s going to require a ginormous initiative. We can look together for opportunities at Global Access.

  • build lasting networks of support and education throughout the international disability community

That’s what real, sustainable change is going to take: and while resources are often tallied in terms of “dollars” or “stuff,” the best and truest resources are committed and connected people – particularly when they get connected with other committed and connected people – to pray and work for the realization of God’s will being done “on earth as it is in heaven.” We want to build those sorts of relationships – lots of them – and see them networked in Europe and beyond.

We’ll be sharing in this next week before the conference why we think it’s so important to be reflecting about disability, and then tweeting and posting and what-all from the Conference next week. We’d love to hear your ideas and particularly your experiences as we go. Please share them with us.

Click here to contact the Catalyst Team about opportunities for disability ministry in Europe.

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