Earlier today, I had the honor and joy of worshiping with the people of St. Mark’s UMC in Findlay, OH. They’re seeking to welcome lots of kids and families to their church who aren’t currently part of the church because of the barriers presented by mental illness, trauma and developmental disabilities. I wanted to share with our readers the message I shared today at St. Mark’s…
Thanks to Michelle and the leadership team of St. Mark’s Findlay for inviting me to be with you today. I’ve had a chance to do some pretty cool stuff in the course of my career, but there’s no greater honor than to be invited to teach from God’s Word in God’s house.
I’d be willing to bet it’s not every Sunday that you come to church and find yourself listening to a message from a physician who specializes in child and adolescent psychiatry. But I don’t think my presence here this morning is an accident. Allow me to introduce myself and share how I came to be here.
I wear lots of “hats” in my work. I teach at both Case Western Reserve and Northeast Ohio Medical University, I’ve been involved in a fair amount of clinical research, and I lead a group practice in Chagrin Falls.
Around fifteen years ago, a number of well-established families from our church adopted kids with very complex emotional, behavioral and developmental issues from orphanages in Russia and Bulgaria. Our children’s ministry director at the time (a speech and language pathologist by training) spoke of the steps the staff was taking to help the families affected stay connected with church…None of the kids being served had obvious, outward signs of disability, but the severity of their behavior had become a major obstacle to their families in maintaining their involvement with the church.
I went back to my practice was quite surprised to discover that the conditions we were treating at that time appeared to present significant limitations to our families in attending worship services and maintaining an active involvement in the church. This really bothered me…my family has been blessed by the opportunity to experience what most of us here this morning can easily take for granted…the opportunity to regularly attend a church where we came to know Jesus. I want other families…the families I see every day through our practice to have the same opportunity my family had…the opportunity to grow in faith while a part of a caring and supportive church family.
Over the next few years, God opened lots of doors for me. I was involved with research that provided me the opportunity to travel widely. Wherever I went, I talked about the work our church back home was doing…and our church started getting LOTS of requests for help and support. As more and more clergy, professionals and family members recognized the need to help churches connect with families of kids with what we referred to as “hidden disabilities”, a group of us launched Key Ministry over ten years ago to provide knowledge, innovation and experience to the worldwide church as it ministers to and with families of children impacted by mental illness, trauma and developmental disabilities.
This past summer, our team was here in Northwest Ohio putting on training for churches interested in serving families of kids with disabilities. I’m here this morning because some leaders from your church who attended that training believe that God may be positioning you to minister with a large group of families here in Findlay and Hancock County who very much need to experience His love…families, without whom, we as a church are incomplete.
You’re literally sitting in the middle of an enormous mission field and you may not even know it. If you’re like me, when you think of missions, you think of some third world country. No high-speed Internet. No electricity. Digging wells. Building huts. That’s not me. I’m not good with my hands. There’s a reason I’m not a surgeon. But God has placed you in a mission field that you won’t need a passport to check out.
You may think of people with physical disabilities…leaders like Joni Earickson Tada and Nick Vujicic.
When you hear the term “special needs ministry” what comes to mind? For many people, the answer would be kids with intellectual disabilities…But when we consider disability as a barrier to families becoming involved with church, our existing ministries are just beginning to scratch the surface.
Here’s the definition of “disability” from the Americans With Disabilities Act (1990)
I’d ask you-from a mental or physical impairment substantially limits a person’s ability to pursue spiritual growth and participate in a local church, might we consider that person “disabled?” I’d think so.
The obstacles that exist to a person with a physical disability attending church are pretty obvious. But let’s consider for a minute the barriers to “doing church” for someone with mental illness, trauma or a developmental disability…or the family of a child with one of those disabilities. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, mental illness is the #1 cause of disability in the U.S. There are lots of things about the environments in which we “do church” that present subtle, but very real obstacles to kids and families impacted by these disabilities in attending worship and participating in the other stuff we do to help kids and their parents grow spiritually. Let’s take a closer look at the obstacles they face…
Difficulties with self-control and self-regulation of emotion: Let’s face it…we expect kids to act a certain way when they’re at church. Some kids have to expend much more effort maintaining self-control than their peers…and the more stimulation they have to process at any given moment, the more difficult it may be for them to maintain self control. We as Christians start making assumptions about the parents when kids struggle with self-control for no obvious reason. I hear from parents all the time who have left church because they sensed they were being judged by the behavior their kids exhibited at church.
Our church had a Disability Ministry Sunday in which the parents of two young boys with ADHD were given the opportunity to share their story at each of our worship services. They told of their struggle to find a church they could attend as a family-and the reactions…mainly dirty looks…they received from others when visiting different churches. The mom shared this statement that summaries the experience of church many families share…
“”People in the church believe they can tell when a disability ends and bad parenting begins”.
Sensory processing issues: Many kids, teens and adults with autism spectrum disorders, anxiety disorders or ADHD process sensory input differently than the rest of us. They might experience physical touch, our worship music, the lighting in the children’s ministry area, or the sound of many people talking at once on the way in or way out of church as distressing.
Fear of the unknown: Research has shown that one of the core differences in brain functioning among kids and adults with anxiety disorders is their propensity to overestimate the potential risks associated with new situations. Kids (and their parents) attending a new church will frequently need to overcome unspoken (and often irrational) fears.
Shame/potential for embarrassment: Someone with panic disorder who is more vulnerable to attacks around crowds may be very uncomfortable sitting in your sanctuary/worship center on a busy Sunday morning. Or how might a kid with dyslexia feel in a Sunday school class where kids are expected to take turns reading from the Bible?
Social isolation: Families of kids with disabilities frequently lack relationships with others who might invite them to church. Their children are less likely to have friends who’ll invite them to Vacation Bible School. They’re less likely to connect with other families through sports or extracurricular activities. The divorce rate among couples of kids under the age of 8 with ADHD is twice that of the general population. The kids may be shuffled from one parent to another on alternating weekends, disrupting the continuity of any church experience. The parents may have fewer friends as a result of the financial demands and time demands of their child’s disability. They can’t use just any teen as a babysitter on Saturday night.
Lack of social skills to navigate relational demands of church: Think about a kid who gets made fun of at school as a result of being socially awkward…maybe they don’t intuitively pick up on how they’re supposed to act in a new situation. Maybe they don’t process social cues in the way other kids do. When they leave familiar friends and adults in children’s ministry for middle school ministry, or enter high school ministry where they’re expected to attend a house group in an unfamiliar place surrounded by older kids already comfortable with their friends, they may fall away from church.
Families overwhelmed by demands of daily life: The demands of getting through the week with a child with a disability may be so great that the thought of getting the kids ready for church on Sunday morning may be overwhelming. It may be easier for mom to crawl back into bed instead of facing meltdowns when she needs to tear her kid away from the Xbox to get ready for church.
You literally have families living within the shadow of your steeple struggling with these issues…Here are a few statistics:
- 22% of U.S. children entering first grade…and 26% of adults meet criteria for at least one mental health disorder
- 11% of 5-17 year olds have received at least one prescription for ADHD medication
- 8% of teens have anxiety disorders-most have been symptomatic since age 6 (and only 18% have received treatment)
- 13% of kids in the U.S. are diagnosed with at least one developmental disorder
- One child in 91 has an autism spectrum disorder
Let’s keep in mind that kids with disabilities often have parents with disabilities. And lest we think this is only an issue for the kids, we live in a country where more than one in five adults…and one in four women are prescribed some form of psychiatric medication. Most are on antidepressants… used more commonly for anxiety than depression…and the use of these medications increased by 28% among men and 29% among women during the past decade.
The bottom line is that kids with mental health issues, kids who have experienced trauma, kids with developmental disabilities…and adults with these conditions have a much harder time functioning in the environments in which we “do church”. They face additional obstacles in getting to Jesus…and that brings us to our Scripture today, on some friends who had a friend who needed to meet Jesus.
If you brought your Bibles please turn to the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 2, verses 1-12:
And when he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. And many were gathered together, so that there was no more room, not even at the door. And he was preaching the word to them. And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him, and when they had made an opening, they let down the bed on which the paralytic lay. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, “Why do you question these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic— “I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home.” And he rose and immediately picked up his bed and went out before them all, so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!”
Let’s dig into today’s passage a little more closely…
Jesus is in Capernaum…the text says that He’d “returned to Capernaum”…so where had He been? Mark 1:45 tells us He had been in “desolate places”. Why was He in desolate places? Look back at Mark 1:40. Jesus healed a man with leprosy and “sternly charged” him to say nothing about his healing, but to present himself to the priest. The verb for “sternly charged” in the Greek also appears in John 11:33 when Jesus is at Lazarus’ tomb, translated there as “deeply moved”. The implication is that Jesus was VERY emotional in imploring this man to lay low. When he disobeyed Jesus, Jesus became a “marked man”.
There were lots of people in need of healing back in that day. The average life expectancy in first century Palestine was around 30. Most people were below age 45. Without modern medicine…and a social safety net…disability truly represented a life crisis. And Jesus healed everybody. This was a problem…the healing ministry was becoming a huge distraction from Jesus’ teaching ministry.
This entire passage is really about Jesus attempting to reveal His true identity to the assembled people and religious authorities.
Jesus drops all kinds of hints to his identity throughout this story. Through His healing, Jesus demonstrates his power over the effects of sin in a fallen world. He’s also claiming to have the power to forgive sin. Jesus gives them another hint at His true identity by demonstrating his ability to read their hearts and minds! (See Genesis 6:5, Psalms 19:14) The religious leaders were onto something when they thought Jesus was a blasphemer… they recognized that Jesus was making claims only God could make. They (and we) are left with three possible conclusions when considering Jesus’ claims. Either Jesus is delusional or a liar or He’s telling the truth.
What I find truly amazing in this story is the lengths to which the friends were willing to go to get their disabled friend in front of Jesus, even though they didn’t really grasp who Jesus was. They had a natural faith. Jesus recognized their faith…but their faith is like the faith we have when we go to Cleveland Clinic for surgery. We place our trust in doctors and hospitals with track records of healing sick people…and Jesus had a track record. But why did Jesus only forgive the sins of the man who was paralyzed and not the sins of his friends?
There’s a difference between recognizing who Jesus is and acknowledging that we’re sinners in need of a Savior, incapable of saving ourselves. After all, in James 2:19 we’re told that demons believe…they’re unwilling to submit to God!
For our sins to be forgiven, we have to acknowledge our need for forgiveness. Maybe something about the physical brokenness experienced by the man with paralysis enabled him to acknowledge his spiritual brokenness to God? As Jesus read the hearts of the religious leaders in the room, He also saw into in the heart of the man with paralysis…and extended His forgiveness.
Unlike the friends on the roof and the audience in the room, presumably we in the church understand who Jesus is. We have the Bible and the Holy Spirit to help us understand God’s Word. We have personal experiences of what Jesus has done in our lives and the lives of those around us. So…why aren’t we doing more to introduce others to Jesus in need of forgiveness and salvation?
On to a second observation…the people in the crowd were so into their own agendas that they were oblivious to the need of the man with paralysis. We can probably assume from the story that the friends tried the door first. You’d think the crowd would make room for a stretcher with a famous healer in the middle of the room. But they were obviously thinking about other things.
In first century Galilee, people in the crowd likely assumed that the disabled man (or someone in his family) had committed a sin. Recall John 9:1, when the disciples questioned Jesus about the cause of a blind man’s condition. The Jewish people…particularly, their religious authorities, considered themselves morally and spiritually superior to others. There was a major stigma associated with disability because disability was associated with sin.
For the people gathered in the home of Peter and Andrew that day, it was all about them. Those of us who are long-time church attenders are especially vulnerable to this line of thinking. We have an idea in our mind of how church should be… and have great difficulty tolerating any change in the way we do things, especially on Sunday morning. We’re at risk of becoming resentful because we fear the presence of newcomers with disabilities may detract from our church experience. Here’s the good news…we’re not cutting a hole in the roof of the sanctuary to help you welcome lots of new kids and families. You may see some kids who fidget more or talk more than the kids you’re accustomed to.
Another observation: the friends of the man who was paralyzed were willing to think “outside the box” to get their friend in front of Jesus. Here’s a picture of a reconstructed house from the first century in Israel. Typically, such a house would have one larger room (the size of a living room or family room today) and maybe one smaller room that would be entered through an open courtyard. There would be steps to the roof, where families slept when the weather became intolerably hot, and where women worked during the day while men were in the fields or tending their craft.
They get to the courtyard, where late arrivals were likely packed in hoping to catch part of what Jesus had to say. They see there’s no room, and they head for the roof. Let’s look at what they DIDN’T do…
They didn’t procrastinate or assume that Jesus would still be there the following day or week, despite that being a reasonable conclusion. After all, Capernaum was Jesus’ base of operations in Galilee. He’d healed there before… recall the story of Peter’s mother-and they may have easily rationalized they could come back at some other time. I can tell you that there are times as a follower of Jesus that I’ve made up excuses for not sharing my faith when I was uncomfortable. But Scripture teaches that tomorrow is promised to no one…a reality that the friends in the story clearly grasped.
They didn’t wimp out when they got up on the roof. In first century homes, there would be large wooden beams supporting the roof with smaller branches and twigs molded together in dried mud to form a covering for the spaces between the beams with a tile covering laid over the top so the roof might be occupied. They had to figure out where Jesus was in the room, pull up the right tiles, and knock out at least a 3’ X 6” opening between the beams near to where Jesus was seated. They had to work quickly, because where do you think the dried mud and branches would land while they were doing this? Probably on top of Jesus and the folks seated in the first couple of rows!
I wonder if the friends ever considered the possibility their actions might offend Jesus? I’d probably be a little unsettled if chunks of roof start falling on me while I’m speaking here with you. Scripture gives us no indication this action bothered Jesus. He noticed their faith…especially the faith of the man with paralysis.
They didn’t worry about the price for knocking a huge hole in the roof. I’m sure there was a significant expense involved in repairing a large hole in the roof of a private home. They could have been arrested. They were exposing themselves to ridicule from others in their community. Yet they cared enough about their friend that they were willing to take a chance.
One final observation about the story…the “friends” who went about the process of getting their friend to Jesus had no special qualifications aside from their willingness to serve. These weren’t religious professionals…just “ordinary” guys. Where in the Bible does it say that the work of sharing the Gospel and making disciples is reserved for ordained clergy and paid church staff? Romans 12:3-8 points out that every member of the “body” has gifts. USE THEM!
Let’s look back at the story…and compare ourselves to the friends on the roof…
- We in the church know who Jesus is, yet where’s OUR urgency to get our friends and neighbors into the presence of Jesus?
- We’re unwilling to step beyond our comfort zones to bring others to Jesus
- AND…We’re afraid to take chances on behalf of those who need Jesus.
When was the last time you took a chance in order to introduce a friend or a neighbor to Jesus? After all, we understand the stakes to be a lot higher. The friends were seeking to relieve their friend from the burden of ten or twenty years of paralysis. We who call ourselves Christians know the stakes are MUCH greater. Eternity is on the line!
I’ll pledge that our team at Key Ministry will be available to your pastors, staff and volunteers to help you welcome and minister to any kids and families who come your way with disabilities that interfere with their ability to “do church”.
But what about you?
This initiative won’t work if you expect your church leadership to develop some model program to take care of kids with disabilities and their families. Tossing a check in the collection plate doesn’t absolve you of the responsibility to use your time and talents to build the Kingdom. This ministry is not a spectator sport!
You don’t need your church to launch a program to watch the neighbor’s kids so they can enjoy a night out together. You don’t need a program to offer to do kid pickup when your neighbor is stuck at the doctor. You can advocate for kids and families with disabilities in the juvenile court or social service systems. You could take the siblings of a kid with a disability to the football game next Friday…they may never get to go if their brother or sister can’t tolerate the crush of people, the noise of the crowd or the sound of the band. Your willingness to help neighbors with kids with disabilities may spark conversation about why your faith leads you to help. You may be the only Bible your neighbors get to read!
If you’d like to bring a family here with a child who might need a little extra help, call or e-mail Michelle…so your church will be prepared with a warm welcome.
If God’s positioned you where you come across lots of kids and families with conditions that may make it hard for them to “do church”, look for openings for spiritual conversations. When I meet families who have had negative church experiences, I offer to help connect them to a church where they’ll be welcomed.
Regardless of where you live or work, you’re positioned to influence other people as a representative of Christ. If you’ve experienced joy and comfort through your faith in Christ and value your experience being a part of this church, pray that God would open your eyes to people in your midst who need to be brought into the presence of Jesus and embolden you to extend the invitation to join everyone here at church. Like the man with paralysis…your friends and neighbors are depending on you to introduce them to Jesus.
Key Ministry’s mission is to help churches reach families affected by disability by providing FREE resources to pastors, volunteers, and individuals who wish to create an inclusive ministry environment. We have designed our Key Catalog to create fun opportunities for our ministry supporters to join in our mission through supporting a variety of gift options. Click here to check it out! For a sixty second summary of what Key Ministry does, watch the video below…