Disability ministry will become essential to the church’s witness in the 2020s

This post in the first in a series examining ten disability ministry trends to watch in the coming decade. Today Dr. Grcevich will explore the forces that will propel ministry with the vulnerable – highlighted by ministry with persons with disabilities – to the forefront of the church’s public witness.

Compared to a lot of my friends involved with ministry, I get to spend much of my time at work surrounded by colleagues who are either indifferent or openly hostile to the claims of Christianity. I’m a member of the least religious medical specialty. And let’s just say that academic medicine isn’t exactly enthusiastic about people like me. Over time, the one thing that I’ve found will make people in my workspace take notice of my faith in a positive light is the support provided to kids and families with disabilities passing through their clinics by churches Key Ministry works with. I’d argue that involvement with disability ministry is one of the most powerful witnesses churches can present to segments of society most likely to view Christianity with skepticism.

It’s been nearly five years since I wrote about my friend Ethan, an extraordinarily gifted child psychologist who died tragically in his late 30s of a ruptured aortic aneurysm. We became friends out of mutual respect for the care we provided to the patients we held in common. Otherwise, we had nothing in common. Ethan was passionately progressive in his politics, a graduate of the University of Michigan and a self-proclaimed atheist. We had two other Christian friends in common – one who started a ministry to incorporate the gospel message into free, evidence-based social skill training with kids with autism spectrum disorders and another serving as executive director of a faith-based international hosting program for orphaned children.

As Ethan became aware of our work through Key Ministry and the ministries of our two mutual friends, he clearly became more curious about Christianity. The concept of 200 churchgoers giving up a weekend night to care for kids with special emotional, behavioral and medical needs didn’t fit with his previous understanding of evangelicals. He offered to help our ministry with any training needs that might arise. He accepted an invitation to join the Board of the autism center. Our last conversation occurred when he was called in to help after kids on an outdoor camping experience sponsored by a Christian organization witnessed the death of a peer during a severe weather event. He wanted to better understand how Christians might process traumatic events like this one. I don’t know whether he made a profession of faith before he died, but the witness of our professional friends unquestionably impacted him.

Disability ministry also demonstrates the authenticity of our faith to children and youth currently attending church and represents one approach to recapturing influence among young adults who were raised in the church, but no longer attend. Early last year, LifeWay Research released results of a survey examining the reasons why two-thirds of teens raised in the church stop attending regularly as young adults.

An active and vital disability ministry directly addresses several common criticisms of young adults who have left the church – it demonstrates integrity with the Gospel message, provides opportunity for connection both with persons being served by the ministry along with others involved with serving and addresses unmet social needs.

This past weekend, I was involved as a volunteer as our church hosted our first ever Night to Shine prom for teens and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

When the video was shared during worship this morning, our pastor commented on how nice it was that the church was getting positive media coverage. I’d argue that the coverage for Night to Shine (with thirteen churches hosting in our region) represented the single most positive publicity for the evangelical church across Northeast Ohio of the entire year.

The church will be seeking to advance the Gospel in the presence of an increasingly hostile culture during the decade to come. If caring for individuals and families with disabilities can get people in my line of work to take notice, our witness will be impactful among those  more open to the claims of Christianity.

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Inclusion Fusion Live (#IFL2020) is the largest disability ministry conference in the United States. Pastors, ministry leaders, families and caregivers from throughout the U.S. and beyond will gather in Cleveland on April 24-25 to share encouragement and ideas for welcoming and serving individuals with disabilities and their families. Ministry intensives offer in-depth training on special needs ministry, mental health ministry and trauma. Choose a MINISTRY TRACK or a FAMILY TRACK to select from over 50 workshops representing ministry-focused and family-focused topics. Either ticket will give you access to all main stage presentations including our featured speakers, numerous quick takes (TED Talk-style presentations), and worship. Early bird pricing is available. To learn more or to register, click here.

About Dr. G

Dr. Stephen Grcevich serves as President and Founder of Key Ministry, a non-profit organization providing free training, consultation, resources and support to help churches serve families of children with disabilities. Dr. Grcevich is a graduate of Northeastern Ohio Medical University (NEOMED), trained in General Psychiatry at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at University Hospitals of Cleveland/Case Western Reserve University. He is a faculty member in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at two medical schools, leads a group practice in suburban Cleveland (Family Center by the Falls), and continues to be involved in research evaluating the safety and effectiveness of medications prescribed to children for ADHD, anxiety and depression. He is a past recipient of the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Dr. Grcevich was recently recognized by Sharecare as one of the top ten online influencers in children’s mental health. His blog for Key Ministry, www.church4everychild.org was ranked fourth among the top 100 children's ministry blogs in 2015 by Ministry to Children.
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