Lamar Hardwick is positioned to be the most impactful advocate for disability inclusion in the American church for many years to come. He is at the forefront of a new generation of ministry leaders with disabilities drawing upon their lived experience to guide the church. His recently released book, Disability and the Church: A Vision for Diversity and Inclusion represents a must-read for Christians interested in welcoming, living with and serving alongside persons with disabilities.
Lamar’s work is extraordinary timely. The primary theme of the book is to “re-envision the role of church growth, evangelism and discipleship from a new lens that places disability at the heart of he diversity conversation.” He makes an effective and compelling argument for why the church must take the lead in the discussion of diversity – and ultimately, disability. He champions the need for identifying and resourcing persons with disabilities for positions of leadership and influence in the church. He does so while articulating a clear and concise theology of disability church leaders can readily embrace in the context of our society’s preoccupation with diversity, equity and inclusion.
In his book, Lamar presents a vision for community characterized by Biblical diversity in contrast to ideas championed by proponents of Critical Theory. Key components of Biblical diversity are peace between people groups otherwise in competition with one another, unity in Christ derived from the recognition people with all conditions and from all races, ethnicities and cultures are equal at the foot of the cross, individuality, reconciliation and sacrifice. Biblical diversity reflects an appreciation for everyone’s true value and worth in the eyes of God and acknowledgment that the power necessary to achieve true diversity does not reside with humanity but with our creator.
The diversity dilemma for Christians in the West must begin with a critical question: Who’s missing? When we answer the question, Who’s missing? we find our mission.
If we are called to pursue Biblical diversity, central to that discussion is a pursuit of those who are missing from the community. Quoting from Lamar’s book, “every sheep matters.” He references the parable of the lost sheep to demonstrate the value of each and every person to the community overseen by the ultimate shepherd. He ties disability into the diversity conversation through pointing out that people with disabilities are the largest minority group in the world and the singularly most missed voice in the church. Authentic Gospel witness requires the church to “dive headfirst into the responsibility of creating communities where missing sheep are valued and pursued” with the same passion and persistence as Christ demonstrated during his earthly ministry.
Deliberate inclusion of individuals and families impacted by disability is absolutely essential to aligning our priorities in a manner more consistent with those of the early church if we are to pursue diversity. Lamar points out that the early church didn’t view this as inclusion, instead seeing it as an obedient response to the teachings of Jesus. He powerfully contrasts the efforts to make church accessible during the early weeks of COVID-related social distancing with the church’s lukewarm (at best) response to including people with disabilities.
A second theme running throughout the book is the importance of elevating disabled voices into positions of leadership within the church. Lamar observes that one of the best ways to measure an organization’s commitment to diversity is by examining who it allows to lead. Having persons with disabilities in positions of leadership ensures the church remains intimately involved with the type of ministry that expresses the heart of God’s kingdom.
Another advantage to elevating persons with disabilities into positions of leadership is that they might help address the church’s obliviousness as to how church is perceived and experienced by outsiders, especially outsiders with disabilities. The greatest example of the disconnect might be illustrated by a 2020 LifeWay Research study (discussed here) in which 99% of Protestant pastors reported their churches are welcoming to individuals and families impacted by disability. A similar disconnect was reported in earlier LifeWay research noting differences between pastors and families in the preparedness of the church to provide mental health support.
Lamar has been uniquely positioned for a prominent role in the disability ministry movement. When our ministry team was planning for 2021, we reflected that our greatest challenge was gaining traction and influence with pastors. While our writing team and leaders from other like-minded ministries generate lots of useful content, Lamar’s seminary degrees and ministry experience, especially his ongoing experience as lead pastor in an ethnically diverse church situated in one of America’s major cities affords him a degree of credibility with pastors that most of us will never have. He recognizes that support from pastors is absolutely critical if things are going to change. His experiences as a person with autism lends him unique insight into the struggles persons might experience at church who struggle with social communication and processing sensory input. He also has the ability to initiate disability ministry collaborations with historically Black churches when it would be presumptuous and inappropriate for leaders from the predominant ethnic group to do so.
We’re buying copies of Lamar’s book for every one of our ministry staff and Board members. Disability and the Church will likely be the most impactful book written in our field of ministry for many years to come. I also find Lamar to be “pitch-perfect” in the language he uses to speak into difficult issues with the grace and truth reflective of our faith, and we’ll be using his words as a model for how we communicate in the months and years ahead.
We invite you to be join us for a wonderful disability ministry conference originating from South Texas this coming weekend. Sandra Peoples and Tiffany Crow are hosting this virtual event under very adverse conditions in their home state. The content is excellent and it’s affordable for churches on tight budgets. Check out http://www.allaccesshtx.com — and use promo code “Key” to reduce your registration fee to $15.00. And…Pastor Lamar Hardwick is serving as the keynote speaker!