Is it time yet? Are we there yet? Have we yet come to the place when we might take a critical look at our guest list of people we have invited, and expand our invitation?
We have looked about and lamented over our declining church. We have wrung our hands, wondering why people aren’t joining like they used to. We have tried church growth strategies, and marketing schemes, and advertising campaigns, all designed to attract people to our church. We have tweaked our liturgy, and our worship style. We have written a plethora of welcome statements, designed web sites, set up “Facebook” pages and even opened twitter accounts—all in the interest of attracting people to our beloved, declining, church. After all of this, a few have come, but we are still a shadow of what we used to be—in the “glory days.”
Since so many people have not accepted our invitation, is it time—just maybe—to invite those whom we have not invited before?
Luke 14:16-21 Then Jesus said to him, “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. 17 At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for everything is ready now.’ 18 But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my regrets.’ 19 Another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my regrets.’ 20 Another said, ‘I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.’ 21 So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, ‘Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’
After all of the preparations had been made, and no one came, then the decision was made to invite the outcast, the separated, the stigmatized—the persons with disabilities. Those who had been overlooked and marginalized, were finally extended an invitation—and they came.
But before you think “A-HA, our next outreach strategy!” please be cautious. Persons with disabilities are not a strategy. They should not be invited as a mere means to grow a church. THEY ARE, however, persons who are longing for a spiritual home. They are a community longing to be invited and genuinely, authentically, welcomed into the life of the church.
Here are two stories which parents have shared with me and given me permission to share:
“My husband and I are members of a very large [deleted denomination] church…going on 8 years. After 5 years of not missing a Sunday or Wednesday, our infant son was diagnosed w/autism and a few other physical problems. Attendance started to dwindle as he was not enjoying all of the over-stimulation. One of us always ended up taking him out to the car and getting his stroller and pushing him around the large parking lot. We would alternate so we would each have a chance at a spiritual feeding.
It became difficult. Putting him in the nursery or toddler room without myself or my husband was never an option. We started to really miss being there as a family. Attendance dwindled more. If fact, I expect a letter any day letting me know our membership will be null and void if we don’t return. We absolutely
loved this church. It makes me sad. But it is probably the most unfriendly to someone with sensory integration disorder. We slowly gave up on spiritual feedings in public.” And the closing words of her story pained my very heart as she said “I miss the love.”
A few weeks ago, I was talking with a woman (we’ll call her “Sally”) in my office, and she was telling me about her faith. She explained that she has always had a strong faith and a strong connection to the church. When she and her husband had children, they were active in worship, and the kids were in Sunday school.
Their one son was diagnosed with a developmental disability. Unfortunately, due to his disability, his behaviors did not match those of “typical” children in church. In other words, he didn’t behave the way children should in church. He was deemed to be “high maintenance.” The looks and stares, along with comments, from members of the church became part of each Sunday worship experience. Eventually, Sally told me, feeling hurt and betrayed, felling judged as bad parents, Sally and her family left the church and searched for another.
They found a new church, one where everyone was excited to welcome a new family, so they started attending. After all, we all know how we churches rush to greet a visiting family with kids! Yet a few months later, it was the same situation occurring all over again for them in this new church. So Sally and her family searched for a new church, one that would welcome and understand their situation. They wanted to be included in a church family, and live out their faith. They tried a third church…to no avail. They tried a fourth church…
After four churches, their feelings of hurt, shame, discouragement and anger with their experience of churches became too much. They gave up. After trying four churches, they stopped trying. And they stopped going. Sally tells me that these days, she sits down at her computer and watches a sermon on the internet. That way, she says, she can nurture her faith without the worrying about the judgment.
The stories these two parents shared with me are not isolated stories. There are many more. One writer shared the following (see footnote below): “family members of many faith traditions, living with a disability…reported that their children remained marginalized within faith communities…” “Without fail, parents believed…that their children had a deep spiritual connection to God; that they had the capacity to develop such a relationship; or that through their active involvement and visible presence in the church community, they could enhance the spiritual lives of the members…nothing created so much sadness in the lives of parents as the failure of faith communities to value the spiritual connection or community role of disabled children.”
There’s just this invisibleness; they really don’t see you. Or they stare at you; one of the two. I want her to feel welcome. Not this invisible person. I don’t want her to be looked over like she’s just not there.
Matthew…has gifts, said his mother. He loves music. He can’t look a person in the eye, but he can sing like an angel, and he wants to be in the choir. Why couldn’t he be part of a choir? Because the pastor says he is too strange.
It was a shock for us when we were told that Gregory could only attend one more time in the classroom, and even then only if a parent would attend with him because they couldn’t do it. Do it yourself, they said.
Eight year old Carl’s mother was most anguished because she believed that her son had been “deleted” from church life: I really almost lost my faith over this whole ordeal, but it’s my faith and I won’t quit my faith because of a few rotten apples.
Persons with Disabilities, and their families, are longing for a church home. They are praying for a faith community in which they can feel welcomed, included and loved.
Is it time yet? Is it time yet to revisit the guest list, and instead of inviting all those who aren’t coming, invite those who want to be invited?
If not………then when will it be time church?
Rev. Gunnar Cerda, Parent of a child with a “disability”
Speraw, S. “Spiritual experiences of parents and caregivers who have children with disabilities or special needs.” Issues In Mental Health Nursing 27, no. 2 (February 2006): 213-230. CINAHL with Full Text, EBSCOhost(accessed October 15, 2014).