If you looked out from the pulpit in our church sanctuary on any given Sunday morning, what would you see? Hopefully, faces of people who love Jesus and are joyful worshipers of the God! Yet, if you focused primarily on skin color, you would see about 96% Caucasian, and the rest a smattering of Africans-Americans, Hispanics, and Indians. To put it bluntly, our church is, and has been for a long time, a very white congregation.
Now, if you are like many of us in our congregation, this is not a desirable situation. Why not? For one thing, it doesn’t reflect heaven. We know heaven will be filled with worshipers from every nation, tribe, tongue, and ethnicity. But just as important, it doesn’t reflect our neighborhood either. Go out our sanctuary doors into our metro area and you will find an entirely different mixture of color and ethnicity. So, with those two reasons in mind, our elders formed a Neighborhood Diversity Committee (NDC) a couple of years ago. It reflects the leadership’s deep longing to see our local church be transformed into a multiethnic congregation, by God’s grace.
But here’s something very interesting. For nearly twelve years we our church has had a growing and thriving disability ministry to our member families as well as the surrounding community. If you would drop by and peek through the windows of our multipurpose building on a Friday night Sonbeams Night Out (our respite care event), what would you see? Hopefully, faces of people who love Jesus and are being joyfully ministered to by people who love them and love Jesus. But if you looked at the 75-80 faces of those with disabilities, you would see about 50% white, 40% African-American, and 10% other ethnicities. I don’t know about heaven, but this is much closer to the breakdown of our surrounding neighborhoods!
So, why is there a much more robust ethnic diversity in our disability ministry than in our actual church membership? It’s certainly easy to understand the first part of that question. Disability does not impact just one ethnicity or one color of the human race. It also doesn’t just strike a certain socio-economic segment of our society and leave the others untouched. Because it moves across each and every boundary and barricade that separates us, it often becomes quite a strong unifying force. In pretty much any city, town, neighborhood in which you live, people touched by disability already have a community of their own. And the reality is that this “neighborhood” is most often a very unchurched group of people. This community not only needs the gospel of Jesus Christ, but local churches that will welcome them into the family of God.
How, then, do we answer the second part of the question? If the disability community is already a multiethnic group (and that’s what we long for our church to be), why aren’t they also becoming worshipers in our church? Certainly, a few families check out the church after a respite care event, because they feel loved and welcomed. But why don’t more desire to join with us, and the few that come actually stick around? That’s the question that needs to be addressed in an honest and thoughtful way. Are we still putting up barriers that keep us from the diversity we desire? Are we not as welcoming and warm as we think we are? Do we send the message that we want to stay a fairly homogeneous group of Christians?
Every local church that longs to be more diverse needs to ask and answer these sorts of questions. But don’t lose the main point here: A fundamental way to work towards the Biblical, yet challenging goal of a multiethnic church is to reach our disability community. This group is already ethnically diverse. This group is already connected by their brokenness. This group needs the gospel of Jesus Christ as well as concentrated and regular mercy ministry. This group will gladly come around when we become churches that reach out and serve the most marginalized of all.
But there is even a better reason for reaching out to the disability community in our neighborhoods, if we long for diversity in our local churches. Disability itself brings diversity to our churches, even if the faces are all the same color! The diversity inherent in disability may not be cultural or ethnic or language-based; yet, it creates the same distance in our society. In other words, the coming together of the sick, the lame, the blind, and the deaf, with those who are physically healthy, is a beautiful example of differences that must be overcome in order to worship Jesus together. And, it is also a picture of heaven, where our spiritual brokenness will be ultimately healed as we enjoy our glorified bodies in heaves.
We should be all for any effort to reach our neighbors for Jesus who live in the houses near us and near our church. Yet, as we seek to become churches on earth that are truly diverse, we should also prioritize and emphasize our pursuit of people and neighborhoods touched by disability!