Some disclaimers before I launch:
1) Although I’m going to point at a special mission field, this is emphatically NOT some “you have to have this ministry or Jesus isn’t really present in your church” stuff. Not every congregation can make every missionary effort; Jesus might even say “No” to some well intended initiatives.
2) This is NOT a lame attack on the preaching of doctrine through propositional truth. While I am about to point to a mission field where traditional teaching methods are at best difficult and often impossible, I am pointing at people who can be icons of the truth we express:
Can you earn God’s grace? No. God gives his grace freely, and enables me to receive it… (To Be a Christian: An Anglican Catechism 141)
I’m going to write about people who can’t always do stuff that we sometimes slip into demanding for salvation. Yet we can proclaim and celebrate the Savior among them – and with them.
A church I attended while in college included a van load of folks I now call special needs; back then I just called them “different” or lumped them under the catch-all “mentally retarded.”
When the congregation sang the Sanctus, most of us had our noses in our hymnals, whispering or just mouthing the words so we didn’t offend others (OK, embarrass ourselves) with missed notes. We offered God something like
But the guys from the van belted out
off key, out of time, and continuing well after the organist was done.
We (the “normal”) were inhibited by the power of sin, chained up in pride and fear. The special needs bunch were uninhibited in rejoicing before the Lord.
My wife and are the parents of Joseph, a 25 year old man with autism. I wrote a little book of reflections about our experience so I won’t drop a lot of war stories here. (But if you’re a family caregiver or know folks who are, the book might make a useful read or thoughtful Christmas gift /<shameless plug>).
Joseph likes music. Many people with special needs (not just autism) are responsive to music. It navigates pathways around the brain that more work-a-day forms of communication can’t find.
A wonderful Christian brother here in South Dakota used to lead an annual volunteer community choir performance of Handel’s Messiah. I took Joseph to the last performance that my friend conducted prior to his retirement.
I led Joseph into the balcony, as he can be fidgety and I wanted to park him away from the main body of concert goers. I got us seated and gritted my teeth in hopes that Joseph would not be agitated by a strange and crowded venue.
For about 20 minutes, he waved a small object at hummingbird speed, thumped his free hand against his chest, and muttered what were probably lines and lyrics from Disney movies in an effort to ground himself in the unfamiliar place.
Then he was calm. After that stimmy beginning, for the next two hours or so you would never have known he was different from any of the other folks taking in the wonderful music.
Friends who were in the choir could see it happen. They watched the hand waving and chest thumping slow and stop, and his eyes fix on the stage.
One of God’s gifts to Anglican Christianity – and one we rightly return as our offering to God – is worship rich with music. We sing hymns, sure, but we also have prayers and responses that we sing or chant. Music is a significant part of our offering to God, something even unbelievers notice and appreciate.
Music can be a means to proclaim the name of Jesus in the special needs community. The Advent and Christmas seasons at hand are rich with opportunity,
- to GO OUT, via Caroling. Whether your congregation is rife with trained voices or just willing with sing-in-the-shower stars, this time of the year is a great time to lavish well known sacred (and even some secular seasonal) song on folks for whom music is a means of connection and joy. If you check around in your community, you’ll find that there are group homes, residential schools or other venues where special needs people and their caregivers will be open to your visit;
- to WELCOME IN, via Lessons & Carols or concerts. Consider an invitation to a group home or an agency serving the special needs community. Lessons & Carols uses Bible readings and music to tell the Good News of Jesus, in a format less daunting to visitors than typical Sunday services. Have fellowship and refreshments after.
Yes, the special needs community is a mission field. In most cases, you will make a pure offering of the Gospel – the folks you’ll reach aren’t going to become “pledging units” or take over programs and ministries that your overworked regulars are hoping to dump. It isn’t a “membership” technique or “growth strategy” to sing the Lord’s praises to people with special needs.
At the same time, the Lord can surprise you. More and more special needs people are expressing their own needs and likes, communicating through social media and other formats rather than through the mediation of caregivers. You might reach folks with capabilities and gifts that Christ is looking to put to work for His kingdom – and through your congregation.
Again, not every congregation can enter this mission field and not all have to.
But for those the Spirit might be prompting to go to the special needs community, this is a time of year for singing out the glory and goodness of God for people not expecting it or expected to receive it:
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” (Luke 2:13-15)