Originally published in Briefing #341 (February 2007) UK edition.
One church in south-west London has been running Highway—a program for adults with learning disabilities.
Eight years ago, Martyn Green approached the elders at Chessington Evangelical Church with an idea for a way to reach out to adults in the area with learning disabilities.
Martyn says, “My whole career has been in supporting people with learning disabilities—in a childrens home and a day centre. I am now a care manager working for Surrey County Council. I had a growing passion to share the gospel with the people I was working with, and wanted to see how my own church could help this dream become a reality.
“So often churches can be unconsciously discriminatory. It’s quite understandable that people are fearful of disabilities that they don’t know how to cope with. But when church members are nervous of those with learning and physical disabilities, they naturally back away. What that means in general is that, although we have evangelistic and discipleship groups for ‘ordinary’ folks, we simply do not have options for people with disabilities to meet the Saviour that we serve. But Jesus reached out to the unfashionable people of his day—we should be involved in seeking to reach them like everyone else. My church leadership was willing to discuss the proposal for Highway and were extremely supportive from the very start.”
Spectrum of needs and abilities
There are over 10 million disabled people in Britain, of which 4.6 million are over state pension age and 700,000 are children (Family Resources Survey 2003-2004).
This means that the term ‘disabled person’ covers people with a huge range of disabilities and health conditions—from a visual impairment to arthritis, multiple sclerosis, heart disease, depression, Downs Syndrome and diabetes.
Disability increases with age: only 10% of adults aged 16-24 are disabled, while one third of people between the age of 50 and retirement age are disabled. And by 2020, 58% of people over the age of 50 will have a long-term health condition. The World Health Organisation predicts that depression will be the leading cause of disability by 2020.
Any attempt by a church, therefore, to seriously engage with the issue will have to be multi-faceted.
Martyn argues strongly for having a very targeted aim for any work with disabled people. “We worked hard at refining a mission statement for Highway from the start. We were concerned that it should just be for those with learning disabilities, as there is no easy way to create a group that spans both learning and physical disability.
“We went to look at the amazing work that is going on at Bridge Chapel in Liverpool, which has a huge work among people with learning disabilities, and came up with the plan for our group.”
Highway has now been running for seven years. They typically have between 15 and 30 people there. The evening involves a mix of games, theme evenings, and other social activities. After a time of news-sharing halfway through the evening, there is a regular slot to teach the Bible, which normally lasts for about 20 minutes.
“I was keen to involve as many members of the regular congregation from the start, so that we could break down some of the barriers in the minds of the congregation”, said Martyn. So the church has organised a transport rota involving members of church homegroups. Martyn also invites a whole range of people from the congregation to help lead the Bible teaching.
Church pastor Trevor Archer says, “one of the unexpected benefits from Highway has been that it has established relationships with the families and carers of the group members. There is a whole network of people that we now have contact with who were previously invisible to us. Once a year we do an evening service, where group members act out for the rest of the church some of the Bible stories they have been thinking about. It’s a great evening!”
One member is John, a young man of 20, who first came to the church at 12, when he joined the youthwork. His arrival provoked major discussions on how he could be included, and whether his presence in the youth group would be best for him and for everyone else. Martyn argued strongly for his inclusion. “John has real behavioural challenges—he needs tight boundaries. Give him too much choice and he will go haywire”, says Martyn. But John has stuck with it. He loves coming to Highway—and has got a real faith—he has recently asked to be baptised.”
And Martyn’s advice for churches who want to get involved in this kind of ministry? “You need to get a core group of people who support the idea, and have a passion for people. You simply can’t do it on your own—you’ll just burn out. You also need to have a very clear idea of what you want to achieve in your community—and the full support of your church leadership.”
Further help on disability matters in church can be found at www.throughtheroof.org.