John befriended me in the church nursery before I can remember. He had seniority since he's a little older than I am. We grew up together and remain great friends today. As we grew, I learned that John has what are called developmental disabilities. But, to me, he was just my friend and the one constant peer I had in our small church as we grew up. John still ministers to me today, albeit from a distance. Whenever he calls me on the phone, I know he’s going to bring good news, because John loves to spread good news, and we love to share it together.
God taught me a principle organically through John that I later learned formally: The church ministers with, not merely to, people with developmental disabilities. People with such disabilities also minister with, not merely to, the rest of the body.
When we were in high school together, John and I attended all of our presbytery’s youth winter conferences. One year, we took a thirteen mile hike through the Hoosier National Forest. Split into smaller groups, the fifty of us embarked. As our group navigated the uneven terrain early in the day, John slipped and twisted his knee. After we treated him as best we could and saw that he was okay, there was nothing we could do but press onward. John needed encouragement and focus as he battled through the pain in the cold. Charging him not to worry about how much farther we had to go, I said, “John, just put one foot in front of the other. Just put one foot in front of the other.” He did so courageously, plodding onward.
When we stopped for lunch, I saw we were making slower than expected time due to John’s injury. Thus, it would be prudent for the two of us to forge ahead after only a brief break. As a pair, we struck out on the path, trusting that our team would catch up soon. An hour passed, and they didn’t catch us. “Hmm,” I thought, “Maybe John and I are making better time than I expected.” But, we weren’t going fast enough to see the group ahead of us either. More time passed, and I began to wonder if we were on the right trail. As the minutes wore on, I expressed something of my concern to John. The afternoon sun was descending, and I began to have visions of spending a December night with John in the Hoosier National Forest. Would we curl up together for warmth in the hollow of a sycamore tree? As time elapsed and as I peered backward and forward through the leafless forest for any sign of our comrades, my fear grew. I muttered, “John, I’m not sure we’re on the right trail. I think we might be lost.” Staring resolutely at the path, John encouraged me, “James, just put one foot in front of the other. Just put one foot in front of the other.” He had embodied my earlier encouragement, and now he dished it back to me. I could only smile and shake my head. Friends are amazing gifts. John had lifted my spirit. He was right, we arrived at our destination safely. We had still been on the correct trail. We just needed to take it one step at a time.
Some years later when I was home from break while in seminary, John was on the road with my family in our minivan. I don’t remember where we were going, but John was in the back seat sitting between our two children who were buckled into their car seats. One child was going on three years old, and the other had just turned one. My grandfather had been an elder in our congregation along with John’s father. My grandfather had passed into glory a little over a year earlier. As I looked in the mirror, I saw that John and the children were in their own world together, and I listened in as John looked left and right to engage each child, saying intently, “Now, you didn’t know your great-grandpa. He died a little over a year ago. But he died and is with Jesus now in heaven. Even though you didn’t know him, you’ll be able to see him in heaven if you love and trust Jesus too.” My heart filled with gratitude and my eyes with tears of joy. My friend who loves the best news of all was ministering with me by preaching Christ to my children. That’s what Christian friends do. They minister with each other and grow up together in Christ as Ephesians 4:15-16 describes:
Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
As a pastor, I’m blessed to minister with a number of friends with developmental disabilities. I’m grateful for parents and family members who help us understand how best to minister together. The Lord has raised up wonderful men and women who organize and oversee our congregation’s Friendship Bible Study each Tuesday evening which is uniquely designed to serve those with developmental disabilities. Some people say this demographic is the least gospel-reached demographic in our nation. Though I don’t have the statistics to prove it, it seems plausible. My friend and mentor, Rich, heads up the Friendship Bible Study, and he constantly reminds us that we will minister with and not merely to those who come. It’s my observation that such a mentality fuels ministry that has the capacity to endure. Consequently, this demographic that is among the most unreached in these United States is a demographic which has most reached the congregation I serve.
Andrew, a man with Down Syndrome, supports the preaching ministry of the congregation in prayer. He reads the passage in advance, prays for the sermon through the week, and comes to worship ready to hear. I moved toward the conclusion of a particular sermon recently. It hadn’t come together as I’d hoped. The congregation stared back at me with an especially presbyterian expression that day awaiting the end. Except Andrew. My eyes caught his smile. He sat on the edge of his seat nodding, his muscles tense, and he was ready to extend his arms in joy and add his “Amen!” He wasn’t awaiting the end of the sermon; he was awaiting its crescendo. For him, the sermon was about to reach its climax in the glory of Christ. What he had prayed for all week - what we had worked on together, as it were - was coming to fulfillment. His heart and mine are full together as we co-labor in preaching.
In our evening service prayer time recently, Doug raised his hand for prayer. He’s a volunteer in the Friendship Study. He is awaiting surgery himself, and he asked prayer for the procedure, but mostly, he wanted to thank God for Austin, a Friendship Study regular, who is in constant prayer for Doug and regularly encourages him with calls and notes. Austin is one of Doug’s most faithful friends.
Hannah is a woman fervent in prayer like her namesake. She has a number of challenges, but she loves Jesus Christ. She fills her days praying for God’s people and asking questions about them. A daughter of the congregation, she has almost certainly brought more visitors to church than any other person in the church over the last two decades. She brings housemates, caregivers, and friends. They all get to hear the gospel.
Ivana’s eyesight and hearing are limited, and various facets of her development have been impacted through life. But her prayers are strong, and her faith and her conviction in the Lord is even stronger. When I speak with her and hear of her appreciation for the Lord’s love, of her love for him, and her resolute commitment to obedience, I am strengthened personally, and others are as well.
The Lord has used Down Syndrome in Stephen’s life to give him empathy for others along with a contagious joy in the Lord’s blessings. It is a beautiful thing to watch Stephen see another member of the body suffering in some way and put his hand on that troubled brother’s shoulder and remind him of God’s love for him.
Time would fail me to tell of Katie, Alec, Peter, and the many others who come to the study each week. We could also recount at length the many ways we all minister together. It may be working to help members move from one home to another. It’s beautiful to see the way we engage in evangelism together as many guests come to the Friendship study. Many people without developmental disabilities have grown too in studying Scripture together in the Friendship Study and in other forms of service. In regular church life, we share the joy of the Lord as we delight together in the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
We know the Lord will bless these efforts to minister with and to one another
until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. - Ephesians 4:13