By Dr. Benjamin T. Conner, Professor of Practical Theology and Director of the Graduate Certificate in Disability and Ministry
While issues of class, race, ethnicity, and economic marginalization are beginning to be addressed by theologies of youth ministry, youth ministers have largely been led by de-contextualized, universalizing, ableist, white, male-dominated, middle-class theology. Consequently, it is not surprising that the lived experience of marginalization related to disability rarely enters the theological imagination of the youth minister. Take some time to browse your youth ministry resources and note how many address or even mention the reality of disability. Examine your books about discipleship. Browse the index of your theology collection… anything on disability? My guess is that there likely won’t be.
What makes the absence of disability concerns in youth ministry so odd is the prevalence of disability among young people in the United States. People with disabilities can be considered the largest minority group and, if abstracted as a group, includes a collection of people who can be found in every class, race, ethnicity, and economic circumstance. The fact that eighteen to twenty percent of the population has a disability and thirteen percent of US children and youth in public schools receive special education suggests that a disability touches nearly every young person in the US.
The most common way that theologians and youth ministers have engaged people with disabilities has been by addressing the disability as a perceived individual deficiency and including the disabled person in an existing program. In youth ministry, people with disabilities have been made targets of mission and evangelism rather than considered co-participants in the Missio Dei or they have been managed as objects in the form of “inclusion” rather than being understood as members of the body of Christ who fundamentally belong and whose contributions are essential for the flourishing of community. Consequently, youth ministers and the theologians who support them have unwittingly perpetuated the ableist biases that are inherent in our youth ministry architecture (which includes theological frameworks and programming). Their theology is never challenged; their programs are never reimagined from the perspective of disability.
I believe that the discipline of missiology could help youth ministers to engage disability in terms of gains to theology, mission, community, and ecclesiology rather than in terms of simple inclusion.
That is to say, through missiological categories, concepts, and practices, disability could be reconceived positively in the church in a way that renews and enriches youth ministry and the church. Beyond the conceptual challenges, the presence of adolescents with disabilities in our youth groups can stimulate us to engage in a kind of contextual theologizing that has the potential to change the theological questions we ask together, open up new ways of interacting with each other, and expand our capacity to know and be known as adolescents with intellectual and developmental disabilities challenge what practical theologian John Swinton calls our “hopeless dependence” on our intellect. Young people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, especially, can help the congregation to be more attuned to non-linear, intuitive, non-symbolic, or even non-agential ways of responding to proclamation and evangelism. They remind us that human personhood is a dynamic concept and that the individual call to discipleship requires participating in the ongoing redemptive mission of God in Christ as part of a community—we all have gifts and needs.
Let me be more specific: What intellectual capacities, social skills, or physical abilities are required to bear witness to the Spirit?
The power of our witness does not originate from within ourselves; we are what Lesslie Newbigin describes as a community that serves as sign, instrument, and foretaste of the reign of God. In that community, the Holy Spirit is the guarantor of the pluriformity of Christian witness as the Spirit gifts the community with what it needs for upbuilding of the church and for announcing (in word and deed) the kingdom of God. That is to say, as Pentecostal theologian and disability scholar Amos Yong suggests, the many tongues of Pentecost issue in many forms of testimony—not simply in terms of language, but also in terms of ability. Against an inclusion model where an “us” has to include “them” in the ministry and witness of the church, Yong imagines that, “the outpouring of the Spirit unleashes many tongues and many senses—many different communicative modalities—to bear witness to and receive the witness of the wondrous works of God. All forms and all types of dis/abilities, then, would be possible conduits for the Spirit’s revelatory work.”
Viewed this way, young people with disabilities are both an essential part of the diversity of the human experience, and their contribution, gifts, perspectives, and weaknesses are necessary if the church is to have a relevant witness.
As I have written elsewhere, the absence of adolescents with disabilities, the loss of their presence, concerns, and perspectives, diminishes the fitness of our witness. No one is so impaired that they can’t bear the witness of the Spirit, and no single person should be disabled from participating in the church’s witness.
How does this look? Megan has a significant intellectual impairment and has been coming to church with our family. She can’t read the hymnal, so she makes “musical noises” while we sing. She can’t remember the Apostles Creed, so she makes appropriate sounds in rhythm with the congregation’s recitation. She sits through sermons but can’t follow their logic even when they are reduced to three simple points. Nonetheless, she is a part of the community and evokes peace, love, and goodwill from others in the congregations. She has an intuitive sense that she belongs to this community and that this community belongs to Jesus. So connected is she, that she invited a friend of hers, who happens to have Down’s syndrome, to be a part of the community.
Seth has been coming ever since and was baptized. As it turns out, Megan is a more effective evangelist than I am. She lacks all of the capacities (rational capacity, reasoning skills, social skills, etc.) that one would expect from an effective evangelist. Perhaps Megan will challenge our youth group to reimagine evangelism as the joyful sharing of life—as an invitation to participate in something/someone that grabs us. Within the limits of her capacities, Megan exercised her agency and bore the witness of the Spirit. Would you like to have Megan in your youth group?
For more on the subject of disability and youth ministry, see my Amplifying Our Witness: Giving Voice to Adolescents with Developmental Disabilities, which, at its core, is a practical theology of youth ministry. For more on disability and mission, see Enabling Witness, IVP Academic in their Missiological Engagements series.
To learn more about Ben Conner’s upcoming Doctor of Ministry cohort, visit wtsem.info/youth-ministry-cohort
Ben Conner is a Professor of Practical Theology and Director of the Center for Disability and Ministry at Western Theological Seminary, the only program of its kind in the US. For seven years before joining Western’s faculty, he ran a ministry to and with adolescents with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Yong, Amos. The Bible, Disability, and the Church: A new vision of the people of God. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011, 72.
Conner, Benjamin T. “Enabling Witness: Disability in Missiological Perspective” Journal of Disability and Religion 19.1, 15-29.