A peculiar people - 1 Peter 2:9 (KJV)
When you stop and think about it, the (big C) Church is a really odd place, full of peculiar people. Just take a look around you and tell me if I'm wrong?!
To the outside world, our customs, our order of service is completely alien. We live in a "post-Christian" world, where even here in Northern Ireland there are many people who have never stepped foot in a Christian church, even if only for a wedding, baptism, or funeral.
Many churches are now having to react and change tactics to reach a people that never had faithful parents or grandparents who sent them out to Sunday School or the Good News Club. They have no idea what we do or who we are.
If we get too comfortable with our own culture we can easily loose the empathy that we need to reach people who are different than us. Changing culture doesn't mean throwing out the gospel - just recognising that we can't reach everyone with the same tactics. The most common place we see that is on the mission fields around the world, but in some ways even that has become familiar. It's almost as though those big, grand acts of service have somehow become easier than small gestures of love. Is it really easier to tithe than showing empathy for people who don't look like, or act like us?
As a parent of a child with special needs appropriate I can confidently say, appropriate church behaviour went out the window a long time ago and Lila and I are both so thankful for the leadership team and congregation at Grace Community Church for making us feel so welcome; from the very first day!
You might be thinking:
"Warmly Welcoming new people to church? That doesn't sound revolutionary!" You'd be right, but for parent like us who have a child with special needs, or another learning difficulty or disability, that's not something we can take for granted!
We have family and friends that support us, but that doesn't mean they don't don't struggle to understand our needs and our patterns as a family. Sometimes a big gesture can have disastrous affects or friends get upset and confused when you have to cancel events because you haven't had a sold night's sleep in 3 weeks or you know that their house isn't prepared for a curious and energetic 4 year old who likes to disassemble everything.
When struggles or difficulties are hidden, even actions offered in love may not be appropriate and when it comes to the fulfilling the great commission of going into all the world and preaching the gospel we must do so in the light of the great commandments:
Matthew 22:37-39 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
For the church to reach sinners, regardless of their socio-economic background, ethnicity or level of ability it must adapt its ministry, but it must never forget about love.
- How can we be inclusive as a church?
- How can we make the gospel accessible?
- How can we share with others without it being an afterthought?
As a father I ask myself these same questions and as a parent of a child with autism I say "how on earth can I do that?" Especially when, at times, it feels like my life is being held together by nothing but duct tape and prayer!
If I struggle with that balance, what hope is there for family and friends? What hope is there for the Church? The only way to adapt is to know needs of the people we're working with and have empathy for them.
Our son's behaviour, the way he lost the words he once knew and struggled to communicate with us, or maintain eye contact and the fact that he would rarely give hugs or kisses didn't mean that he had nothing to say. I remember very clearly how he used to climb up beside us on the sofa and while sitting there would tap gently on your arm 3 times. It took us a little while to realise what he was doing but then we realised, this was Petey saying "I love you."
Petey couldn't express how he felt in the same way as us, but he found his own way, he adapted and in turn so did we, but in order to do that we had to learn to "listen" to him.
This article was originally published as a podcast, available here