The faithful way to a disability-inclusive church
The fifth anniversary of Jesus Club Lower Mountains was an incredible milestone for Wendy Allison, the co-coordinator of this club at Lower Mountains Anglican Parish. The club has fulfilled its mission of welcoming adults with intellectual disabilities into their church and they have done it all by faith.
More than six years ago, Wendy first heard about Jesus Club, the Bible study program for adults with intellectual disabilities at their parish-wide meeting. But she never thought she would one day be one of the people coordinating this program at her church.
However, after hearing the statistical discrepancy between the level of disability in Australia and its low representation within most churches, as well as learning of the many barriers preventing people with disabilities from coming into the church, Wendy became convinced this was a much-needed ministry.
"There are barriers in the church we are not necessarily aware of, the way our church services are structured, for example with long periods of sitting and listening. There are physical barriers too. So, while we don't intentionally make church a difficult place it is a difficult place for so many people."
Even though at the time, Wendy didn't know anyone in her congregation with a disability, she and her team took the plunge and took on Jesus Club. Instead of waiting for someone with a disability to come into their church, they decided to first start one so those with a disability could go in and feel welcomed.
"There are barriers in the church we are not necessarily aware of, the way our church services are structured, for example with long periods of sitting and listening."
Then came the daunting aspect of planning and preparing for its launch - a part that would take them over a year to complete.
"I'm a little obsessive, and I like to worry about every little detail. But I've learned to back off a little bit," chuckled Wendy as she shared about the year-long lead-up to opening their Jesus Club.
Amongst the things Wendy and the team worried about were genuine concerns for anyone in a Christian ministry. Including how they would present the gospel so members would understand and how they would help them mature.
But their other concerns were more disability-specific, such as uncertainty over the type of disability of their would-be members and if they had physical disabilities in addition to intellectual ones. And having never interacted with the members, they were also worried whether they would say the wrong thing or come across as less than loving and unintentionally offending.
However, once Wendy began the process, she discovered there was a lot of support and resources from Jesus Club and other Christian sources around her which eased her concerns.
One was a course on 'Disability and God’s People' with Dr Louise Gosbell at Mary Andrews College. Another was the Orientation Workshop for every new Jesus Club and the subsequent mentorship from the organization, which answered many of her questions.
From the why of starting a disability ministry to what biblical resources were available to local clubs and other essential information on serving people with intellectual disabilities. The Jesus Club workshop used videos from people working with or caring for people with disabilities to give Wendy a real window into their lives.
However, the real turning point for Wendy came after the club began.
"[What helped in the end were] the members themselves, their happiness and joy. The fact that they included us and were so forgiving. [Even] if we really stuffed up, they would just have a laugh with us. They just enjoy it whatever we do!"
Members at Jesus Club Lower Mountains taking over the musical time at a club meeting.
Nowadays, preparation for their fortnightly Jesus Club is more focused on refining words and ideas to ensure the Bible is shared clearly and faithfully at every meeting.
"A core group of about five of us would meet each week or fortnight to keep a step ahead on what we're doing for the term. [We discuss] if one word is better than another or is one way of presenting better than another."
"[The members] included us and were so forgiving. They just enjoy it whatever we do!"
Five years of coordinating has taught Wendy to focus on the big picture – the one big idea for members to take home – rather than being carried away by many biblical concepts and theologies - a technique that was also encouraged at last year's Jesus Club Conference on making communication with people with intellectual disabilities more effective.
A ministry growing God's people in multiple ways
In these five years, Wendy has seen incredible spiritual growth in her group of ten members.
She was astounded when three of of her members gave a very heartfelt and genuine testimony at their baptism a few years ago ; then was again humbled and amazed when another member showed his dependence on God by responding to a distressed friend with prayer over human wisdom.
So, even though it can be difficult for Wendy to know how much of the gospel her members understand, it has not dampened her enthusiasm for this ministry.
She trusts that God loves and cares for the members and that His Holy Spirit works in their hearts, doing whatever it takes for their salvation.
Wendy has also seen Jesus Club impact other congregation members and helping her church grow in awareness of this people group and the need to make their church more accessible.
"We get a lot of enquiries and genuine interest and support from members of the parish. A lot of people will come up to us and ask about the club and how things are going.”
Last year, their church started the Accessibility and Belonging group to look at the overall level inclusion at the church - an idea that arose from a conference on disability inclusiveness which spring-boarded from Jesus Club.
Already the group has proposed plans to redesign the church website to make it more accessible. And as they receive new submissions on specific or general issues around the principle of accessibility, they will make further recommendations to their parish council.
Wendy is hopeful that together with Jesus Club, this group will help change attitudes and educate more people on the merits of a disability-inclusive church.
"[Right now, people might not understand] why we want to spend money on widening the doorway for example. They might say, 'Oh, but we don't have anyone in a wheelchair.' But [we say, unless you have a wide doorway] you never will."