Seen, Heard, and Loved: Michigan Church Designs Services for All Abilities
By Carl Stagner
“A few years ago, I was preparing a sermon about a blind man who sat begging on the side of the road. I spiritualized this story in the past, assuming the only lesson to learn was about spiritual blindness. For the first time my eyes were opened to see what Jesus did. He cared for a man with a physical disability. The crowd told Bartimaeus to be quiet. They said Jesus didn’t have time for him. But Jesus stopped. And what happens next is significant. Instead of going to Bartimaeus, Jesus tells his followers to bring the man to him.” Chris Spitters’s recollection provides insight into the origins of what has become a welcoming posture for all abilities at the Stevensville, Michigan, campus of First Church of God (St. Joseph).
“Much of the church today has relegated folks with disabilities to the side of the road,” Pastor Chris continues. “Our message to them is like the crowd with Jesus: ‘Be quiet, and stay over there. Jesus has no time for you. Your needs create too much trouble for us.’ Folks with disabilities do not feel welcome in our churches. They feel like their presence would be an unwanted distraction.”
Pastor Chris is certain that Jesus’ words then—“Bring him to me”— are equally relevant and applicable today for the church. He suggests that limiting our accommodation to those with special needs to a handicap-accessible bathroom and a few parking spots painted blue aren’t enough. What would it take for the church today to “bring Bartimaeus to Jesus”?
Seeing, hearing, and loving on the community of those society has labeled as disabled has long been a part of who First Church of God is. The “special needs prom” has been a big blessing for families of those with special needs on a couple occasions. These one-time events, though highly influential and deeply meaningful, come and go. First Church of God realized the need for an ongoing ministry to all for whom sensitivity to space, lighting, sound, crowds, and other challenges could hinder the goal to bring them to Jesus.
“So, we decided to develop a two-fold approach,” Chris explains. “First, to create a buddy system for kids with special needs, so families can come to church every Sunday morning and know their child will be cared for. And second, to offer a worship service especially designed for folks of all abilities.”
They call it “The Gathering.” Launched in June, the seating is arranged with plenty of space for wheelchairs. Worship is interactive, including the opportunity for participants to play maracas and shakers. Teaching is brief but substantive, including plenty of object lessons. Unnecessary concern over formal social norms are subservient to the needs of the community; Pastor Chris’s friends know they can interrupt him if they’ve got a thought to contribute. As such, he describes a sermon at The Gathering as more of a dialogue. And that’s perfectly okay!
“As our friends arrive,” Chris explains, “they are given a chance to share a ‘Go, God!’ moment. These are moments when they have noticed God at work in their life. Later in the service we read all the ‘Go, God!’ cards. Everyone yells, “Go, God!” after each one is read. This allows everyone to participate and share personally…. There is a lot of joy expressed!”
Some fifty to eighty people attend The Gathering each month. Participants have expressed both anticipation and enthusiasm for these recurring experiences.
“It is my hope and prayer that every person in our community with a special need will know that they are seen,” Chris concludes. “We are not blind to you. We refuse to ignore you or push you to the side of the road. We see you. You are welcome. You are wanted!”
Learn more about the Church of God movement at www.JesusIsTheSubject.org.