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It’s 10:30 a.m. on Sunday morning and a monumental battle is being waged. Margi wants to go to church, but is it really worth the trouble? Her disabled son is more difficult to deal with in the mornings. She doesn’t go to the earlier adult Sunday school class, for there is nowhere for her child to go. It could be that she reads too much into the glance from the lady with the perfect hair and family. Some people seem to communicate pity, some seem to be annoyed, and some are kind. She feels shame and wonders if anyone would notice if she never attended. Her husband left years ago. (The divorce rate for special-needs families is over eighty percent.) She usually sits in the back row so that she can leave quickly if the need arises.
Margi’s family represents countless families in our communities. There are thousands of stories filled with tired faces. They are children of God who are in difficult transitions, traumas, and tragedies. They do not feel wanted or that they belong in the church. Their kids are too troubled, their families too messed up. They think they have too many failures and too many scars to be welcomed in the church. Everyone seems to be so well put together—how can a displaced, dysfunctional, and different type of family find a place where they can worship and belong?
It is difficult for a body of believers with limited resources to begin to tackle all of the unique situations that could come through the doors of the local church. Some describe American culture as postmodern, post-Christian, and post-family. Therefore, the people showing up at our churches have limited resources and significant needs. Where do we start?
The first step for the church is a change of mindset. How often has a church tried a well-intended program with little or no fruit because the church did not understand its importance or the vision for the program? What is this new vision or mindset? “And hearing this, Jesus said to them, ‘It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners’” (Mark 2:17; NASB). The church is not for the well put together or the “righteous” but for the dysfunctional families that we interact with each day. We may be asking the wrong question. It’s not, “How can we incorporate ‘struggling’ families?” The question is, “How can we call ourselves faithful to the purposes of Christ and not include them?” The church is for the broken.
In a recent study, eighty-eight percent of people indicated that their sense of identity and belonging are rooted in the experience of being part of a family. In Scripture, God is referred to as our Father, Christ as our brother, and we as the children of God. These familial titles place the church in a primary position to minister and provide healing to those in developmental, troubling, or difficult transitions. There are three major types of transitions: predictable, unfortunate, and catastrophic. Any church can assess its population and realistically assume what the predictable transitions might be—childhood, adolescence, college, marriage preparation, parenting, and so on. Unfortunate transitions will be more clearly defined within specific churches depending on the age, socioeconomic status, cultural norms, and biases of its constituents. These may include such topics as blended families, single parenting, addiction, disabled children, disabled adults, job loss/economic downturns, mental illness, and more. Catastrophic transitions might be even more specific to each church. These types of transitions would include hurricanes, economic depression, natural disasters, serious crimes, or terrorism.
The local church must prayerfully take an informal and honest survey of its congregation and the larger communities that it serves, and begin to think about how the teachings of Christ and the power of the gospel can inform, instruct, and redeem individuals during the time of personal transitions. To do this, the church must provide invitation, information, and inclusion.
People know when they are welcome. The ability to create a safe community for the broken and the disenfranchised begins with the pastor. The church will rarely follow a program, but it will follow a leader with a vision. From the pulpit, sermon examples need to be relevant to the real struggles of the lives of those who fill the pews. Their needs are anticipated. Their questions, whether about their child’s class or safety, are answered quickly and pleasantly. An old line states, “Seventy percent of life is just showing up,” but in this venture seventy percent is just allowing people to feel as if they are welcome and belong, even if the only thing that they have in common with those in the church is that they were created in God’s image and are brothers and sisters in Christ.
I recently participated in a marriage conference for the parents of special-needs children. The church provided a bounce house, face painting, activities, and refreshments for these children and one-on-one supervision. Many of the parents were in tears during the seminar not because the teaching was great and not necessarily because they were thrilled with one another, but because they were surprised that a church, or anyone for that matter, would go out of the way to welcome them and try to minister to them. The enticing invitation of the gospel is the scandalous belief that no problem, situation, or circumstance is beyond the redemptive work of God. Many who carry the weight of unexpressed and under-acknowledged sorrow have simply forgotten that the truth of this gospel applies to them as well.
In many church communities, it is considered a sign of spiritual weakness to struggle. So we go to church and pretend. “I go to church to hear teaching, I go to AA to get real help and community,” a man struggling with the strong hold of addiction to alcohol once told me. Jesus did not die on the cross so that we could pretend—the church is a place for the broken to go and be welcomed.
One of the challenges we face living in the age of information is that there is a great deal of data available, but it is presented without discernment. With literally millions of data concerning every possible topic available at our fingertips, the church must be able to act as a filter and assist with discernment. Relevant information that is biblical, helpful, and sound should be made available for all areas of support. Small groups, Sunday school classes, support groups, and counseling ministries all provide information for those who are in the difficult process of transformation. The church cannot become an expert on every possible topic, but there must be a community of believers committed to biblically seeking healing resources for specific struggles. The people who lead these individual ministries must possess a passion for the specific area of transition that they address. That passion may have been provoked by personal experience or a God-given exhortation, but there truly is no substitute for that individual or group of individuals who sincerely seeks the Lord’s guidance and uses prayerfully selected material to minister to His children. There is predictable demographic data that will tell us what some issues will be for specific groups. For example, the leading predictor of poverty in America is a single-mother household. Therefore, to effectively minister to single mothers, there must be an understanding that financial stress and concerns are paramount to the family structure. Information without commitment to engage has limited value.
Community and commitment are mandatory components of inclusion. Primary community may be created by members becoming part of a specific small group that deals with the issue at hand, but it is mandatory that the member become a part of the larger community of the church. In Galatians 6, we are admonished to “humbly bear one another’s burdens,” and several verses later we are reminded that we must take care of ourselves. For disenfranchised groups of people to be effectively ministered to, the church must provide helpful information and involvement, and they must then be grafted into the church in such a way that they do not feel as if they are a project.
This has been occurring on the mission field. The church has learned that good leadership does not just reach out to a group; it also invites that group to be a part of the mission. Effective missionaries are working themselves out of their jobs by training the indigenous groups to reach their own peoples.
The commitment part of inclusion cannot be understated. The church seems to do best with short-term crises: deaths, weddings, and short hospital stays. It does not always do as well with protracted battles such as lingering illnesses, long-term special-needs children, families that are torn by chronic strife, and poverty.
It is ultimately the commitment of a church to be a messy place. I am reminded of Proverbs 14:4: “Where no oxen are, the manger is clean, but much revenue [harvest] comes by the strength of the ox.” If we desire, we can keep our churches clean and tidy, but there will not be much harvest. Or, we can do the real work of the gospel, and our churches will be messy and stained with tears, sweat, and sorrow.
Margi and her son need the body of Christ, and in order to become more reflective of the truth of the gospel, the church needs Margi even more.