Her eyes were brimming with tears—was it relief, was it gratitude, was it exhaustion? It was most certainly gratitude. For sixteen years, we sat in the back of the church. We could not attend Sunday school classes or the social activities associated with them. We have a nontypical adult son who has been diagnosed with autism, and historically there have been no programs for him at church. We would take turns leaving with him when the music was too loud or a child sat in front of us who distracted, and thereby irritated, our son. But at this moment on this Lord’s Day, our church launched a class for nontypical students. Skye was the oldest student, essentially because the divorce rate among families like ours approaches 80 percent and it is easier for a single parent to stay home with his or her child than to bring the child to church when there is no assistance. It was the first time that my wife and I had sat together in a worship service in sixteen years without juggling the responsibility of our son. My wife leaned into my arm and wept. We worshiped.
I often hear conversations about unreached people groups and exotic populations of people who need to hear the hope of the gospel message. But there may be unreached people in your neighborhood. Of children under the age of 18, 4.3 percent are considered disabled. These nontypical kids and their families often find it easier to opt out of church. It has been documented that these households feel isolated, tired, and in great need of support. In Luke 14, Jesus tells a parable concerning His desire to open the “banquet table” to the overlooked and marginalized. Peruse the invitation—the poor and crippled, the blind and lame are to be invited and brought to the church. In all honesty, I often want the rich, beautiful, and gifted guests at my table. Maybe the reason I am at the table in the first place is that in God’s economy I am the weaker and less desirable. Second, notice the sense of urgency—“Go out quickly”—these are powerful action words for our Lord. He does not say, “Let’s wait and see if we have anyone poor, crippled, or lame and then develop a ministry.” This is a command to search and find and bring them in.
Once again, notice the passion to which the church is called to this population: “Compel people to come in” (emphasis added). This admonishment for the church is not a passive invitation to this subgroup; Jesus says to do this quickly and compel them to come in. The banquet table of the Lord looks more diverse than most of our churches. This is not a call to tolerate nontypical people but one to seek them out and invite them in with passion and love. This is not an invitation to tolerate nontypical individuals and their families but a command to seek them with passion and invite them to the great banquet of our King.
An outreach ministry can be “to serve someone,” “for someone,” or “with someone.” Often church ministries begin as programs directed to a population. These often do not ask many questions or research the true needs of the group to be served. These types of ministries, though often well motivated, may not be very successful. A ministry must, at the least, be for the target group. A ministry for a target group will probably involve more volunteers, research, community input, and energy but is much better at meeting needs than at being simply a social group. The church may, however, strive to develop programs and join with nontypical participants. Even small churches can be thinking through these ways of ministering.