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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

Connections: Charlie Chivers

Meeting Every Need

Charles T. Chivers is executive director of Special Touch, the national Assemblies of God ministry based in Waupaca, Wis. He and his wife, Debbie, founded the ministry to those with mental or physical disabilities in 1982. Chivers, 57, recently spoke with Evangel News Editor John W. Kennedy.

evangel: What is new in disability ministries?
We’ve just completed two new tools that will benefit our churches. In cooperation with Life Publishers, we retooled their curriculum for people who use English as a second language into a Christian education curriculum for people who have intellectual disabilities. Called Principles for Life, it fills a niche. We’ve also published our new book, Compel Them to Come In: Reaching People With Disabilities Through the Local Church. It’s basically a brutally honest disabilities ministries conference between two covers.

evangel: You developed that yourself?
Our ministry, Special Touch, developed the book as a unified effort, with the work of lead writer Tom Leach and five additional writers, most of whom have been involved with our ministry for years. We all took a different aspect — how a married couple must face disability head-on, how the church can integrate the gifts of people with disabilities into its structure, how to effectively teach biblical concepts to somebody with a mental disability, how to bring a successful disabilities awareness Sunday for the whole body so all are engaged and it’s not just a token day in the spotlight.

evangel: How can a church ensure that it’s more than a token day?
A church must “qualify the need” by determining the local demographics. How many people with disabilities are a part of the community, but not attending church? You have to look for them because you might not see them in your midst. The congregation must be educated with disability facts, coupled with biblical imperatives. But new knowledge has to be anchored in real-life situations — it has to be internalized — if it’s going to motivate somebody into a life-changing decision. People need an opportunity to socially interact with people who have disabilities. That can happen by having the special needs Sunday School class sing a song on the platform, or have someone with a disability share a testimony. Then afterwards, provide the opportunity for fellowship as a first step toward friendship.

evangel: How has Special Touch changed over the years?
Debbie and I started the ministry as a five-day camping experience. Today we have four missionary couples, nine full-time staff and 750 volunteers. Our camping program now is a small component of what we do. Now we coordinate what really is a ministry in the marketplace where we step in the gap to fill day-to-day needs. In any community, there are enough resources to meet the needs of every person with a disability. Churches hold some of those resources; so do civic leaders and business owners. If we can all be on the same page, we can fill the need.

evangel: Why is such a ministry often unwanted?
Because it’s misunderstood. People are scared by the medical equipment, language boards, breathing apparatus and disability hardware. We’re not sure if they can talk or shake hands, so we ignore them. But people with disabilities are a whole lot more like us than they are different.

evangel: Why are relatively few people with disabilities going to church?
In our book we talk about creating an atmosphere of love and acceptance in our churches. We first have to recognize that a gulf exists between the world of most churches and the world of people living with disabilities. The life of the church has certain inherent characteristics: celebrating Jesus, worshipping God, fellowshipping with the saints. These can be problematic for people with disabilities because they often feel betrayed by God. They often feel isolated or ignored in a group of able-bodied people. They often feel uneasy about their own appearance or behaviors. If people with a disability feel God has punished or rejected them as an accident or mistake, why should they want to go to God’s house and celebrate Him?

evangel: How can Christians make people with disabilities feel welcome?
Unless the congregation has an attitude of acceptance, it’s almost like putting a big “keep out” sign on the front door. In churches that are consumed by love, you don’t see the barriers. They look at people the way God created them to be.

evangel: Can we learn from society at large in regards to addressing the needs of the disabled?
Absolutely. The church should have been leading the way, but unfortunately the government has. God is not willing that any should perish. Do we go out and “compel” them to come in?

The church needs to go outside its comfort zone and make all people feel welcome. A church might have to deal with a seizure in the middle of a sermon, or drool on the upholstery. Someone might loudly answer the pastor’s rhetorical question. Let’s learn to be accommodating and go on as normal.

We also can learn to “condescend” as Jesus did — to humbly choose to do with grace something that could be considered beneath our dignity. Jesus was God, but He took on flesh and dwelt among us. He came to our level because we couldn’t come up to His.

evangel: So trying to integrate people with disabilities into the life of the church may not be the best solution?
It’s the only solution, but we must take a serious look at the manner in which we do it. It’s good to include them in whatever we do, but they often aren’t truly integrated.

In the disability world, the idea of integrating people with disabilities into a “regular” classroom and bringing them “up” to the mainstream level is built on a faulty premise. It supposes there must be something wrong with the level at which they live.

The better definition is when the “mainstream” chooses to meet them at their level when they’re in our presence. If we can maintain their dignity, shake their hands and say we’re glad they came to church, and determine in our hearts that we will make them our true friends, that’s all any of us would ask.


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