“It is time to give!”: How Disability in Mission Strives to Empower Those with Disabilities

Nathan G. John* is a missionary/university professor and I, Dave C. Deuel, am a pastor/seminary professor. Between us, we hope that we have enough in-reach to local church and missions leadership. We enjoy a close rapport with our colleagues in churches and missions organizations whom we want to challenge with the message of Disability in Mission. The book is not a scolding, but rather a reasoned challenge using anecdotal evidence to rethink outdated policies that hold back called and gifted persons with disabilities from serving in all ministries of the church, especially missions. With that in mind, please enjoy the following Q&A with Nathan and I.

1. How did you become involved in disability-inclusive missions?

Nathan: We were working in missions in rural India. But when our first child was born with a severe developmental disability our world turned upside down. The advice from those around us and churches was that we should give up the idea of doing overseas mission work. But over the course of the next year it became clear to us that God was working powerfully through the disability in His mission. Not despite the disability but through it. We stayed involved in missions and over the last 8 years it’s been our journey in disability that has defined and grown our mission work.

Dave: I am a career academic and pastor who taught in seminaries and planted churches for around 25 years. Many of the students that I taught were heading for the mission field, so I wanted to help prepare them. But I also wanted to go to the China to serve as a seminary professor in the 3-Self seminary system, until my daughter, now 31, was born with Down syndrome. The first couple of weeks were confusing, for we had discussed and started working toward serving in China. I asked the doctor if it would be a good idea if we took my daughter to China, and his response, knowing Joanna’s fragile state and the availability of health care for her, was that he wouldn’t. So, we didn’t. Instead I got involved with Chinese church planting in the USA. I also immediately shifted some of my focus toward disability ministry since the time of my daughter’s birth. But not going into missions because of disability stuck in my mind. I share why below.

2. What prompted you to create this book?

Nathan: I started to come across many similar stories of people who had encountered disability whilst in missions and the stories were quite similar: the disability was tough…but it was what God chose to use most powerfully for his Glory and kingdom building.  It was a story that needed to be told.

Dave: My wife and her two siblings all contracted malaria when the family served in Nigeria doing medical missions work. My sister-in-law developed a high fever which left her intellectually disabled. To get help for her, the family returned to the States. Of course, there was very little help to offer. When my wife’s family tried to return to Africa, they were unable to raise support and finally gave up their dream of returning to service in Nigeria for pastorates in New York and Pennsylvania. When I entered the picture, their experience was just a story, which they told to me with broken hearts. My motivation for Disability in Mission was fueled by a desire to see that my family’s experience doesn’t necessarily happen to missionaries into whom God providentially places a family member with a disability.

3. What do you hope readers will take away from Disability in Mission?

Nathan: That God can and will use your disability, your struggles, and your weaknesses to make and mold us so he can use us and show his power through our weakness.

Dave: I hope that readers will work to ensure that called and gifted people with disabilities will be given the opportunities to do local church ministries in all areas, including leadership as pastors and deacons, and especially missionaries. I also hope that called and gifted persons with disabilities will be encouraged enough by the book to aspire to and seek out these roles.

4. You provide a lot of biblical support for the concept that “our weakness is God’s theatre for displaying his strength” (12). Why do you think the church and the broader missions community has lost track of this idea?

Nathan: We have let the traditions of man, and the order of this world, inform our ‘Christian’ worldview. The kingdom portrayed in the Bible’s narrative is an upside down Kingdom. It’s counter-cultural. But the world’s values are often what the church adopts and therefore the church (and missions movement) is itself disabled. It misses out on the full body of Christ at work.

Dave: I agree with what Nathan says. I would only add, in addition to the institutional role of borrowing from society, the individual role. We all too often take the credit for God’s work, even as we attempt to serve Him. But weakness, properly understood, flushes out all human pretension. Living in a fallen world, we must fight this temptation daily. And the struggle never ends this side of heaven. It is indeed His mission to use our weakness for good, even when we would not want it. And He must receive the glory for every human effort, one way or another.

5. Disability in Mission combines personal stories with more academic discussions of the biblical basis and practical steps for disability-inclusive missions. How did you decide to include all these elements in a single volume?

Nathan: To inspire mission agencies, churches, and Christians to change their understanding and include people with disabilities in mission, there needs to be both a biblical theology and real-life testimony. Head and heart!

Dave: Again, I agree with Nathan on the need for the church and Christian organizations to turn the tide on popularity culture in which only the best and the brightest are selected to go on mission. But I would also add that this impulse must be in the hearts of people with disabilities. For so many years they have been told to sit in their place as charity recipients and receive but not give. It is time to give! It is time for every called and gifted person with a disability to assume their God-given role in the church and in Christian organizations. It is time for weakness to be celebrated and not pushed aside.

6. How can people who are not involved in cross-cultural missions benefit from reading this book?

Nathan: This book is relevant to all Christians who struggle and experience human frailty.  I guess that’s all of us.  We can learn from these stories and theological narratives that God often uses the weak and foolish to shame the wise and bring about His Kingdom  purposes.

Dave: The book is about disability, but it is also about a deeper, more systemic problem. Sadly, our view of service to Christ exalts the person claiming to serve or the organizations sending that persons, including churches and agencies. This is a fundamental theological and practical problem; it robs God of the glory that only He deserves. How many churches or Christian organizations make critical decisions based on weakness?

7. Several of the chapters in this book mention nurses, personal assistants, or special educators who were invaluable to people on mission on with disabilities. How can people in these professions with a calling to missions connect with missionaries with whom they can serve in this capacity?

Nathan: Being a father of child with disability I know that our mission is only possible through a community of people around us….our church, our family, our “care”rs. It helps missionaries work as they are meant to: interdependent with each part playing its role. I believe that there is a key role for people who support and care! Look out for people in missions that experience  disabilities and mission agencies that you can support.

Dave: As a member care specialist with a well-known and historic mission agency, Deanna Richey contributes a chapter in Disability in Mission dedicated to supporting families with disabilities on the mission field for she is a carer. Hers is a pivotal contribution and she serves in a game-changing role in a missions organization.

8. Now that the book is out, what projects are coming up next for you?

We are using a blog at Joni and Friends to share the stories of others who have experienced God at work in mission through disability. So if you have an experience of disability and you are you involved in missions, please share your story with us. As we share such stories we will help the Christian community value the role of disability in God’s kingdom purposes: disabilityinmission@gmail.com.

Dave: Because this book was written to serve as a ministry tool, we want to spread its message in all possible ways using media. We ask our disability colleagues, family, and especially people with disabilities to embrace the book’s singular message—that called and gifted people with disabilities should serve in local church and Christian organizational roles of all sorts, including leadership and particularly missions, which appears to be stubbornly resistant. I especially call upon my pastor colleagues and missionary leaders to invite, train, and place people with disabilities into local church roles proactively. Let this be the generation of the church that breaks down all barriers for persons with disabilities so that the church can be fully including.

*a pseudonym has been used for security reasons

For more information about Disability in Mission, visit our website.

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