A guest blog from Dr Naomi Graham, Head of Accessible Church Ministry at New Wine. Naomi includes an extract from her book Love Surpassing Knowledge, sharing her passion for building an accessible church community.
I am Head of Accessible Church Ministry for New Wine which has a rich history of supporting individuals with additional needs. It is through the United summer gatherings that I first encountered what it looked like to love, include and celebrate the gifts that God gives each and every individual, irrespective of their additional needs.
So much of the experience I have, the stories I will share, and the vision for inclusion, is down to individuals such as Heather Holgate, Kate Wharton and many others from the Our Place teams who set up and grew additional needs ministry at the summer gatherings. I am ever grateful to those individuals who took the step to pioneer and follow God’s heart.
Most importantly, it is from so many families across the years that we have learnt and developed a successful ministry. I feel privileged to have met countless incredible individuals who have taught me so much about what it is to be loved by God and to reflect that love to those around me. I have changed the names in any stories in this book in order to protect the identity of each individual.
I recognise that I do not have a disability and therefore I don’t know fully what it is like to live with something which impacts my ability to participate in everyday life. I have, however, walked alongside several individuals with a variety of needs throughout my life, both personally and professionally. When I was 16 I became a respite befriender for a boy with Down’s Syndrome. At 18 I became a respite foster carer so that I could look after him and take him out, without his parents needing to be there. Professionally, I’m an occupational therapist and I have set up a charity called Growing Hope which provides therapy clinics for children and young people with additional needs through the local church.
I come from the perspective that an additional need is anything which impacts upon someone’s ability to participate in an activity. That could be a diagnosed disability – a physical or cognitive need, a mental health need, anxiety, depression, a personality disorder, or another need which makes it difficult to engage in a community setting. It could also be something less ‘official’ – a bad day, a season of grief, a feeling of difference to those around you.
As God’s people we are all part of his family. We are all ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’ (Psalm 139:14). We are all precious to God and can receive his ‘steadfast love’ that he pours out on us (Psalm 136:1). As Paul writes in Galatians 3:28, ‘there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’.
‘For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith-that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.’
One thing I love about Jesus is that his love knows no borders. There is no difference, no similarity, no disaster, no success that can stop the reach of his love. This book is called Love Surpassing Knowledge because of the passage in Ephesians 3:14-21.
Paul prays that the Ephesians would know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge. It is both a prayer and a challenge that I hope this book brings to you and the individuals that you interact with day to day. A love that surpasses knowledge is a love in which relationship with Jesus isn’t about what we know, what we can recite or explain, but about a connection with God that is deep in the heart of our being. I’ve had the privilege of seeing that deep connection and relationship in children with disabilities who, in the world’s eyes, may not have knowledge, but in God’s eyes have an all- consuming knowing of his love and presence.
This book is about an encounter with God through Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit. It is about God’s heart for all people to be a part of his kingdom. All people – irrespective of their ability to walk, dance, write or know. It is a reflection of God’s kingdom and his heart for all people – a constant strand in the biblical narrative. It’s also a practical resource for how to make our churches and communities accessible for those with additional needs.
There are lots of individuals and churches who are pioneering accessibility in their communities. This book both celebrates what these churches are doing and gives further ideas and strategies that might be helpful as they expand this. There are also many churches who have not yet grasped what accessibility could look like. Sadly, I still hear of many stories where welcome has not been extended to individuals who may be seen as different, both within their communities and in church. I heard recently about a boy with Down’s Syndrome who is ignored by volunteers in the children’s ministry because they don’t know how to support him.
I have supported a family who was told they had to leave their rented accommodation because of their son’s additional needs. I have seen communities of adults struggle to welcome and connect with adults with learning disabilities who, when someone takes the time to realise, have so much to offer. I have seen adults afraid of how to respond and welcome individuals with mental health needs into their churches. As God’s people, I would love it if this book enables us to expand our welcome in a way which reflects his kingdom.
This book is for everyone. You don’t need to have a certain passion for ministry with individuals with additional needs – but it’s great if you do! If every church leader, volunteer or individual who is part of a church community could further grasp God’s love that surpasses knowledge, and the practical steps we can take to recognise every individual’s preferences and needs, we would see a church which more readily reflects God’s kingdom. Hence this book!
In the first two chapters I talk about the things that God puts in us that lead to action and enable us to change the way we do things. Then we explore our sensory processing. We all understand the world through our senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, balance, movement and interoception – an internal sense of feeling sick, hungry etc). Each of us, whether we have additional needs or not, have different preferences in the way we learn and respond to the world around us because of these senses. Next we discuss how God appears to speak through these senses in the Bible and how we can practically support individuals through each of them.
The rest of the book summarises ideas specific to certain age groups and gives further practical strategies which can be implemented in your setting. There are appendices full of resources which you are free to use and may give you more ideas about how to apply what this book talks about, plus a glossary of terms that may be unfamiliar to some.