All church ministries should include sharing the good news of the gospel with those we love. The story of God’s perfection, our sinfulness and separation from God, and the saving work of Jesus is the greatest need of every person. As Christians, our love and value of people go hand in hand with sharing the good news. But, does the good news of the gospel apply to those with intellectual disabilities? Should we share about Jesus’ death and resurrection with them when we don’t know if they can respond?
As a mom of a child with autism and speech and language communication disorder, it is often tempting to do everything for my son and simplify his life. For instance, my husband and I can tell that he wants milk when he is looking in the refrigerator, so we get it for him. We can tell when he is frustrated at the sound of thunder, and we quickly grab his headphones for him. Though his therapists continuously remind us of the hindrance we can cause when we assume instead of having him ask us for things verbally, we still occasionally take over. Since each word and thought he has is slowly articulated, we often answer for him when we are in a rush or not thinking.
People that teach individuals with special needs can sometimes make this mistake, as well. The gospel may not be preached because of the assumption that the learner doesn’t understand right from wrong or the concept of God and his good story. While merely singing songs and loving students or our children is well-intended and may well be appropriate for some, often the most growth comes from not placing limits on them and raising expectations for them in a reasonable way.
A good starting point in a special needs ministry is to ask the parents about their expectations. Watch them and observe the students for potential opportunities to teach them about God in a deeper and meaningful way. Most importantly, don’t assume that God cannot work amazing things in and through people with cognitive differences. Colossians 1:16 says, “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.”
Just like when we share the gospel with neurotypical individuals, we want to describe God, man, sin, Jesus, and ask if they want to make a decision to place their trust in God. However, sharing the gospel with someone with a cognitive disability can be difficult. My son, for instance, thinks in a very concrete and literal way. Therefore, I try to speak in a way that he can understand. Just as we have gospel tracts for children or in other languages, I believe it is valuable to try and discover ways to share the gospel with thinkers like my son. I like to keep a few helpful things in mind when I do this, whether with my son or anyone with a cognitive disability.
First, I try not to overcomplicate things. Just like when I modify curriculum for individuals with communication disorders, I make sure I use language that is easy to understand and direct.
Next, I don’t discriminate based on cognitive ability. Many people are under the assumption that individuals that are nonverbal or that have cognitive impairments can’t understand the gospel, but that is absolutely not that case for everyone. It is incredibly dangerous to assume someone is incapable of making the decision to live for Christ, and the consequences of assuming that are far too great. I have seen many accounts where parents or caretakers are amazed to realize their children understand so much more than they ever thought possible.
Mark 16:15 says, “And he said to them, ‘Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.’” I trust the Lord’s goodness and grace with those that can’t comprehend, and I believe sharing the gospel with all of God’s people acknowledges their value and dignity.
Last, I ask if they want to make the decision to trust in Jesus as the boss of their lives. I continue to share the gospel again and again. I pray, before and after I share, that God will open their eyes to his truth.
Sharing the gospel doesn’t have to be a 30-minute conversation, and it doesn’t have to be in a perfect tract format. I like to have a conversation. Here is one example of how I would share the gospel with a child like my son:
God is our creator. Here, look at your windchime. Someone created this windchime. That means they made it. Just like you make silly videos on your iPad. Well, God made us! But God is different than the person that made this windchime. Do you know how? God has never done anything bad, ever.
Can you think of something that you have done that is bad? What about when you hit your brother or when you threw a fit? Those were bad things. The Bible says that everyone does bad things or things that God doesn’t want us to do. You do, the person that made your beautiful wind chime does, and even Mommy does bad things. Everyone does! But not God.
God has a rule about those bad things. Those bad things mean that we can’t be with God now, and we go to a very bad place forever after we die. It means we are in trouble. Mommy’s punishment for bad things is time out. God’s punishment means not being with God forever.
But guess what? God did a very good thing for you. He sent his son, Jesus, to take your punishment for the bad things you do so that you don’t have to get that punishment!
Jesus lived his life without doing anything bad at all, then died on a cross, and then rose up from the dead, and that was the full punishment. All you have to do is believe that and trust Jesus as the boss of your life, and you can be with Jesus forever. You don’t have to go to the bad place when you die; you get to be with God. Trusting Jesus as the boss of your life means listening to God. Mommy can help you to learn about God by reading the Bible to you.
I want to encourage you not to underestimate a student’s ability to learn, understand, or accept the gospel. I believe God is capable of opening anyone’s eyes. I would encourage anyone involved with the special needs community to show value, dignity, and most importantly, Christ’s love, to individuals with cognitive impairment by sharing the gospel with them. I pray many people with cognitive impairment will come to saving faith in the Lord.