This the third in an accidental trilogy of articles.
The first addressed the difficulties Deaf churches face when considering becoming SBC members. While Deaf and hearing churches share the same kingdom goals, values and priorities do not always match, and Deaf churches are relatively powerless to affect any sort of change in the relationship. The second missive pushed readers to consider what goals they might have in starting a Deaf ministry. The post ended with the question of “What sort of ministry model has the best chance of creating opportunities for Deaf people to become full participants and completely involved in the body of Christ and the kingdom of God?”
What needs to happen if churches want to reach out to the Deaf, one of the statistically least-evangelized language groups in the US? I’ll touch on a wide range of issues here; this should really form two articles, but most readers lose interest after a third installment.
A few caveats, definitions, and disclaimers:
Culture eats strategy for breakfast. No matter our approach, the culture of a group usually overruns our best ideas. In the matter before us, we have at least two cultures: the dominant hearing culture and a minority Deaf culture. We must remember this principle applies in both directions. That is, Deaf culture will resist certain strategies, regardless of their apparent wisdom and hearing churches will dig in against creative strategies as well.
Deaf: a sign language-using person who has a significant hearing loss. This is not a reference to people who lose their hearing later in life and stick with verbal communication; the use of American Sign Language (ASL) is a requirement. The Deaf community finds a major portion of its identity in ASL.
ASL: American Sign Language. To head off your next question, no, sign languages are not universal.
Interpreter: someone who listens, realtime, and put the spoken words into ASL. Interpreters also go the other way, from ASL to spoken English, though some call this reverse interpreting. Translating is something different.
Disclaimer: I have not seen every existing Deaf church group in America and as such my statements should not be applied to every conceivable example; instead, I’m painting in broad strokes, aiming at sweeping generalities. There are exceptions to every case, every critiquing comment, every success story and failure narrative.
Disclaimer #2: I’m evaluating approaches, not the people involved; most are wonderful believers with hearts full of love and grace. Don’t feel attacked. As well, I’m evaluating what normally happens in the various models; I’m not describing your church or ministry specifically. Don’t feel attacked. Even if I am describing your model, remember that we all (myself included) must be willing to evaluate the work we do. Don’t feel attacked.
A deep chasm exists between hearing and Deaf perspectives. While both groups have the same goals (every member a full participant in the body of Christ), the barriers to that full participation are often a point of disagreement. As such, proposed solutions for those barriers rarely converge. Several examples follow:
Hearing View: The major difference between deaf and hearing groups is the inability to hear.
Deaf View: The major differences between Deaf and hearing groups are cultural and linguistic in nature.
Hearing: While subtle differences in learning preferences exist between individuals, deaf and hearing generally learn in the same ways.
Deaf: While subtle differences in learning preferences exist between individuals, Deaf and hearing people learn in radically different ways.
Hearing: Deaf/hearing mixed congregations are democratic, and everyone has a voice – and an equal voice at that.
Deaf: Deaf/hearing mixed congregations are somewhat democratic, but the Deaf often lack a voice….and it’s an easily-ignored voice at that.
Hearing: In a mixed congregation, every group or individual possesses the same power and can speak freely.
Deaf: In a mixed congregation, the hearing have power and the Deaf must tread cautiously to avoid losing their place in the church.
Hearing: There is no us/them relationship issue.
Deaf: There is a huge us/them relationship issue.
Hearing: The Deaf group seems needy and wants all sorts of accommodation.
Deaf: We don’t need much, and ask for very little.
Hearing: Forcing the Deaf to meet in their own Sunday School and their own worship further isolates them, and that’s a terrible thing to do to them. The best way for them to feel included in the body is to fold them into hearing S.S. and worship.
Deaf: Forcing us to meet in hearing S.S. and worship is terribly isolating, and it’s a terrible thing to do to us. The best way for us to feel included in the body is to allow us to meet in our own groups.
Hearing: Being present in the hearing worship activities is to be a participant, and that’s the goal.
Deaf: Being present in the hearing worship activities is to be uninvolved in worship, and that’s not the goal.
Hearing: Because all members are essentially the same, a church council comprised of average members can make decisions for all the church’s ministries, including the Deaf ministry; of course, we could consider including one Deaf member.
Deaf: Because of the major differences between Deaf and hearing members, and because of the lack of knowledge hearing people have about Deaf culture and because of the hearing tendency not to listen to us when we explain the culture, a church council comprised of average members is completely unequipped to make decisions for the Deaf ministry. In fact, an all-but-completely Deaf council is the only group equipped to make those decisions.
Hearing: These are radical ideas, and we’ve never heard them before.
Deaf: These are normal ideas we’ve been attempting to discuss with hearing churches for decades.
Like murder, the problem in having these discussion stands on three legs: accidental presumption, unteachability, and defensiveness.
I used to work for a great guy. He was godly and kind and hearing. We were working on Deaf issues in ministry, and he would toss out various suggestions. Finally he said, “You’re not really listening to me. I’m offering some good ideas here, and you’re acting as though they’re chopped liver.” I replied, “Dude, you’ve thought about this for what – 25 minutes? 30 if we count the drive over here? I’m 40. I don’t remember a time when hearing loss and communication were not issues in my life. My work and my ministry and my education and my family relationships all center on some aspect of Deaf/hearing issues. But yeah, you’ve got all the answers. Sure.”
It was not a conversation that ended well. Sadly, that conversation is the norm for Deaf leaders and advocates, not the exception.
Presumption comes through when the Deaf say, “Deaf culture is…..and the Deaf experience is…..and the relationship we see with the hearing is….” only to be told, “No, you’re wrong. We’ve not lived it, worked it, studied it, solved it – but we know.” It ends the conversation, and it shows a lack of respect for the Deaf; it’s a jarring realization in light of the fact that government and community often do better jobs than the church.
The unteachable spirit sometimes flows out of presumption, but not always. Hearing leaders ask, “What can we do among the Deaf?” but decline to ask those who could actually teach them – the Deaf community. Pastors say, “How can we improve?” but don’t act on what they hear. Sunday School teachers say, “We’ll do what we need to include you” but don’t attend to the responses they receive.
The defensiveness covers the issues behind an emotional response. “Maybe that was your experience in other churches, but you’ll find our people are of the highest moral character. We’ll respect you, listen to you, include you….” This overlooks the fact that the problem is not the character of the people involved, but the understanding of the issues at hand. Pastors and ministry leaders desire to love the Deaf but fail to listen to and address the problems that exist.
Let’s move on from an explanation of the problem, and consider some solutions.
1. Have a clear vision of your goal, and weave that visionary goal in to the DNA of the ministry and your church.
You know my opinion of what your goal should be: nothing less than the creation of full and complete participation and involvement in the body of Christ and the kingdom of God. Make your vision so integral to the church that even a change in pastors will not end the Deaf ministry. Fix the goal and vision so clearly that church members who aren’t on board won’t be able to derail the ministry in order to satisfy personal agendas.
2. Understand that Deaf ministry has more in common with international missions than with most domestic outreach programs.
Deaf people use a unique language that is not English-based. They attend different schools, and their experiences are clearly different from that of hearing children. They have their own art, values, history, language, and culture. Glossing over these differences in the name of ministry not only disrespects them, it dooms your ministry to ineffectiveness.
3. Talk to a variety of members of the Deaf community before making your ministry decisions.
Don’t talk to that one Deaf guy your mom knows. Get a variety of views. Ask around for Deaf Christians and former church members. Listen to their history because in it you’ll find keys to what ministries have failed in your area and why. Don’t settle for asking interpreters, either. Many interpreters are excellent, but not all are plugged into the hearts and minds of the Deaf community.
4. Choose a ministry model that will succeed in creating fully vested Deaf Christians and church members, no matter how hard it might be to achieve.
If it’s the right model, then it’s right.
What models exist? I’m glad you asked.
Model #1: The Interpreter Model
The hearing church gathers in the worship center. The interpreter sits at the front. The Deaf congregants gather and watch her express the sermon in ASL.
Pros: All you need for this is an interpreter and a little PR work in the Deaf community. Compared to the other models, this is the easiest to establish. Usually, interpreters work for free, and often view their labors as a personal ministry.
Cons: The interpreter model makes few provisions for anything other than worship time. There’s no teaching, small group, fellowships, prayer meetings, ladies’ night, committee meetings, deacon opportunities, teacher training, nothing. All the things you feel are vital to your church? Most of that is closed to Deaf members due to insufficient interpreters.
Interpreter training programs around the US average 2-4 years to produce an entry-level interpreter. No matter how well you train them, most entry level interpreters are not able to keep up with 3 different song styles, baptism, a 30 minute sermon, parsing of Greek nouns, and various prayers. As well, you’ll need at least 2 trained and experienced interpreters for a worship session. Most interpreter standards require switching with a replacement every 20 minutes in order to avoid fatigue and continuous motion injuries.
Interpretive ministries seem inherently self-limiting. Their very nature creates a spiritual welfare state in which the hearing spoon-feed the Deaf spiritual pablum, but never provide openings or opportunities for additional service, mentorship, or growth. The results are fourfold: (1) Deaf members seem to grow very slowly; (2) numerical growth stagnates; (3) the majority of Deaf members are those who are inclined to be content with spoon-feeding, leading to a lack of strong Deaf leadership; (4) interpreters burn out after a while.
Will Deaf members at this church become leaders? Will they have chances to use their spiritual gifts within the Body, for the Body? Will they become deacons? Or get letters of endorsement if they ever decided to attend seminary? Will they have direct access to mentors? Pastors? As a general rule, the answer to all of these questions is usually, “No.” It’s just not something encoded into the model of the ministry; please note there are always exceptions.
Many churches start with a vision for full participation, but their initial step of setting up an interpretive ministry becomes their last step. They grow content with the model, and never move on to their final goal.
Model #2: Interpreter Plus
This is similar to the last model, except it includes a small group time for the Deaf. Sometimes the interpreter leads, while at other moments Deaf members can lead; various permutations of this model exist.
Pros: Deaf members have a greater chance to run a class. They can own a portion of the ministry through involvement. Deaf teachers and potential ministry leaders have more chances to rise up and grow through service. Obedience to biblical mandates using one’s gifts is more likely.
Cons: You still face the need for multiple trained interpreters. As well, most of church life continues to be inaccessible for Deaf members. A more subtle issue, though, is the barrier between your Deaf leader and the rest of church leadership. Being able to interact with and learn from more experienced ministry leaders is valuable, and yet that’s something the Deaf leader will not likely have. Instead, the interpreter will continue to serve as the point of contact with hearing leadership. Along the way, most of the church will come to believe the Deaf person is the leader. The reality is often that the interpreter continues to truly lead, though not for bad reasons or evil motives.
Model #3: Deaf Mission
The Deaf congregation has its own leaders. They usually run their own preaching, worship, music, and small groups. Often, they enjoy this independence and do not clamor for inclusion in various committees or programs in the hearing church. The language barrier looms too large, and the pleasure they receive from being in their own community draws them away from deeper involvement in the other congregation.
The hearing church usually retains control over major decisions. Budgeting, Lord’s Supper, baptism, deacon selection, approval of Deaf leaders, building decisions, and material selection often remain in the hands of hearing leadership.
Pros: Deaf can own their church and reach out to the community in culturally sensitive ways.
Cons: The tendency of hearing churches to retain certain aspects of control and oversight keeps the Deaf from learning how to manage those items. In the long-term, the Deaf mission may consider itself to be a church despite the fact that they do not know how to practically perform the duties that the hearing church retains. An additional problem is the lack of many trained Deaf leaders. Most pastor training programs are closed to Deaf men and women for various reasons.
Model #4: Deaf Church
The Deaf church model is rare. This is an entirely independent Deaf church, though it may share a building with a hearing church. They self-determine every issue. They may have a mother-daughter or sister church relationship with a local hearing church.
Pros: This is the model that will most likely achieve the goal of involvement and participation. The membership has the greatest chance of using their gifts as the Spirit intends.
Cons: Deaf people are usually underemployed. This model requires the Deaf to financially support a church and a bivocational pastor when most of their members lack much surplus cash. As well, Deaf pastors are few and far between due to lack of access to pastoral training programs.
We could go all day and not cover all the issues, so I’ll stop here. I think you see the issues, and the solutions; agreement is, of course, a horse of a different color.
In a sense, the Deaf are unique; but in another sense, we’re no different than any other language and culture group. Talk to us. Listen. Be aware that your view of ministry to us might not be as important as our view of ministry. International and cross cultural workers jump through these hoops with great regularity, and local churches can learn to do the same.