I’ve had conversations with local pastors and associational leaders who expressed fascination with Deaf ministry and missions. “We,” the response comes, “need to do something like that.” Everyone has a wife, or a friend, or an aunt who knows sign language and many of them “used to interpret down at the church.”
But one guy took it farther and said, “What would we need to do?” Well, that depends on what you want. What is your aim? What do you need to hold in your hands at the moment you cry, “Ha! We made it!”?
For your reading pleasure and thoughtful consideration, I’ve included several responses to that question as well as my own brilliant analysis of their answers. Just to remind you, the question is “What is it that you want from or for a Deaf ministry?”
We want a Deaf ministry. The reason you want a Deaf ministry cannot be that you want a Deaf ministry. That’s like saying the reason you want to buy a car is so you can buy a car. Try again.
We want to love the Deaf community. That’s better. Love is a good thing, but that’s pretty vague. I mean, you could run a soup kitchen for the Deaf and call it love. This goal doesn’t tell us enough. Take another swing, please.
We want to express the gospel to the Deaf community. Now we’re getting somewhere. You’ll need someone who has mastered the language. You wouldn’t establish a Spanish-speaking evangelism ministry using someone who has taken a semester and a half down at the community college, would you? Then why do that with the Deaf and American Sign Language (ASL)? Second, you’ll need believers willing to do evangelism; or were you thinking the gospel-sharing was going to happen on Sunday morning down at the church? Oh, you were? OK – then what are you going to do to spread the word far and wide about what you’re doing? Deaf people aren’t planning to beat a path to your door just because you’ve decided at a church council meeting to start sharing the gospel with the Deaf during worship.
But let’s say you get the people in the door, and you’ve got an interpreter – more on that in another post – ready to go. Is evangelism enough for you? Are you saying that giving them the gospel is the end goal of your ministry? Baptism and discipleship aren’t important?
It was better, so I’ll give you mulligan.
We want a Deaf congregation within our church. This is a goal. This means evangelism, discipleship, leadership training, Sunday School, and more. I mean, I assume that you would not start a ministry to establish and grow a Deaf segment of your church while preferring they show up for worship and nothing else. I assume a Deaf member of your church will have access to everything all the other members enjoy.
With that assumption in mind, let’s review what you’ll need.
- Language skills – someone has to be able to express everything in ASL.
- Emphasis on evangelism among a group of people who do not usually socialize with your rank and file members.
- A plan for full access to every aspect of church life. I’ll say that again because someone read that to mean “Well, a little access is better than nothing.” It’s not; offering a little bit of access to a group of people that is frustrated by their usual experience of little bits of access is a Bad Idea. Doing it while claiming you’re different from the rest of society because you love them communicates a certain hypocrisy, whether you realize it or not. If you’re telling most of your members that involvement is part of obedience while simultaneously telling the Deaf that involvement is not part of obedience, you’re making a mistake.
- A plan for equipping Deaf believers for obedience and service. This might seem simplistic, but hear me out: you must have some sort of vision for obedience for all your members. Assuming the Deaf do not need to obey Jesus while expecting hearing members to obey infantilizes the Deaf. How do churches do this? “We’re not really equipped to run our new believers class at a time when the interpreters can come. Maybe we can have the Deaf get baptized all at once, next year.” That’s postponing obedience. Let’s try another: “Our spiritual inventory indicates you are gifted as a teacher, but, um…our hearing classes wouldn’t be crazy about having a Deaf teacher, and we don’t have a separate Deaf class, so maybe you can just teach your friends at home.” Once more, with feeling: “Serving on a committee or project is an aspect of serving the Lord and the Body of Christ; but not the Deaf, because it would be too hard to include them.”
- A vision for Deaf leaders, teachers, preachers, deacons, missionaries, and ministry leaders. As Paul said, anyone who aspires to be an overseer in church desires an honorable thing. If your vision for this ministry makes no room for the church to equip and support Deaf believers as they pursue every single avenue of service you envision for your hearing members, you’re cheating them and you’re doing it in the name of ministry.
My personal suggestion for a vision is to create a plan through which Deaf people have every opportunity to be full participants in the Body of Christ and the kingdom of God. Anything less than this – full participation – reduces Deaf image-bearers of God to half-Christians, and it does so willingly; and it does so in a way that you’d never allow to happen to your hearing members.
Of course, I have more to say on the matter. In my next article, I’ll present the standard forms that Deaf ministries take, and analyze which ones are most likely to result in full participation.
Tune in next time – Same Bat-time, same Bat-channel.