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Beyond Boundaries – intellectual disability as a cross-cultural challenge

Guest blogger Mat Ray, Livability’s Head of Church Partnerships, shares what he thinks missionaries, theologians, and Christians working with disabled people learn from each other….

The above was the subject of a recent conference – ‘Beyond the Boundaries’, which I attended on behalf of Livability. The conference was organised by three very different Christian organisations – the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, Asian mission agency OMF and Tio – a new Irish organisation working with people with learning disabilities. And the 55 delegates came from a whole range of backgrounds too: leaders of missionary organisations and training colleges, professors of theology, and activists from the Christian disability sector. To add the international voices came half a dozen Indian pastors as well as missionaries from Africa, Asia and Europe. Cutting across all of these groups was the personal experience of disability – from both disabled people and parents of disabled children.

Seeing a fresh perspective

What can we learn from each other? A lot! Mission agencies are experts in culture: they know that a strong national church might look and feel quite different from church ‘back home’. And the same is true for disability – a Sunday service in a church that is really committed to welcoming disabled people might look and feel different to what non-disabled people are used to. Similarly, missionaries know that a key to a strong national church is local leadership. One hundred years ago, wherever you went in the world, churches were mostly lead by westerners, but over the century, that has totally changed. When it comes to disability, we are still struggling to support disabled Christians to discover, develop and use their gifts in church leadership.

When we look through the lens of disability, there’s a lot that missionaries and theologians can learn from a new perspective too. For example, working with people with learning disabilities, we quickly realise that people don’t start to follow Jesus because of clever arguments, but because of simple promises – He loves us, he wants to be our friend, he will never leave us. Similarly, when we work with people who are very limited in the choices they have over their day-to-day lives, we are reminded that as Christians it’s not our deeds that are important – Jesus has done all that’s needed. We simply need to trust in him.

What now?

I came away feeling challenged – what more can I be doing to support disabled people in my church to use their gifts? For me, that might mean spending time one-to-one encouraging people, or advocating for them – persuading church leadership to take risks and entrust disabled people with more roles and responsibilities in church. What would that look like in your context?

This conference was a good reminder that it’s a real privilege to work alongside disabled people. It’s not a niche interest; it is right at the heart of what God is doing with his people.

Mat Ray is Head of Church Partnerships for Livability.

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