The Church’s Misfit Members: The Uniquely Challenged

My heart went out to “Billy.” In between bites of hamburger he shared just how alone he felt. In his fifties now, he had previously been actively involved in the LGBT community but was now seeking to follow Jesus in a life committed to celibacy and singleness. “Nobody understands my struggles,” he lamented. He often wondered if there was a place for him in our church, and I desperately wanted to reassure him that there was. In fact, those who are uniquely challenged belong among us because they are reminders of the broad implications of the gospel.

We tend to think of the gospel in its most simple form. There is no denying that a major crux of the gospel is personal salvation, and any minimization of that truth is really critically damaging to the gospel itself. Yet, the gospel is about so much more than just personal salvation. The gospel changes everything. It has massive implications for marriage, finances, sexuality, work, parenting, recreation, emotions, body, and thousands of other things. The gospel impacts all of life, in all of its facets and details. Far too often we miss this reality, however, for the simplistic explanation that the gospel gets us to heaven. Paul can speak in Romans 8 of both the narrow lens of the gospel (“no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, ” verse 1) and of the broad lens of the gospel (“the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption,” verses 18 – 25). If we tend to reduce the gospel to only one aspect of this picture, those who are uniquely challenged among us remind us all of just how broad the implications of the gospel are.

The gospel speaks to individuals like Billy, but perhaps not in the ways that we tend to think. Billy is a faithful follower of Christ, but his sexual attraction has not changed at this time. He is committed to following Christ, to remaining celibate, and single, but he is still not attracted to women. God has not seen fit to change that desire, nor has He promised to take away that temptation from Billy’s life. Instead, God has promised to give Billy the grace he needs to remain faithful (1 Corinthians 10:13). The church that sees the power of the gospel in this specific dynamic can be a huge asset to Billy. They can help him to endure well, to stands strong, and they can walk alongside Him in hope and humility. A church that doesn’t understand the ways the gospel speaks into Billy’s situation will suggest that because his attraction have not changed that he is either not really trying or that he is not really a follower of Christ. But the gospel redeems us not by removing all temptation, but by empowering us to fight it differently. The gospel’s hope for sexual redemption is not heterosexuality but grace to take up your cross (in whatever form it takes) and follow Jesus.

If we tend to reduce the gospel simply to personal salvation, we also tend to reduce the faith to certain kinds of demonstrations and expressions. So, we then can undermine the faith of those who, because of unique challenges, don’t express their faith in the same ways that we and the dominant church culture do. We can speak of those among our fellowship who are born with mental handicaps or impairment. There are followers of Christ who because of brain damage cannot function in all the expected ways that other church followers do. The gospel applies to them too even if they can’t conform to the standard church practice. Does the gospel apply to those who don’t read social cues well? Yes. Does the gospel apply to those who can’t sit through a whole church service? Yes. Does the gospel apply to those who can’t understand the Bible? Yes. Does the gospel apply to those who can’t process abstract doctrine? Yes. Does the gospel apply to those who can’t sing in worship service? Yes. The gospel is for all people. It speaks to those with Autism, Dementia, Expressive Aphasia, and Schizophrenia. The unique challenges that various disorders and illnesses present does not have bearing on the gospel’s relevance nor does its presence undermine the legitimacy of a person’s faith in Christ. The church needs to be reminded the gospel impacts all of life and that it has something to say to, and hope to offer to, those who have unique challenges.

The uniquely challenged belong in the church! They belong among us because the church is uniquely equipped to be a community of compassion and grace. They belong among us because the church should be a safe community for care and mutual support. But the uniquely challenged also belong among us because we need the reminder that the gospel is for all people, even those who don’t look like us and express their faith exactly like us. We need to be amazed at just how broadly the gospel can be applied. We need the reminder of what it looks like for the gospel to be applied to a variety of situations and troubles. We need the reminder of the simplicity of faith in Christ (Mark 10:15; Matt. 17:20). We need the reminder of just how amazing God’s grace to us all is.

The uniquely challenged are, of course, not really any different from the rest of us. Paul tells us that “not temptation has seized you except what is common to man” (1 Cor. 10:13). We are all alike in more ways that we realize. If, however, some feel like misfits in the church it is simply because the church has failed to remember how diverse and welcoming the gospel is. We want the “uniquely” challenged among us because we need that reminder.

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