Welcoming marginalized people is often seen as a challenging task beyond the resources of the ordinary congregation. But the smallest congregations often do an outstanding job of including the marginalized as part of the family of God.

It’s six months since John died, and his colorfully decorated tambourine still hangs on the pew where he always sat at the Bowdoinham (Maine) First Church of the Nazarene. I’m visiting today with his sister, a member of the church and a friend of Independence Association, the nonprofit where I work. Independence Association is all about helping people with disabilities find full and inclusive lives in their communities of choice. Two of our clients besides John have made their spiritual homes at this tiny rural church. 

When we think about “ministries with the disabled,” we tend to think about big parachurch ministries like Joni and Friends or the specialized ministries that may grow within very large congregations. We imagine that it requires specially trained leaders and a “critical mass” of people with similar kinds of disabilities within a comfortable “peer group” age cohort. Many of us have not experienced the “ministries with the disabled” that happen in tiny congregations everywhere. 

The first church I saw that fully included adults with intellectual disabilities was an African-American “family” church in Durham, NC. Ecclesia House of Prayer Holy Church, located in a beleaguered and impoverished neighborhood, at that time welcomed perhaps 75 people on a Sunday. Many of them were members of the founding Gilchrist family or very long-time friends. Among the regular attenders were two young adults with intellectual disabilities. One, a young woman, participated in the Sunday dance ministry. The other, a young man, played the drums in the worship band. And that was that. No one questioned whether they should be part of the Sunday morning team. They were part of the church family, and their gifts were used for the benefit of the Body.

Who gets pushed to the margins?

It can be hard to recognize that people on the margins are people who themselves have divine callings that might bless us. “Marginalized” people are, by definition, individuals who are left out of whatever is our own mainstream. They are stigmatized, as sociologists say. 

Erving Goffman, in his 1963 book Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, describes “stigma” as a social function that defines some individuals or groups as unacceptable to the community. Stigma is assigned on the basis of character (including unemployment and mental illness in his classification), physical deformities, or membership in a suspect group (such as race, ethnicity or religion).

Church communities practice our own specialized forms of “stigmatization” and marginalization. Many women in the evangelical church feel marginalized, excluded from many normal forms of discipleship and service. Some women thus marginalized align themselves with CBE International, the former Christians for Biblical Equality, or the more recent Pelican Project. Doubters and thinkers and LGBTQ people often describe themselves as marginalized in the conservative church, some seeking refuge lately in the Evolving Faith movement. Others from the evangelical margins, including me, claim the #exvangelical label, even if we choose instead an extremely traditional church with liturgical worship forms.

The popular “market-driven ministry” culture of many large churches can tend, perhaps without intent, to marginalize people. These churches identify their “target demographic” and are comfortable being a congregation where anyone outside the target group might not feel at ease. Should the outlier remain, she or he can be funneled into a specialty ministry, thereby maintaining both their involvement in the church and their marginalized status. Many churches seem ready to marginalize one or more of these groups:

  • Senior adults
  • Adults without children
  • Unmarried adults, whether divorced, widowed, or never married
  • People with disabilities
  • People with “too many” needs—whether emotional or financial, a newcomer’s need for cultural orientation, or something else
  • People who live in disrupted or transient circumstances—public housing communities or college campuses, for instance
  • Prisoners and ex-offenders
  • People with chronic illnesses

It is an unfortunate irony that so many of these groups isolated from the large church’s full congregational life are the very people Jesus identifies with and says to welcome (Matt. 25: 34-46). 

Of course, small churches are not universally good at embracing the marginalized. Some fear being overwhelmed by needs. Some are anxious about the newcomers’ potential to wield excessive influence. So while one tiny Boston congregation of middle-class whites had a remarkable outreach to the city’s largest and most fraught public-housing community, parents expressed concern that kids “from the projects” might inappropriately influence their children. And so the baby Christians reached by a passionate single woman continued to meet in her living room instead of in Sunday school classes. Likewise for the homeless Christians served by another single woman in what was known as the city’s “Starlight Cathedral.” Other church members happily made entire loaves of sandwiches for the weeknight services on Boston Common. But on the increasingly rare occasions when the woman brought Cathedral-goers to her Sunday church, they were left alone. These single women were doing remarkable ministry, but their service and their disciples remained marginalized from even their small churches.

How do small churches engage the marginalized?

Despite the weaknesses that sometimes appear, small churches are uniquely well-fitted to engage the marginalized. A church that invites marginalized people into the life of Christ is a church where:

  • Everyone’s in and everyone’s essential. There’s a job for everyone and everyone has a job. This comes relatively easily to a small congregation with limited resources, where to overlook anyone is to leave something undone.
  • Everyone’s noticed. In the small church I now attend, when I sit down in my seat, the woman next to me says, “I was hoping to see you today!” When I’m downtown, another regular calls out, “I saw you in church on Sunday!” Each person’s presence is noticed. Each person knows she matters.
  • Everyone’s invited. No one is left to navigate their own way to activities and relationships within the congregation. The Sunday bulletin lists every event that’s open to church members, complete with contact info. If you want to attend a Bible study, this is when and who to call. If you want to try the women’s breakfast, this is how to connect and what to bring. If you want to support the local teen center, here’s the list of needed items and where to leave them. 

People on the margins are called to ministry

Ecclesia House of Prayer demonstrates one of the first principles for ministry on the margins: People who live on the margins are still called to ministry. When people have significant needs, we are inclined to rush in and fill them. In so doing, we can often ignore their equally significant—and God-created—needs to use their gifts for the edification of the Body. 

John had an intellectual disability and was an usher in his church. At Ecclesia, two with disabilities were worship leaders. One young adult I know who has an intellectual disability writes poems of spiritual encouragement for new believers in her Assemblies of God congregation. Another is being trained to share Tres Dias retreat leadership with her Methodist mother, while a third bakes the best coffee fellowship cookies I have ever eaten.

People on the margins get support in small churches

We know that God urges us to “Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, ‘Be strong, do not fear…’” (Isaiah 35:3-4). When we invite those on the margins into our congregations, we need to listen well enough to understand and serve their specific needs. How do we do that?

  • Isolated seniors need companionship—not just at church events, but throughout the week. Does the church have a ministry of visitation or a diaconate? Do people readily befriend and connect? In small churches, you either see it happening or see someone working to fix it.
  • Those who don’t drive and can’t access public transit need transportation assistance to church events, medical appointments and more. Does the church organize rides? Do people commonly offer? On my second visit to a small church in Durham, Maine, I was asked if I could provide a ride to a member of the church who lived nearer to me than to any member. Large churches are often enmeshed in concerns about insurance liabilities. Small churches just help. 
  • Those raising children alone need respite at least as much as married couples need a church-supported “date night.” Is parental respite offered at times that a working single parent could benefit? In a small church, this is probably a one-on-one benefit, but it happens.
  • Are worship and discipleship events accessible to people with disabilities? This might require providing desirable space in the sanctuary for wheelchairs and walkers, providing hearing assistance, or something as simple as providing printed materials in large, readable serif fonts. Tiny white type on glossy dark stock is trendy, but it’s difficult for many to read. 

The church I currently attend is an Evangelical Lutheran church of 104 members, almost all retirement-age adults. Only one regularly attending family has children living at home. For our congregation, families with young children are on the margins. And I watch each week as our youngest grandmother engages the one family’s three preschoolers in lowering and blowing out the sanctuary candle that hangs from the ceiling in its elegant glass and brass fixture. 

I am reminded, as I watch this grandmother nurturing a younger mother’s children, of the model of care set at the inception of the secular nonprofit where I work. Independence Association supports kids and adults with intellectual disabilities and autism. Recently, I met the daughter of our first teacher. Carolyn Hall says that her mother, Priscilla Mann, took the same approach with her students as she did when her fourth child was diagnosed with an intellectual disability. She prayed, and asked:

“God, you sent this person to us … What do we do with this person?”

From her prayers and several families’ passion, my hometown—and several local congregations—have become models for the inclusion of marginalized persons with disabilities.

Today, at Bowdoinham Church of the Nazarene, the coffee hour features the best homemade chocolate cookies I’ve ever eaten. Every bite crumbles into a crisp explosion of rich flavor in my mouth. It’s all I can do not to snatch several more. I ask who the baker is.

It turns out that the baker is a young friend. I saw her just a few weeks earlier when she testified to a funder about how much benefit she gains from their support of our nonprofit. 

People on the margins are, first of all, people. They are known and loved by God, gifted by God, and called into service for the benefit of all God’s people. Whether they stay on the margins or are welcomed into God’s family is mostly up to us. And the welcoming family of a small church is often the place best able to embrace marginalized people.

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