By Debbie Abbs

Who’s Missing from the Church

While Jesus was on earth, he went to those who lived on the margins of life. Those folks whom society, including Christian society, wrote off and didn’t care about. He made time for them and had compassion on them. This included the physically ill. The sin-sick. And those with disabilities—the neurodiverse and people with special needs.

Are we doing the same today?

What’s True About All of Us

The Bible says in Genesis 1:26 that God made us in his image. Psalm 139:14 tells us that we are fearfully and wonderfully made. These verses apply not just to me and you but also to people like my son, Luke, who has autism and is non-verbal. Yes, Luke is made in God’s image, and he is wonderfully made.

Dr. Karen Roberts, an Academic Studies and Church Relations Manager for Joni and Friends, explains, “God created each person with a divine image or likeness. All people, including those affected by disabilities, bear His image and likeness. As spiritual beings, we bear His image in our inward spirit which is not dependent on measurable physical characteristics or abilities.”

Too often we (myself included) follow our culture and not Christ. We pour our time, strategies, and finances into reaching out to the beautiful, shiny, “perfect” people. But doesn’t the Lord want more from us as individuals, on campus, and in the church?

Jesus showed us he does. Of the 33 miracles Jesus did that are recorded in the Gospels, 11 were for someone with a special need—healing those that were blind, mute, paralyzed. That’s one-third of his recorded miracles.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, 11 percent of college students have some type of disability. Do our chapters reflect that figure? Jesus went against the culture and made those with special needs a priority—and so should we.

A Strong Partnership

Thankfully, we are seeing glimpses of what this can look like on campus. Tim Nagel and Justin Sebastian, InterVarsity students at University of Illinois—Urbana-Champaign, became friends when Justin volunteered with DRES (Disability Resources and Educational Services) on campus. Justin invited Tim, who plays on the U of I wheelchair basketball team, to join the small group he led. Said Tim, “I’ve gone through times of being mad and frustrated with God, but if I was walking I don’t think I would be as close to him. My whole life has been a process of trusting God more and more.”

This school year Justin and Tim chose to be roommates and live on the first floor in Weston, where many of the players on U of I’s wheelchair basketball team are living. Together, they’re being missional and strategic. 

In Need of New Eyes

I think there are many reasons why those who have disabilities get stuck on the margins and left out. Speaking from personal experience, until Luke was diagnosed with autism and I began my journey into the special needs world, I’m ashamed to say I just didn’t notice or “see” neurodiverse people. We need God to give us eyes to see. In addition, we may have fears and stereotypes that we don’t even realize, so we need God to do his work in our hearts.

It takes time, energy, and understanding from each of us, but the body of Christ is incomplete when it doesn’t include all of its parts. First Corinthians 12:20-23 tells us, “As it is, there are many parts, but one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor.” Those in the special needs community can teach us so much. What it looks like to have joy in the midst of hardship, for one. Luke, specifically, has taught me how to find joy in the little things and how to live more in the present.

In the foreword to Michael Yaconelli’s book Messy Spirituality, his wife writes this about his time on a retreat at a L’Arche community in Canada:

During that time of living, praying, communing, dining, and worshipping with this community of severely mentally, physically, and emotionally “challenged” people, Michael came face-to-face with the fact that his own handicaps were much more acute than the “severely challenged” people of L’Arche. In this setting, Michael began to encounter his utter spiritual impoverishment apart from the mystery and grace of God. Thus began a journey of God’s grace manifesting itself to him in all its unfettered simplicity, all its majestic truth, and all its unparalleled glory. Now, we’re talking seriously life-altering.”  

It is truly us as a body of Christ and as individuals who are missing out when those with disabilities are absent from our fellowship. So what are some steps we can take to grow in this whole area? We begin by praying that God would give us eyes to see this precious people group in our daily lives—on campus and in our communities. Then, like with anyone else, we take the time to listen, build friendships, and learn how we can serve. 

Check out these resources from Debbie:

Nine Tips for a Disability-Friendly Chapter

Bible studies on belonging

Image by twentyonehundred team member Laura Li-Barbour.

Debbie Abbs has worked for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in the Great Lakes West region for 20 years and is also a writer.


So ture! We need to start "seeing" this people group, reaching out and including them. It is the example Christ set for us. I love the story of Tim and Justin. Well put, as always, Deb!

Thanks for bringing God's heart for people with disabilities to our hearts through the Scriptures. I was glad to learn about Tim and Justin and Intervarsity at U of I. God is truly at work in the Body of Christ!

I loved this. Thank you Debbie for expressing so well how central to God's heart are those with disabilities and how incomplete the Body of Christ is. In a real sense, His Body is "disabled" because we have not recognized the God-image-value and gift-contribution of our brothers and sisters with special needs. So often the Church sees this part of itself as just another optional group to be ministered to if someone feels called to it, instead of realizing that it is part of our Body we are incomplete without. They don't just need us; we need them and their gifts to complete us! Thank you so much. --Kelli

Excellent article! Yes, that's where we must begin!! As a society we need to pray and ask to have the eyes to see people in the first place. Once we are aware, then we can begin to acknowledge a need and act on it. I am in prayer for this for our communities and society. Great article!!!

Thrilled that Deb Abbs advocates and intercedes for the those made in God's image at First Baptist Church of Geneva, IL.

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