On surveying the roomful of participants at the Jesus Club Conference this year, there was a collective feeling that this ministry for adults with intellectual abilities – started in 2006 at one church for a few friends with disabilities – is truly becoming a movement!
The Jesus Club Community recently hosted its annual conference for volunteers of local Jesus Clubs and others keen to learn more about loving and caring for adults with intellectual disabilities. Over 50 people attended the half-day seminar at the Sydney Missionary Bible College on 22 October. Some travelled from as far as the Blue Mountains and Narrabeen to attend in person, while others joined online from Singapore, Taree, Albury and Tamworth.
The popularity of this year’s conference reflects the increased awareness of disability inclusivity at church, as evidenced by the growth of the Jesus Club Community in the past couple of years. Twenty-two churches across Australia, and two in Singapore, now use the Jesus Club program to share God’s good news with adults with intellectual disabilities in their communities, and the number is growing.
Adults with intellectual disabilities remain one of the most unreached people groups in Australia.
Fuel your faith every Friday with our weekly newsletter
Still, adults with intellectual disabilities remain one of the most unreached people groups in Australia. According to the Council of Intellectual Disability 2019, about one in 60* Australians have some form of intellectual disability, yet this statistic is seldom mirrored in our church demographics.
While most people in Australia have easy access to good teaching in churches and many Bible studies to read and understand the Bible, far fewer options are accessible to a person with an intellectual disability.
Barriers to communication, understanding, mobility and others to do with a church’s program and accessibility provisions are all factors that can keep people with intellectual disabilities on the fringes of our faith communities.
In the past two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this issue of accessibility. As lockdowns and health concerns put most church activities, including Jesus Clubs, on pause, people with intellectual disabilities are further isolated from God’s words and Christian influences.
Even today, as social distancing and masking are fast becoming history in the rest of society, Jesus Club members still feel the pandemic’s impacts. Some members continue to be anxious about returning to on-site meetings, while others are unable to as parents and group homes struggle to find carers who can accompany them.
However, the troubles of the pandemic were far from the lips and minds of the attendees at this year’s conference as they eagerly gathered with one mind – to be better equipped for ministry to adults with intellectual disabilities.
The group heard from multiple speakers, including internationally renowned speech pathologist and Jesus Club coordinator Leanna Fox, on making communication – specifically for reading the Bible – more effective for adults with intellectual disabilities.
Her interactive talk had the audience putting on their thinking caps to explain the Christmas story in five simple words. While her other workshop got the group on their feet, using Key Word Signs to “sing” a Christian Christmas tune.
Another coordinator, Julie Horgan, inspired the audience with her success in deepening members’ faith through an online Bible study group. Just in the past two-and-a-half years, the group has read through the books of Mark and Luke and is now slowly making their way through John.
The impact of the group on members’ faith has taken Julie by surprise since she started the group in 2020 to stay in touch with members during the pandemic.
“I have seen some real Christian growth. I am asking deeper questions, not just comprehension questions. We now have discussions about applying the passage to our lives. A couple of members have become confident enough to interrupt me and add some practical applications and clarifications!”
During this time, she has also observed the deepening of members’ love and care for each other:
“I have a member now who rings me on Friday nights to pray for me. She prayed for my 90-year-old dad and is praying for me today.”
Moreover, the group has enabled her to reconnect with past Jesus Club members who have moved away from the area and has brought in new community members who ordinarily cannot attend the Jesus Club meetings.
So, what’s next for the Jesus Club Community? With their systems, training and resources of over 100 Bible lessons for adults with intellectual disabilities, the movement is now ready for significant growth. The organisation hopes to see hundreds of local churches start their own Jesus Club program in 2023 so that adults with intellectual disabilities everywhere can enjoy a friendship with God forever!
To support the work of Jesus Club or to learn more about starting a club, visit jesusclub.org.au
Melisa Ng is Communications Manager for the Jesus Club Community.