Jesus Club has provided a welcoming community for people with intellectual disabilities for over 11 years in churches throughout Sydney. Now this programme is ready to spread across Australia.
It’s a Wednesday night in suburban Turramurra on Sydney’s North Shore. Most residents are tucked away, quietly relaxing after work. But at St James Anglican Church, the air is electric. A crowd has gathered expectantly in the hall, yelling greetings to those just arriving. For the 17 members of Jesus Club Turramurra, every second Wednesday is a cause for celebration.
“Our members love Jesus Club. They make friends there, and they feel loved and cared for. It’s a place where they belong and a place where they can shine,” says Coordinator of Jesus Club Turramurra, Liz Mann.
“Our deep desire is to see our friends with disabilities enjoying all the blessings that other Christians can often take for granted, including relating to God every day.” – Mel Fung, founder of Jesus Club
St James decided to try the Jesus Club program four years ago. “We felt that churches do ministry reasonably well for kids, youth, women, men, and even for older Christians, but there is very little available for people with intellectual disabilities,” Liz explains. “Jesus Club gives our members, and their families and carers, the opportunity to be part of a church family where they feel comfortable, happy, welcome, connected and loved.”
The Jesus Club vision
The Jesus Club ministry began 11 years ago, when disability support worker Mel Fung began a low-key Bible study program at Christ Church Gladesville, in inner western Sydney, for some of her clients. Today Jesus Club has 80 members in seven locations across Sydney, with another three clubs set to start this year.
“Our vision is to see churches all over Australia reaching out to people with disabilities and genuinely welcoming them into their community,” says Fung.
Fung says the second part of the vision is to create a library of Bible-teaching materials for people with intellectual disabilities. “Surprisingly, there are very few Bible resources for this population. Jesus Club has employed several writers, including Christians with special education training, to write material that can be used at the Jesus Club program or by anyone,” she says.
Jesus Club is ready to grow because Fung has been part a mentoring program called The Hub, run by Anglican Deaconess Ministries (ADM) and Seed. Seed describes itself as an “incubator of cultural and social change” that “aligns with God’s purposes”.
According to Fung, The Hub has been key in changing Jesus Club from a one-person-led ministry to one led by a team, each contributing their various gifts. “Through The Hub Jesus Club now has the structures, resources and support to endure for many years and reach many people.”
A seriously fun ministry
Jesus Club is “seriously the most fun I have ever had in a ministry”, says Julie Horgan, coordinator of Jesus Club Castle Hill, in Sydney’s Bible belt. Since its beginnings in 2014, this Jesus Club has grown to around 18 members, from a mix of different churches in the area.
Julie explains how the fortnightly program runs: “We aim to share the gospel in an easy-to-understand way, with lots of revision, acting out a Bible story, craft and worksheets to back up the lesson, and lots of visual aids.”
“It doesn’t feel like there is a distinction between leaders and members. It’s like a small church congregation of its own.” – Alex Tindale
In addition to Bible teaching, Julie stresses there are other vital elements of the program. “Participants receive an evening of fun, laughter, friendship and some one-on-one attention, which they often would not receive in a social setting. They also learn that they are loved by God and are important to him.”
Julie says their leaders aim to form “genuine friendships” with members. They hold a social event every term, such as BBQs and games nights, and often spend time with members outside Jesus Club. “We might take a member out for coffee or call them for a chat during the week,” says Julie. “We also aim to connect with the parents. We hold a special dinner for the parents and really seek to support and just spoil them on the night.”
An inclusive church
Similarly, at Jannali Anglican in Southern Sydney, Jesus Club is about real relationships. “Our leaders treasure the relationships we have formed with our members, and we all really enjoy spending time with them and with each other,” says coordinator Alex Tindale. “On the night, it doesn’t feel like there is a distinction between leaders and members. It’s like a small church congregation of its own.”
Alex notes that they involve the entire church membership in Jesus Club by praying for the program during services, and Bible study groups serve supper at Jesus Club a few times a year.
The impact of Jesus Club has moved beyond one church and into the local community. “Jesus Club Jannali is the only ministry of its kind in the St George and Sutherland Shire area, so we have leaders from four different churches, and members who come from several other churches in the region,” says Alex. “Jesus Club is also a great place for our members to invite their friends along, and this is another important way for us to share the good news of Jesus with more people in the local community.”
The growth of Jesus Club since its beginnings as a small Bible study has taken Founder Mel Fung by surprise.
“Our deep desire is to see our friends with disabilities enjoying all the blessings that other Christians can often take for granted, including relating to God every day, gathering with other Christians and reading the Bible. For a person with a disability, these privileges are much harder to access. In all our Jesus Club work, our aim is to bring these blessings into the lives of our Jesus Club members.”
Applications for The Hub winter class 2017 are now open: www.deaconessministries.org.au/the-hub
Rebecca Abbott is director of communications at Anglican Deaconess Ministries