Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Amplifying Our Witness: Giving Voice to Adolescents with Developmental Disabilities

Book Review

The integration of disability theology and ministry is a relatively new field of study with most attention focused first on de-institutionalized adults in the late 20th century and then on the inclusion of children with special needs in the first decade of this one.  Children naturally grow towards adolescence and emerge into the natural chaos of youth groups.

Benjamin T. Conner (PhD-Princeton), Associate Professor of Christian Discipleship at Western Seminary in Holland, MI, draws upon a twenty year experience of youth ministry and his training as a missiologist to inform Amplifying Our Witness: Giving Voice to Adolescents with Developmental Disabilities.   Having both offered and received ministry from numerous youth across a wide ability spectrum, he articulates a missional paradigm of friendship-based, inclusive youth ministry in this very accessible 116 page practical guide.

Conner’s key concepts are reflected in the title: As the faith community needs to hear all prophetic voices in order to bear full witness of Christ, the role of the youth minister is to ensure that those not normally respected must be given opportunity to fully participate and be heard.  He takes a practice centered approach, advocating the creation of appropriate environments and welcoming spaces for faith to be nurtured by the Spirit.  Recognizing that many with development disabilities have difficulty keeping up with the pace of youth culture, he challenges the notion that faith development and human development are in strict tandem alliance.

Conner urges fellow ministers to seek the Visio Dei – seeing life through God’s images.  That approach peers beyond impairments and gives new imagination in doing relational ministry of friendship.  He continues by exploring the Imago Dei, asserting the face of God is more about encountering Him through friendship than conceptualizing Him through reason.  Similarly, as agents of Christ, we are called to be sacramental by developing intentional grace filled friendships as opposed to instrumentally utilizing people to fulfill ministry responsibilities.  He challenges our incomplete understanding of the Missio Dei – the role of the church in participating in God’s redemptive story .  We must allow those with profound disabilities to transform our faith and witness by offering them a place to appear.  He concludes by articulating the Opus Dei – the work of God – as it relates for mutual ministry with adolescents with disability.  Here he turns from a theoretical structure and outlines practical steps for implementing changes in youth groups and their hosting congregations.

Conner’s work engages the best in current evangelical and pentecostal scholarship. Those within the reformed tradition will feel especially at home.  Those outside that tradition will only need to extract the intentions behind his analysis of the sacraments and redesign the application to fit their communities. 
Amplifying Our Witness is an excellent readable resource for any minister or lay youth worker and should become an essential supplemental text in any introductory youth ministry course.