Friendship Bible Club is part of the inclusive ministry Rev. Dr. Karen Roberts leads at First Presbyterian Church in Aurora, IL. In this blog post, she shares how one opportunity led to another and belonging and friendship are blossoming at FPC Aurora.This blog post originally appeared on All Belong’s blog.
Recently, my church, First Presbyterian Church (FPC) in Aurora, IL, preached for 7 weeks on the dimensions of belonging for people with varied abilities. What began as a Circle of Congregations online conversation during the pandemic became a sermon series and will be a resource for others. Dr. Erik Carter, board member of All Belong and former board member of Friendship Ministries, graciously presented for one of our online sessions in April of 2020, to encourage and equip while we all stayed home waiting to hear what the world would do next. He shared how his research revealed that people with disabilities and their families identified 10 dimensions of belonging in community.
Erik’s presentation struck a chord with me. As Pastor of Disability Ministries at FPC I saw a correlation between specific scripture passages and the dimensions of belonging. As I dug deeper into scripture a biblical theology of belonging began to emerge.
Excitedly I called (All Belong’s) Barb Newman and Victoria White the next day to say, “I would like to create a sermon series on belonging that brings together scripture and the 10 dimensions”. They were both interested and supportive. The next step was a call with Erik Carter to explore this new collaboration initiative between First Presbyterian Church and All Belong that would incorporate Erik’s research on dimensions of belonging.
I then shared the vision for the sermon series with Rev. Jeffrey Moore, FPC lead pastor, who enthusiastically embraced the idea. He saw the potential impact of the series and said:
“God’s intention is for the church is to be a place of radical love and invitation; a place where people are included and made whole by the grace of God. You can have great ministries, great small groups, great preaching, great music. . . all those things without radical love. Radical love means taking risks, putting ourselves out there in the messiness of the world and the messiness of families impacted by disability. That is where we learn how to love radically and that’s what it means to be the church.”
The truth is, it’s hard and yet there are so many rewards. If you are loving people that don’t get a lot of love, who don’t experience love, oh my goodness—when they do, the kingdom comes! The Spirit is present in amazing ways, God is glorified.
God created each one to be in relationship with Him and one another. The desire to belong is universal and flows from God’s welcome to each person. The universal application of belonging helped our congregation view people with disabilities as an integral part of our life together, not as a separate ministry that involves only a few. We all desire to belong.
Pastor Jeff summarizes:
“God’s heart is a heart of grace; He has welcomed us first. We are all disabled by sin and the gospel’s inclusion in God’s family makes us right. That is why we hang in there, welcoming the “un-welcomeables”. That is radical. Look at who Jesus welcomes around the table, ticking off every person in power. I think He is making a point: ‘My welcome goes further than you are willing to go.’ That is true and I need to hear that, our church needs to hear that.”
This truth was foundational in the development of the sermon series and expressed in the title: “The Family Table: The Place We All Belong”.
“The desire to belong is universal and flows from God’s welcome to each person. The universal application of belonging helped our congregation view people with disabilities as an integral part of our life together, not as a separate ministry that involves only a few. We all desire to belong.”
The image of gathering around the table is used throughout scriptures representing God’s presence with His people. We gather at The Family Table of the Lord as we participate in the Sacrament of Communion as His family. In the Body of Christ, we find the place we all belong.
Believing we all belong, we welcome others into relationship with Christ. And we welcome others to gather around our table in our homes, in our small groups, in all aspects of our lives together. Belonging goes beyond welcoming and inviting. Each week’s sermon connected one or two dimensions of belonging with scripture to deepen our congregation’s understanding of belonging: “present”, “invited”, “welcomed”, “known”, “accepted”, “supported”, “cared for”, “befriended”, “needed”, and “loved”.
One goal of the series was for our congregation to see who was missing from the Body of Christ, those who have not found a place at the table. We know from Dr. Carter and others that people impacted by disability are among those missing.
One challenge of the series was to not lose focus on people impacted by disability while presenting a universal, biblical theology of belonging. Dr. Carter addressed this concern. With his caution in mind, we applied the principles of Universal Design.
One way to keep this focus was for people of varied abilities to lead components of our worship services. Prior to the COVID pandemic, FPC held an “All Belong” worship service that beautifully impacted our church. We were led by an inclusive worship team. Participants of varied disabilities read scripture and led the congregation in prayer and liturgy. This service was an important step for FPC; and we look forward to people of varied abilities leading worship as COVID restrictions are eased.
Presenting this series during a COVID pandemic made including people of varied abilities leading worship a challenge! We had to get creative! As an alternative to people being physically present, we created several original videos. Having people of varied abilities proclaim the scripture is powerful. Here is video we created of excerpts from Psalm 139.
Stories are also powerful! Short videos featuring individuals from our congregation or Friendship Bible Club were an effective way to make the voices of people impacted by disability heard. This video of our Friendship Bible Club is a glimpse into the online meetings we had been holding. The last week of the series included a video called “Stories of Belonging” which showed conversations of friendship and belonging.
A woman in our congregation shared how the videos helped her “get to know, at least a little bit” a young woman with a disability. Prior to the series the young woman’s physical appearance was a barrier. She had hesitated to ever start a conversation with her. Now she is looking forward to getting to know the young woman. Praise God for opening hearts!
Would you like to join pilot churches from our Circle of Congregations in leading your congregation, youth group, small group, or study by using the sermon series outline? Contact All Belong. We’d love to share this with you and then hear how you uniquely adapted the series and how it impacted your community. Our prayer is that it is a resource that God will use to impact many congregations!
Rev. Dr. Karen Roberts provides pastoral support and care for individuals and families affected by disability at First Presbyterian in Aurora, IL, and in the surrounding community. Karen’s passion is for First Pres to be a church where people of all abilities belong, worship and serve together. She holds a Doctorate in Worship Studies from The Robert E. Webber Institute of Worship Studies, a MWS from Northern Theological Seminary and a MME (Music Education for Special Learners) from Wichita State University.