As many churches nationwide are working to improve their ministries with people with disabilities, United Theological Seminary student Zach Holler is leading the way in Dayton, OH. In 2012 he founded the Bridge Builder’s Abilities Ministry (BBAM) at Christian Life Center (CLC). BBAM aims to engage people with disabilities in tailoring their church experiences to their physical, spiritual, emotional and social needs.
Holler, who knows personally the reality of living with a disability, developed an interest in disability ministry while completing his undergraduate studies at Wright State University.
“I began to realize just how much work there is to be done at the intersection of faith and disability,” he said. “Upon graduation, I received a call from the Lord to direct my career toward disability ministry, to bring the Gospel to his children affected by disability and to bring them into the church.”
During this time, Holler took part in a study at CLC that explored the biblical outlook on disability. The result of the Bible study was a small, but dedicated, group determined to begin a disability ministry at CLC.
BBAM approaches disability ministry with the understanding that, according to 1 Corinthians 12:27, each person is an irreplaceable member of the body of Christ. The group looks to other scripture for guidance as well.
“We can learn from Psalm 139:13–16 that disability is not in any way a surprise in the eyes of the Lord, for He saw our unformed bodies before we came to be,” Holler said. “Disability is not something to be changed but to be celebrated.”
With this in mind, BBAM set out to provide a worship opportunity for all people, regardless of abilities. Held monthly, BBAM’s Gentle Worship features soft music and a 10-minute sermon, delivered by Holler. The service attempts to establish a welcoming atmosphere for children and adults with intellectual or cognitive disabilities, autism spectrum disorders and sensitivity to sound or lights, among other special needs.
“The spectrum of disability and need is so great that it is difficult to create an environment that suits everyone’s needs,” Holler said. “For example, a person with autism who struggles with sensory overload and fear of crowds often does not handle well a room with young children. Since we have such a diverse group of people, it can be a challenge to make everyone comfortable and we must do it without creating restraints.”
Despite these challenges, Gentle Worship has received only positive feedback. For many families, Holler says, this is the only service they can easily attend with their special needs children of all ages.
BBAM has also received recognition within the Dayton community. Stillwater Center, a local residential center for people with severe disabilities, invited the group to lead a monthly worship service for its residents. The service, called Joyful Noise, features praise and worship music alongside a brief sermon.
Gentle Worship and Joyful Noise are just the beginning for BBAM. The group also provides ASL interpreters for Sunday services and plans social activities throughout the year. For churches hoping to establish their own disability ministries, Holler emphasizes the importance of recognizing the contributions people with disabilities can make.
“Disability ministry is not a helping ministry where able-bodied people help their disabled counterparts, as many people mistakenly see it,” he said. “It is, instead, a reciprocal ministry in which everyone needs each other and benefits from each other’s abilities.”
Gentle Worship meets the fourth Sunday of each month from 11:45 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at Christian Life Center, located at 3489 Little York Road in Dayton. All are welcome to attend.