Teenagers with Disabilities: Amplifying Our Witness

Ben Conner's latest book, Amplifying Our Witness, is a wonderful primer in doing ministry to an often neglected community:  adolescents with developmental disabilities.

Ben Conner’s latest book, Amplifying Our Witness, is a wonderful primer in doing ministry to an often neglected community: adolescents with developmental disabilities.

How many young people today do you know that wrestle with Asperger’s syndrome, cerebral palsy, or Down’s syndrome? How many parents do you know are utterly consumed by the developmental challenges faced by their teenage sons and daughters that keep them from fitting in with their age group?

Benjamin T. Conner has been a long time friend of mine in Young Life in Williamsburg, Virginia. Over the past few years, Ben has been leading the Capernaum ministry, a branch of Young Life dedicated to reaching out to adolescents who struggle with developmental disabilities. In his latest book, Amplifying our Witness, Ben cites an alarming statistic: nearly 20% of all adolescents today are diagnosed with some type of developmental disability. One in five teenagers today deal with issues that make them noticeably different from the rest of their peers. How can the Christian community effectively minister to these young people in need, as well as the families that seek to support them?

Ben Conner knows first hand that working with kids who often find themselves sitting and eating alone at high school cafeteria lunch tables built for sixteen can be very difficult. It is hard enough for an adult to approach “typical” teenagers today in their cultural environment. You can multiply the difficulty experienced when trying to have a conversation with a socially awkward adolescent with some form of autism.

How do we reach these kids with the Gospel of Jesus Christ? As Ben illustrates so well in Amplifying our Witness, engaging a developmentally challenged kid with an intellectual presentation of the Gospel does not really cut it. Ben suggests that we must learn to develop certain Christian “practices” that allow kids like this to experience the Gospel in a bodily and tangible way. Some of these “practices” include showing hospitality, doing physical gestures that communicate Gospel concepts; such as, the sign of the cross, making prayer beads, lighting candles in scented prayer bowls, and making use of community resources to give kids experiences of Christian community that they can cherish and remember. Standing at the top of Ben’s list of Christian practices is the art of friendship. As Christians intentionally seek to practice making friendships with kids who struggle with inappropriate social interactions, it demonstrates the unconditional love of Jesus.

For the past several years, Ben has invited me to help him with a “Hoe-Down” at our local therapeutic horse riding center at the beginning of the school year. Dozens of kids and their families come out, share in a hot dog or two, and then gather around for a time of singing bluegrass songs and skits, complete with live “cricket spitting” contests. Ben then gives a brief talk from the Bible to ground everyone on why we are meeting. Finally, amidst the smells of the horse arena, we end off the evening with square dancing. It is quite a sight to witness a group of otherwise socially-challenged kids come alive with smiles on their faces as they share in creating memories made from bumping into others while trying to square dance.

Amplifying our Witness effectively shows that sharing the Gospel is not just simply something that is intellectually experienced through the preaching of the Word. It is also experienced sacramentally through these Christian practices that can be felt, touched, tasted and smelled. Following from Ben’s earlier book, Practicing Witness: A Missional Vision of Christian Practices, based on his PhD work at Princeton Theology Seminary,  Ben Conner argues that the missionary activity of the church essentially requires the ongoing practices of Christian community.  Ranging from more formal activities, like baptism and the celebration of communion, to less formal ones, like simply developing friendships with others,  Christian practices are not limited by differing cognitive abilities. Ben is very practical in his writing, but he grounds everything in a profound academic theology influenced by church history and a broad Reformed tradition.

Sadly for us locally, Ben and his family will be leaving Williamsburg this summer. Ben Conner will become an Associate Professor of Christian Discipleship at Western Theological Seminary, in Holland, Michigan. At Western, Ben will be training seminarians on how to do the type of work he started with the Capernaum ministry in Williamsburg. Ben has trained other Young Life staff locally in Williamsburg to continue the effective ministry here. Those of us who have been blessed by Ben and his family will miss them, but we are enthusiastic as to how the Lord might be planning to use Ben there in Michigan.  To go along with the Veracity blog tag line, Ben Conner has been “sharing the joy of personal discipleship” through his remarkable ministry.  Amen!

Additional Resources:

Here is Ben Conner giving a talk about Amplifying Our Witness:

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

2 responses to “Teenagers with Disabilities: Amplifying Our Witness

  • John Paine


    Thanks for this uplifting post! Last week David accepted a job working with developmentally challenged teenagers in the Fairfax County school system, so Dr. Conner’s material is quite timely and encouraging on a personal level. I really appreciate his heart for befriending and supporting these kids in the context of our faith.

    Dick Woodward has a Marketplace Ministry manuscript in press that contains the following:

    I reject the terms people use when they refer to a bedfast quadriplegic like me. The derivation of the word handicapped has to do with a person with their cap in their hand begging. Invalid means a person who is not a valid human being. And disability means without ability. I prefer to refer to people like me as limited. We all have to accept the limits of our limitations and the responsibility for our ability. Even Olympic athletes have limits. They call them records. They can only run so far, so fast. The same goes for swimming. And they can only jump so high and throw things so far. They must learn to accept the limits of their limitations and the responsibility for their abilities as do we all.

    Dick has a lot to say on his blog about limits and limitations and accepting the responsibility for our abilities (emphasis on the latter).




  • dwwork

    Clark, When our daughter,Amy, was in high school she and a small group of friends formed Marion’s Circle. Marion had Downs Syndrome. They would make sure that she was included in the normal school activities. Amy was her choir buddy. It was great to see young ladies taking their time to include a young girl most would be uncomfortable being around. It is amazing that given encouragement how much these special needs kids can do. Have a blessed day, David


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