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