International (MNN) — People who typically associate unreached people groups with the African bush or the Amazon rainforest may be shocked to hear that members of an unreached group could live next door.
President of Shepherds Ministries Dr. Bill Amstutz says an unreached people group is defined as a group with a distinct culture and language without a Christian community available to evangelize to them. Although the group doesn't fit the missiological definiteion exactly, Amstutz argues that people with intellectual disabilities are an unreached people group as well.
"We do feel that this classifies as an unreached people group," explains Amstutz, "because it is very difficult for churches sometimes to open themselves up to them and see them come to know the Lord because they do not have the expertise–or at least they don't think they have the expertise–to try to reach them with the Gospel."
Although churches have certainly improved their outreach to the intellectually disabled since the institutionalizing days of years past, Amstutz says changes have been mainly aesthetic.
"We have found that the architecture in churches has changed, but the attitude has not always changed along with that," notes Amstutz. "We can get people with disabilities into the building. We have ramps, we have extra parking–we have all kinds of things for that. But the attitude of receptivity and making sure that they are reached with the Gospel has been a little slower."
In the past, many have declared the intellectually disabled to be covered by God's grace, unable to understand the Gospel for themselves. However, Shepherds Ministries has seen this to seldom be the case. "This population is more like us than unlike us," comments Amstutz, who says anywhere from 75 to 90 percent of the group are perfectly capable of understanding their sinful nature and Christ's redemption.
"These people truly can trust Christ. Not only can they be productive members of society, but they can be productive members of local churches."
Shepherds College sees this every day as they teach the skills needed for horticulture and culinary arts to people society may have deemed hopeless. Shepherds has a storehouse full of stories of students not only grasping the Gospel, but sharing it with others despite their disabilities.
Progress also is being made in the younger generation now, which Amstutz hopes will lead to the evangelization of this people group.
"The younger generation really thinks about it differently because they've come from schools where this population has been integrated with the regular population of the school. So it's not hiding this population anymore, but rather working with them, seeing them in the workplace. Hopefully, then, that translates into having them better visible and in our churches, and serving in our churches."
Pray that the Lord would continue to shape the ideas the church has about people with intellectual disabilities.