Pathfinders

My brother, Ben, is on the autism spectrum. Growing up, his disability presented a barrier for my family to attend church together. Thankfully, when we were invited to Bethesda LBC in Eau Claire, WI, Ben’s needs were accommodated, and our family unit felt genuinely welcomed and cared for. When I received the gospel message at Inspiration Point, I hesitated in committing my life to Christ until I understood God’s nature and addressed fears that I’d held for my brother’s eternal life. These experiences shaped my entry into a saving faith and were a catalyst for developing Pathfinders, a special needs ministry.

The Apostle Paul describes the Church as a Body: “There is one body, but it has many parts. But all its parts make up one body. It is the same with Christ… God has placed each part in the body just as he wanted it to be. If all the parts were the same, how could there be a body? As it is, there are many parts. But there is only one body… If one part suffers, every part suffers with it. If one part is honored, every part shares in its joy. You are the body of Christ. Each one of you is a part of it” (1 Cor. 12:12, 18-20, 26-27; NIRV).

The Church body was designed by God to include all people. People with worldly disabilities need to be included or, ironically, the Church body is spiritually disabled. God intentionally creates each member of the Body with gifts that contribute to the health and wellbeing of the whole. Diversity in the Church is needed; our differences should be celebrated.

Unfortunately, as I testified, people with disabilities and their families experience factors that interfere with their access to the Church body and the gospel message. Serving this often-marginalized population, reaching the unreached, is a need that Pathfinders is seeking to address. “Pathfinders is an answer to our prayers,” caregivers have expressed. The aim of our ministry is three-fold: to facilitate growth in members’ relationships with God, each other, and the Church.

To foster spiritual growth, we gather separately on Sunday mornings for Bible study before participating together in corporate worship. Bible study instruction is multimodal with adapted curriculum content, in an effort to meet different learning styles, strengths, and interests. For example, we accommodate various literacy skill levels by showing a video, referencing a graphic-novel style Bible, and using a traditional Bible. Through our lessons we identify “big ideas,” or theological truths, that are regularly reviewed and integrated with new learning. It is remarkable for guests to witness the high-level concepts that are understood and explained by Pathfinders, such as the metanarrative (the “big story” of the Bible: creation, fall, redemption, restoration), Law and Gospel distinctions, justification, etc. Our LifeGroup also engages in prayer and worship, and is provided materials for personal devotions. Each semester, we offer robust experiences: we host a weekend retreat in the winter and travel to Inspiration Point Pathfinder Camp during the summer. These are highlights for many members.

Moving forward, we have intentions to develop curriculum, implementing principles of universal design for learning, that will cover Confirmation content. It’s our vision that whatever is produced could be shared within the CLB Forge (CLBForge.org) and made available for others. We hope more churches might feel equipped to offer a similar ministry.

To promote friendships and community among our members, we coordinate monthly special events. We’ve experienced lots of different gatherings, across venues and with a variety of activities, such as backyard bonfires, pool parties, bowling, BINGO, movies, and more. The broad spectrum of offerings fulfills different interests and entices newcomers. Introductions are made and conversations are shared, while we enjoy fun, food, and fellowship. Individual social skills and the health of group dynamics are intentionally monitored and supported. Additionally, we exchange prayers, acknowledge birthdays, and celebrate milestones for one another.

Bethesda is preparing to host Night to Shine, sponsored by the Tim Tebow Foundation, on February 10, 2023. The vision of this extra special event is to provide an unforgettable prom night experience, centered on God’s love, for people with special needs, ages 14 and older. Every guest of this complimentary event will receive the royal treatment and be crowned as kings and queens with the gospel message that God sees them that way every day. We pray that this opportunity serves to enhance and extend our ministry within the community, and can be a vehicle for the Good News to all who might become involved or learn about this event.

To encourage connections within the church, Pathfinders participate in corporate worship and church-wide events. We invite guest speakers from the congregation and collaboratively organize cross-over events with other LifeGroups at Bethesda. It has also been remarkably special for Pathfinders and those they interact with to serve in volunteer roles. For example, Pathfinders are ushers, involved with Children’s Ministries and Vacation Bible School, contribute during worship services, assemble Operation Christmas Child boxes, etc. It is a delight for them to be seen and valued, recognized for what they have to offer instead of for their limitations and needs. It is powerful for them to be truly integrated within the church family, even beyond just included.

We are grateful for the opportunity to share the heart behind Pathfinders, hopefully expanding awareness and casting vision more broadly across the Disciple-Making Church of the Lutheran Brethren. May we, as a united Church body, faithfully call individuals with disabilities and their families to follow the Lord. May we, as Pathfinders and far-reaching recipients of this publication, partner in mission. May we unleash new leaders, within our own spheres of influence, that God has prepared for this work. May we, as one Church, experience the joy of multiplying disciples.

“Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think. Glory to him in the church and in Christ Jesus through all generations forever and ever! Amen” (Ephesians 3:20-21, NLT).

Dani Hansen is a member at Bethesda Lutheran Brethren Church in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
Other photos of Pathfinders activities

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