Signing the Gospel
Pursuing a vision for Deaf ministry in West Michigan
The Deaf* are among the world’s largest (and most overlooked) unreached people groups. Of the estimated 70 million Deaf people in the world, less than 2 percent know Jesus Christ.
That reality sank in for Doug McClintic, the church multiplication catalyst for Luminex (the missional arm of the RCA’s Great Lakes Region), when he tried to help his Deaf neighbors find a church home.
“It was a major challenge,” says McClintic. “This got me thinking: I’m in charge of church planting. We plant churches for a lot of different kinds of people. I wonder if anyone is doing this among the Deaf.”
His exploration quickly led him to DOOR International, an organization with a vision to plant churches among Deaf communities globally and to translate the Bible into the more than 300 sign languages worldwide. A dialogue grew between DOOR and advisory teams for the RCA and the Christian Reformed Church in North America, including Disability Concerns and RCA Global Mission. Before long, the need became clear. Michigan’s Deaf population numbers about 90,000, but there’s a dearth of spiritual resources tailored to their needs.
“In North America, it’s kind of a ground-zero movement,” says McClintic. “Missiologically, it’s pure church planting: planting the church where there is no church.”
Last summer, a pair of RCA-sponsored gatherings welcomed Deaf community members from West Michigan. Those meetings, conducted almost entirely in American Sign Language, were well attended and spurred an increased desire to see the formation of believers’ fellowships in the area. (DOOR uses the term “believers’ fellowships” because the sign language word for “church” is primarily associated with a physical building.)
One of the presenters was Mark Sorenson, a pastor and DOOR’s program coordinator for the Americas and Eurasia. Sorenson himself is Deaf and shares the vision that McClintic is spearheading with the support of the local Deaf community: a vision to see Deaf people come to Christ.
Ministering among the Deaf, however, looks different than in other populations.
Obviously, the Deaf can’t hear, which is a primary barrier to traditional evangelism. Among hearing parents with Deaf children, 85 percent of the parents never learn sign language, further isolating children. Additionally, 90 percent of Deaf people struggle to read written language. There are few Christian resources in sign language and, as valuable as captioning and interpretive ministries in hearing churches are, they have not been widely effective in reaching the Deaf community.
“One primary reason we plant Deaf churches,” says Sorenson via an interpreter, “is so Deaf people can learn, serve, and worship in their heart languages: sign languages.”
“If you can’t read the gospel, can’t hear the gospel, how do you get the gospel?” asks Rob Myers, DOOR’s president and CEO. “It’s not just a language issue; it’s a cultural issue. Deaf people worship differently. They learn and share information differently. Just putting an interpreter in front of the church is not going to solve things.”
Because Deaf people spend most of their lives taking in only snippets of spoken and written information—like receiving only a few pieces of a jigsaw puzzle—traditional preaching methods often don’t resonate. The solution? Chronological Bible Storytelling, an approach that appeals to the visual, story-based culture and language of the Deaf community. But making good use of the method takes training.
Sorenson and McClintic have a vision for the coming year: to recruit and train a team of two Deaf people to begin the church-planting process.
“Once they’ve completed initial training,” says Sorenson, “they would begin evangelism in the West Michigan Deaf community.”
That evangelism would begin with Bible classes using Chronological Bible Storytelling and then the creation of Deaf believers’ fellowships. Where Deaf ministries already exist, there are plans to offer trainings to Deaf leaders.
“Five years from now, we expect to have multiple Bible classes using [Chronological Bible Storytelling], several believers’ fellowships, and training in process for local Deaf people gifted in evangelism, teaching, and leadership,” says Sorenson.
McClintic emphasizes that the point is not to replace existing services for the Deaf, but to complement them in order to meet more and deeper needs.
Myers compares the challenge of reaching the Deaf community in West Michigan to planting a church in a minority-language group abroad—and he’s hoping for a good outcome.
“The point is to teach stories and through that present the gospel,” he says. “If enough fellowships are established, on a Sunday morning those people can get together and have a Sunday worship service together. That worship service would be led by leaders who have been grown in the fellowship. The idea is to create sustainability.”
*Deaf with a capital D refers to an entire linguistic and cultural community, not only a person’s profound inability to hear. Typically, a Deaf person relies entirely on sign language to communicate.