Perhaps one of the greatest strengths that the Special Gathering model of ministry brings to the Church is uniting the community of believers to minister to a cloistered, sub-culture.  It has been said by local churches, “A wheelchair ramp wasn’t enough.  We went to the expense of making our church accessible but disabled people didn’t come.”  (Of course, a ramp is not enough but that is a discussion for another day.)

However, what is working is the model of ministry which The Special Gathering uses.  Special Gathering is a ministry within the mentally challenged community, whose mission is to evangelize and disciple the population they serve.   A prime example of the effectiveness of this model of ministry is The Special Gathering of Cocoa which meets at First Baptist Church of Merritt Island, Florida. 

Every Sunday morning approximately 80 to 100 persons who are developmentally delayed arrive at First Baptist.   The Special Gathering targets persons who are developmentally delayed in the  in the same way Youth for Christ targets teenagers, and Campus Crusades targets college students.

On any given Sunday, vans from different local churches pull up to drop off members of The Special Gathering.  There are about 30 churches in Central Brevard County that make this local ministry possible through their financial support.  They also contribute their facilities and vehicles.  The most essential element to any ministry, volunteers, who are capable ministers of the Word, also come from these contributing churches.

Vans from different denominations pull up and drop off their Special Gathering members.  This is the Church community working hand-in-hand to provide the spiritual needs of this important people’s group.  Vans come from Assemblies of God, United Methodist, Presbyterian, Christian and Lutheran churches.  Amazingly, the Assembly of God church van is driven by a Presbyterian; the Presbyterian van is driven by a Pentecostal; the Christian van, by a Roman Catholic; and the Lutheran van, by a member of Calvary Chapel.

Most of the members of The Special Gathering do not live in group homes but in the community with their families.  Each van picks up the people who live in their geographic area.  Often these families do not attend the church who owns the van.  While the members of their churches are being picked up by a van from another church.  Some members also arrive by public and group home transports.  Families provide rides.  A few Special Gathering members drive themselves to the church.

Once there, their organizational plan is similar to many evangelical congregations.  As members enter the building, they divide into different Bible study classes.  The divisions conform to the different interest and abilities of the classes’ members. 

Two of the classes focus on expository Bible study using an easy to read translation of the Bible, The New Century Version.  Other classes are topical, using Southern Baptist Access study materials.   These topical study units conform more acutely to the members’ differing interests and abilities. 

After the 30-minute Bible study classes adjourn, everyone convenes in the chapel for a 45-minute worship service.  The order of worship is intended to reinforce the lesson taught in the Bible study classes.  Understanding that their mentally challenged members learn through visual, tactical, and/or psycho-motor experiences, the services embraces a wide range of worship experiences.

The Special Gathering of Central Brevard is staffed by 18 volunteers, two of which come from First Baptist of Merritt Island.  Special Gathering also has a paid director, Rev. Richard Stimson, who serves as their pastor.  He serves in much the same way a youth pastor ministers to the teenagers and young adults in a local congregation.  His salary is composed of support from the 30 church in Central Brevard who contribute financial reinforcement.  He also serves a second chapel in the neighboring town in Titusville, Florida.  Eight Special Gathering chapels are an outgrowth of these two chapels.  The eight programs serve as many as 700 mentally challenged persons.  More than 450 persons attend these outposts of evangelism and discipleship each week.

The Special Gathering of Central Brevard started 25 years ago with four members, using a lodge in Cocoa, Florida as a meeting place.  Since then they have met in various places, including The ARC of Brevard and Cocoa United Methodist Church.  Rockledge Presbyterian Church gives them office space.  The bookkeeper from Calvary Chapel of Merritt Island is responsible for administration of the finances.

A true extension of local churches, The Special Gathering has never sent a fund-raising letter asking for money to anyone.  It is The Special Gathering’s view that God ordained the local church to minister within the local community and that they should not by-pass the authority of the local congregations to solicit money directly from church members. 

The ministry believes that people should give their tithes and offerings to the local church.  In turn, The Special Gathering is funded through the local church as The Special Gathering is placed in the budgets of these churches.  The Special Gathering serving in two states and four counties in Florida has proven that they are steward of their finances. 

Have you seen that community outreach is good for your special needs ministry?  Are there other ways to reach out to the Church helping them to see the spiritual needs of the mentally challenged community?