Ministering to Mentally and Emotionally Challenged Adults

The last promise in the Bible is still in effect: "Whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely" (Revelation 22:17). This applies to the mentally and emotionally disadvantaged as much as it does to those who have been spared the challenges of disabilities. We need to include them in all the Christian education activities of the church.

The question is: How effectively do we present gospel truth to the mentally and emotionally disadvantaged adults in our Sunday Schools and churches?

stadium-485328 640Incidence of Mental Retardation

Three percent of Americans--more than 6 million people-- are mentally retarded. Mental retardation is 12 times more prevalent than cerebral palsy, 30 times more prevalent than spinal bifida, and it affects 100 times as many as those who suffer from total blindness.

Mental retardation affects numerous families in our congregations. It is estimated that in a church of 600, as many as 18 families include a mentally retarded person. Mentally challenged adults need the support of a compassionate church to face their unique problems. To put their plight into perspective, we must make a distinction between adisabilityand ahandicap.

Disabilityrefers to a limitation that interferes with a person's ability to function adequately. For the purposes of this article, a person who functions at a level lower than an IQ of 70 and suffers emotionally from the condition has a disability.

Handicaprefers to a barrier or situation imposed by society, the environment, or by oneself. An adult with a disability becomes handicapped only when society erects barriers or the environment does not accommodate him.

Description of the Mentally Challenged

Mentally challenged adults are like other people except they learn at a slower pace. They are real people whom God loves. They just have to struggle with life according to the limitations of their cognitive skills.

It is not clear what causes mental retardation, but many think it results from a condition that hindered or interfered with cognitive development before birth, during the birth process, or in early childhood. Poverty and cultural deprivation can also lead to mental retardation through malnutrition, childhood diseases, inadequate medical care, and environmental health hazards such as lead poisoning. Also, lack of stimulation in infancy and early childhood can result in irreversible brain damage that leads to mental retardation.

There are four levels of retardation: mild, moderate, severe, and profound. The majority of mentally retarded persons are only mildly mentally retarded with an 1Q of 50-55 to 70. This accounts for 85 percent of the retarded population. They are considered handicapped only because society has erected barriers. They can learn to read and write but achieve only about a sixth grade level of academic learning. They can hold jobs and lead full, useful lives when given the opportunity. They just take longer to develop their full capacity. As adults they may no longer be classified as mentally retarded.

In most cases, the mildly mentally retarded adult can function adequately in the regular adult Sunday School class and worship services of the church. However, we should not call on them to read in public because their language skills are seldom adequate to do this without embarrassment.

Moderately retarded persons, with an IQ of 35-40 to 50-55, are more obvious and account for about 10 percent of the retarded population. They need appropriate educational opportunities for a longer period of time, including hands-on experience to develop adequate living/learning skills. With adequate supervision they are employable and profit from group living arrangements. Usually they achieve only about a second grade level of academic learning.

In Sunday School, moderately retarded persons will need a volunteer tutor or aide to assist them in the regular adult class. Larger churches can provide a supplemental Bible study period for the moderately retarded with materials and activities designed specifically for this level of functioning. An extended session would allow sufficient time for these students who learn at a slower pace to achieve the lesson goals of the day. They should have a tutor or aide to assist them in the worship services also.

Only about 5 percent of the mentally retarded population are severely retarded, with an IQ of 20-25 to 35-40, or profoundly retarded, with an IQ below 20-25. They display more pronounced developmental delays and frequently suffer from additional disabilities other than mental retardation. However, they can learn to care for many of their basic needs and, with supervision, perform many useful activities. They need a tutor or aide to assist them in all the learning and worship activities of the church.

Unique Needs of Mentally Challenged Adults

Research indicates that all mentally retarded persons, regardless of their level of deficiency, respond to approval and love that is genuine. They need to know God and His people love them and to understand they are a vital part of the church family. They need acceptance while they find their place in the kingdom of God. They also need understanding as they experience the normal stages of anxiety, guilt, resentment, and sorrow in learning to deal with their disability. Compassion and understanding are essential while they explore the hidden purposes of God's will in their lives.

Teaching Mentally Challenged Adults

Sunday School teachers do not need to be experts in special education to teach the mentally retarded. However, they should be able to demonstrate God's love and communicate Christian values on a practical level.

Here are some guidelines to assist the teacher of retarded adults:

1. Be alert to the cognitive limitations of retarded adults. Adjust your teaching methods to meet their unique needs by using concrete rather than abstract language. Use simple, direct sentences. Illustrate the lesson with gestures, diagrams, maps, pictures, or demonstrations.

2. Repeat vital information, and allow time for comprehension to occur.

3. Encourage retarded students to enter into discussions and express their opinions.Their involvement in class is one way of helping them learn, and it gives the class an idea of what is going on in their minds. They may need time to think through a response, so be patient, flexible, and supportive.

4. Stimulate self-worth and self-confidence in retarded adults by modeling your ownsense ofpositiveself-esteem. Teach them they are important to the class and a vital part of the family of God.

5. Don't avoid questions from the retarded student. Emphasize individual differences by pointing out that each one in the class is unique in different ways. Encourage them to accept their unavoidable limitations but also to maximize their advantages. Confront negative questions with positive answers. Give illustrations that break mountains down into molehills.

6. Emphasize the process of reaching goals rather than specific outcomes.When assigning an activity that is due the next week, set specific goals, and make lists to help the students work toward the goals. Make sure the activities are within the capabilities of the student and will not lead to frustration.

7. Give special attention to retarded students, and help them to take responsibility for their actions. Explain what you expect of them, and do not allow them to use a disability as an excuse for not being accountable for their own behavior.

8. Help retarded students deal realistically with mistakes. Point out that no one does everything perfectly all the time. Dr. Michael Wehmeyer says, "Provide honest, positive feedback. We all learn from our mistakes, but only if they are structured so they do not lead us to believe that the problem is within us" ("Self Determination." 500 East Border St., Suite 300, Arlington, TX76010).

9. Don't pretend. If you don't understand, ask the person to repeat what he said.

Ministering to Emotionally Disabled Adults

Emotionally disadvantaged adults are suffering from a present distress or disability that has significantly increased the possibility of their suffering further disability, pain, death, or an important loss of freedom. The condition interferes with their behavioral, psychological, or biological functioning.

Most mentally retarded adults have emotional problems as a result of their cognitive impairment. Being a small segment of the population, they face disenfranchisement along with other minority groups. They are usually identified through deficiencies in school performance and diagnosed by mental testing before age 18.

The majority of emotionally disabled adults are not mentally retarded. Unfortunately, they have been neither identified nor diagnosed. This makes them both disabled and handicapped. They include individuals whose life experiences have been overwhelming. They have not been able to adjust to societal demands and have developed neurotic patterns of responding. Others have moved deeper into emotional illness and become schizophrenic, paranoid, or psychotic.

Like the retarded, the emotionally disabled are individuals for whom Christ died. Many of them sit unidentified in our churches and Sunday School classes. Until their unique needs become apparent, they will be lost in classes. They need to be identified and ministered to on an individual level.

Teachers must stress God's love, mercy, grace, the necessity for a personal relationship with Christ, and how to respond to the leading of the Holy Spirit. They may need counseling to break through barriers. Initiate a support group for the mentally or emotionally disadvantaged.


The late Raymond T. Brock, Ed.D., was an Assemblies of God minister and counselor. Sunday School. All rights reserved. Used with permission.