By Sharon Mager
COLUMBIA, Md. — Jimmy Painter, the senior pastor of Cresthill Baptist Church (CBC) in Bowie, Maryland, is passionate about special needs ministry. As a result of Painter’s zeal, CBC has become a leader in helping those with special needs and Painter has become a voice for the ministry in Maryland, Delaware, and beyond.
Special needs ministry opens the eyes of a congregation
In a recorded panel discussion with Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware (BCM/D) Associate Executive Director Tom Stolle, Painter shared his thoughts about the need for churches to step up and start or strengthen their ministries to this largely unreached people group. Painter explained that by doing so, not only are families with special needs encouraged and blessed but so are churches. Special needs ministry opens the eyes of the congregation and mobilizes them for ministry. It may not be easy, Painter acknowledged. But it’s worth it.
It’s a risk worth taking
He also emphasized that pastors should take the lead in this area.
Painter said, “An old man on the Eastern Shore once said, ‘Jimmy, choose a ditch to die in wisely because you only die once,’ and I’m convinced this (special needs ministry) is a ditch worth dying in. If this is going to cost you your ministry and cost you your pastorate, it’s a risk worth taking. I know for me it was a risk worth taking.”
In serving CBC for over 25 years, Painter said he’s seen God move tremendously in various ways, but nothing has motivated the congregation like the special needs ministry. This was especially true when the the church first hosted a Tim Tebow Night to Shine (NTS) prom for people affected by special needs in 2017. Out of a congregation of about 200, they had 92 volunteers.
“Every year since that first NTS, more people have stepped up to serve,” Painter said. And those people are changed.
On the Sunday morning services following the proms each year, Painter walks around the congregation with a handheld mic and asks people to share their NTS experiences. “I ask, ‘What was it like for you to be a part of NTS? What was it like for you to be a part of the lives of these individuals whom God used you to touch?’ Every one of them shared that it was the most transformational life experience any of them ever had, and they said they can’t wait for it to come again. Most of them say, ‘I’m not going to wait until next year, I’m going to step up and be involved now.’”
Church is transformed
Painter said a huge core group of people stay from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. every Sunday to be involved in CBC’s two services and then also stay later to be part of The Gathering Place, an inclusive church CBC started in 2018, led by Pastor Tommy Rowe.
Stolle, responding to Painter, said, “I think it’s really cool to hear that God uses ‘the least of these’ to move His ministry and Gospel forward in incredible ways. I think the largest transformation that has occurred at CBC happened through the embracing of individuals and families with disabilities.
“It warms my heart, as a parent of a child affected by a disability, to know God can use him in such a powerful way and how God is using these other men and women in such powerful ways to change the hearts of the people at CBC,” Stolle shared.
“I say a lot of times that even though my son, Jimmy, is nonverbal, that ‘God speaks Jimmy.’ We want Jimmy to be embraced in church and in services, and we want him to hear the Gospel because autism is not an impenetrable wall with him. God wants us to share the good news of the Gospel of Jesus to everyone, and my son Jimmy, just like you and I, has an eternal soul.
“I’m so thankful that I attend a church (High Tide Church in Dagsboro, Delaware) that makes sure that Jimmy receives the Gospel and I’m so glad that Cresthill is doing their best to make sure that as many ‘Jimmy Stolles’ as possible receive the Gospel.”
Painter encourages churches to avoid waiting until they have a budget or a staff person to start a special needs ministry. He advises churches to begin slowly and grow gradually.
“Start where you are and do something. All of us can do something. And we need to do it sooner rather than later. We need to do it today,” he emphasized.
Plan for the “long haul” and count the cost
Painter also said it’s essential to realize the ministry can’t be temporary.
“We are dealing with individuals and families that have encountered massive disappointment and they can’t experience that from us,” he explained. “They’ve got to know we’re there. They’ve got to know that we care, and they’ve got to know that we’re in it for the long haul.
“As you’re faithful, and families see this is ‘legit,’ it’s ‘the real deal,’ then they will begin to come.” Painter said gradually, as trust builds, the ministry will take off “exponentially.”
“Jesus teaches us to count the cost,” Painter cautioned. Realize that when you take these kinds of steps that are obedient, biblical, and God-centered, that they come with a price tag, and one of those tags may be that you lose some people in the church. “Not everyone will want to worship with someone that has a special needs child because they don’t always ‘behave’ in a way we’re accustomed to. And I would say unto that pastor, and to that church, that’s a cost worth taking.”
Painter said, “The largest mission field is right outside our doors. Every neighborhood, every city, every small town, every large city, every urban, suburban, and rural setting has individuals with disabilities and special needs. If you want your church to be on mission, this is a great way to do it.”
Stolle and Painter agree that we all have a special need. Stolle said, “That is why Jesus came, and He died and rose from the dead, so that our special need can be met [and] so that we, by accepting Christ, can live eternally with Him. It’s not just you and me, and people like us that people should want that for … it should be for ‘the least of these.’ It should be for everyone. It should be for folks on the fringes, folks on the edges, and folks that remain in the margins.”