Introducing Deaf Ministry: Sobering Statistics
Last time, I promised to provide some statistics about Deaf ministry that would, quite frankly, shock you. I will not give a lot of introduction to these facts; instead, I will let them speak for themselves.
- There are an estimated 250 million Deaf individuals worldwide.
- The U.S. Census Bureau reports 35 million Americans have hearing trouble. Of this number, at least 1 million (or more, estimates vary) are what we would call Deaf in the sense in which I am a minister.
- In Louisville/Jefferson County alone, Census figures estimate 14,000 deaf individuals. Add the “hard of hearing,” and this number jumps to over 69,000. Many of these, however, are older people who have lost their hearing. The actual number of Deaf individuals is more likely between 7,000 – 8,000, according to estimates given to me by the local Department of Vocational Rehabilitation.
- Many of these Deaf individuals cannot be found. A canvassing survey undertaken by my church, Louisville Baptist Deaf Church, in the 1990s was only able to uncover about 400 names.
- Of the worldwide and American numbers, according to the organization Deaf Missions, less than two percent (2%) of Deaf individuals claim to be Christians. This means that, percentage wise, there are less than 200 Deaf Christians in Louisville. The actual number, to my knowledge, is at or slightly greater than this percentage.
- The majority of these Christians either do not regularly attend church, “church hop” in order to be with friends as much as possible, or are not active in the churches of which they are members.
- Bob Rhoads of Campus Crusade for Christ reports that in 2005, 42 out of the 65 Deaf churches in the U.S. did not have a pastor.
- In Louisville, there is only one Deaf church, and it is blessed to have two pastors, myself and our Senior Pastor Tim Bender.
In contrast, there are hundreds of interpreting ministries in hearing churches all over America and the world. They are little more than gateways for many Deaf; that is, they are little more than seed-planters. It is the Christian Deaf community and those hearing who have dedicated themselves to Deaf ministry that typically are used by God to water and harvest.
Why is this? Culturally, Deaf people have responded, generally, that hearing churches have tried to make Deaf ministry fit a hearing mold. I will give an example that truly rankles me these days to illustrate this point.
Today in our circles there is a growing disdain for contemporary worship methods, particularly images, which extends to Powerpoint and videos. I’m sorry, but in Deaf ministry nothing could be more disastrous. Deaf people are a visual people. They typically learn visually. It is not enough to simply tell a Deaf person something; one must show it to them. The majority of Deaf individuals are not functionally developed enough to grasp abstract thought; these people need to be shown examples, things that can be seen, grasped and understood. Even those who (like myself) are functionally “advanced” require visual representations of concepts from time to time. For an example, I blogged about a theological conversation I had with my wife using condiments as illustration tools in this post.
I am one of the very rare Deaf individuals who essentially function as a hearing person, and am blessed in that respect. It is also a curse in my ministry, because it is very easy for me to forget to be representational in my preaching. I do not use enough examples, enough pictures, enough dramatizations in my teaching. J. I. Packer, in Knowing God, writes that images distort our understanding of God by making the infinite into something finite, the perfect into the imperfect, substituting worship of the Creator for worship of the Created. In Deaf ministry, I have to wholeheartedly distance myself from Packer, as much as I agree with his theology on this issue. It is a practical impossibility to eschew visuals.
But enough of the soapbox. In the next post, I will detail this general response that non-Deaf ministries are “too hearing.”