Reaching the Largest UnreachedPeople Group You Never ConsideredWhite Paper on Reaching the DeafWorldwide with the Gospel

OVERVIEWAs of 2015, Deaf people – considered as a global peoplegroup – represent one of the largest people groupsworldwide that is unreached and unengaged with theGospel.1 It is estimated that out of 70 million Deaf peopleworldwide,2 less than 2% of Deaf people are Christfollowers.3What led to this situation, and how do we take action toreach this great unreached people group? This white paperdescribes some of the common misunderstandingsregarding the Deaf, some common but mismatchedapproaches to ministry among the Deaf, and what isworking today. This paper does not assume that the readerhas a substantial background in Deaf ministry, sign language, or Deaf culture, and it provideslinks to further resources on some of these subjects as appropriate.Part 1: MisunderstandingsIn “Misunderstandings – What You May Not Know About the Deaf,” we examinefundamental misconceptions about Deaf people that lead to problems in Deaf ministry.Part 2: Deaf Ministry ApproachesIn “Deaf Ministry Approaches – A Mismatch of Values,” we identify three approaches to Deafministry that seem helpful but are disconnected from the underlying needs of Deafcommunities.Part 3: Lessons LearnedIn “Lessons Learned – Best Practices in Deaf Ministry,” we identify three criteria that anyquality Deaf ministry should evidence.Part 4: Next StepsIn “Next Steps – Where Do We Go From Here?” we provide some practical suggestions forhow you can engage in this vital area of ministry, even if your ministry does not directlyinvolve Deaf people.In order to finish the task of making disciples of every nation and people group, we need toaddress the needs of the Deaf. Find out how you can be a part of this amazing growingmovement.2

Part 1: MisunderstandingsWhat You May Not Know About the DeafWhy is it that 2000 years after Christ walked this earth, a vast majority of Deaf4 people havenot encountered the gospel, even in countries saturated by churches and Scripture? In order tounderstand the situation, let’s first consider some common misunderstandings among (evenwell-intentioned) hearing believers that have led to the mismatch between the needs of theDeaf and the ministry provided.Myth: All Deaf people read well.If you are a hearing person, recall how you learned to read. You most likely became fluent inyour spoken language prior to entering school by hearing it from others. By the time youentered school, reading was just an actualization of the spoken language you knew well.Deaf people do not have this same experience. Deaf children who enter school are faced withlearning an entirely new (phonetic) language through written means without sound, oftenwithout having had much exposure to any language at home. In many countries, Deafchildren have very limited opportunities for quality education,5 which severely limits theirability to read. The task is clearly not impossible, as there is a small number of Deaf peopleworldwide who can read well, but for the vast majority of profoundly deaf people, writtenlanguage never becomes their heart language in the same way that sign language does.Myth: Deaf people have access to all of the information that the hearing people around themdo.Because a majority of Deaf people worldwide struggle with reading proficiently,6 they will notacquire a large amount of information through written text. By definition they also missinformation communicated by auditory means. If you eliminated all of the information youreceived by reading and hearing, how would you learn about the world around you? Mostwritten information is not available in sign language.Myth: Sign language is universal, the same around the world.While SIL International has catalogued over 130 sign languages7 worldwide so far, there areestimated to be over 350 sign languages total.8Myth: Sign language is just written/spoken language in a signed format.Sign languages used in Deaf communities are real, vibrant, rich, and full languages. Truenatural sign language does not have a one-to-one sign-to-word correspondence with a localspoken language; instead, sign languages have their own grammar and linguistic structure.93

They are multi-layered 3-dimensional languages with multiple aspects occurringsimultaneously in communication, not just what is happening with the hands. They arelanguages as valid as English, Russian, or Mandarin, and they can convey every complex orabstract concept that a spoken language can.There have been attempts by hearing educators to represent spoken languages in sign formaton the hands, but this type of signing is not a natural language.Myth: Young Deaf children learn most of their language and information from their parents,just like you did.Deaf people worldwide are a unique people group unlike any other minority spoken languagecommunity. Approximately 90% of Deaf children are born to hearing parents (both motherand father are hearing).10 Of these hearing parents, a vast majority of them never learnenough sign language to have an extended conversation with their children, even in theUnited States.11 This means that most Deaf people do not learn language from their parents,and live in a communicatively dysfunctional household. Instead, they typically learn signlanguage (and thus, information) from other Deaf individuals when they enter a Deafeducational environment.This experience leads many Deaf people to have closer relationships with other Deaf peoplethan with their own hearing parents. They may consider Deaf friends to be their “family.” Andbecause this Deaf experience in hearing households is fairly universal worldwide (in bothdeveloped and developing countries), Deaf people from different countries have a muchcloser cultural relationship than Deaf and hearing individuals from the same country.Myth: If Deaf people were given the option to become hearing, they would.Sign language and common experiences of Deaf individuals in a hearing world cause them toform an identity of their own, one directly associated with their deafness and quite differentfrom their surrounding hearing community. This identity is so strong that many Deafindividuals, if given the choice to suddenly become hearing, would choose to remain Deaf.Deaf individuals do not view themselves as broken hearing people, but instead as a peoplewith a rich language, culture, and set of experiences unique to them. In this way, they aredifferent than every other “disability” group, as their “disability” creates a linguistically andculturally unique people group.As such, the term “hearing impaired” should be avoided in describing individuals in the Deafcommunity. Deaf people want to be described in terms of who they are, not by what they arenot.4

Part 2: Deaf Ministry ApproachesA Mismatch of ValuesIt is estimated that among the 70 million Deaf worldwide, less than 2% have understood thegospel. Why is this the case?Historically there appear to have been three approaches by hearing churches to minister toDeaf individuals. These approaches, while well-intentioned, do not address the deep needs ofthe Deaf community.Approach #1: Provide written Bibles.As we have seen, sign language is the heart language of the Deaf. Sign languages are the onlyones that Deaf people can acquire through natural language acquisition processes. Even ifquality educational opportunities were available to Deaf individuals so that they could learnwritten language well as a second language, it would never become their heart language.Thus, a printed Bible will never connect a Deaf person to the Word of God in the way thatsign language-based Scripture can.So out of the 350 sign languages worldwide, how many have a completed sign languagetranslation of the Bible? None. Only one sign language (ASL) has the New Testamentcompleted. Most do not have a single verse.This is an issue not just within the Church. Deaf people worldwide experience a lack of accessto information in religious institutions, whether they are mosques, temples, or churches.Many Deaf are hungry for spiritual truth, but they have no access to information. This leadsto a great opportunity (as the Church can now step in and provide that much-needed truth),but also provides opportunity for great error (as false teachings, when provided in a mediumthat connects with Deaf people, can easily spread through the Deaf community).Approach #2: Provide interpreters in worship services.Some churches elect to provide a sign language interpreter for the Deaf who are present.While this is a heartfelt attempt to provide access to information for Deaf people, there are anumber of reasons that this is not ideal for the Deaf community:a. Deaf Worship Styles: Deaf people do not worship in the same way that hearing peopleworship. Simply turning hearing songs into sign language does not mean they willconnect with the hearts of Deaf people. The inspiration that hearing songs provide tohearing people is usually closely tied to the music and rarely communicated wellthrough the interpreter.5

b. Context: In hearing sermons and other church communication, there are often manyreferences to jokes, songs, Bible verses, and other information that Deaf people donot know about. In order for Deaf people to understand the reference, an interpretermust back up and provide context for the reference. However, by the time this can beaccomplished (if at all), the speaker is off on a completely different subject.c. Deaf Learning Styles: Storying is a highly valued means of communicating informationin the Deaf community, a commonality shared with hearing communities lacking awritten language. By contrast, hearing sermons often involve bits of informationtaken from various places, connected by a common phrase or idea. This approach canbe nearly impossible to follow for a Deaf person.d. Interpreter Skills: While this is not true of all church interpreters, in many cases, an“interpreter” provided by a church is not skilled or certified, but instead is simply aperson who may have had a semester of sign language at a local community college.They are not proficient, and this lack of proficiency leads to many errors, additions,and omissions when interpreting. This can turn a well-planned, impacting, andtheologically correct sermon into a disjointed, heretical mess.e. Deaf “Ministry”: Even if none of the four issues above were present, one of the mostsignificant issues with the approach of simply providing an interpreter in a churchservice is that it reduces Deaf people to objects of a ministry, whereas God hascreated them to be ministers. Deaf people were created with gifts and talents to lead,teach, encourage, etc., but they cannot exercise these gifts in a context wherelanguage and cultural barriers are constantly present.Approach #3: Provide hearing leadership.Hearing people in the church have more access to training and information, so there is atendency to leave a hearing person in charge of a Deaf ministry. But this should never be along-term solution. Instead, there should be a concerted effort to train, equip, and encourageDeaf leadership within a Deaf ministry. Deaf people should become the providers of ministry,and hearing people should provide appropriate support and encouragement.In a related issue, when an outsideHearingorganization wants to work internationallyOutsidersamong a local Deaf community, there arefour groups involved in the process: hearing outsiders,Deaf outsiders, hearing locals, and Deaflocals. Which is most closely tied to thelocal Deaf community? See the illustrationat right.DeafOutsiders6HearingLocalsDeafLocals

Because Deaf outsiders and Deaf locals share many common experiences (and thus, manycommon values), they connect much more easily than hearing and Deaf locals do. Thus, Deafministry done on an international scale should always try to involve Deaf leadership.Part 3: Lessons LearnedBest Practices in Deaf MinistrySo how do we tell if an organization is “doing Deafministry right”? What should be present to ensurethat ministry will have a long-term, deep impact onthe Deaf communities it desires to serve? Take ahard look for the following:Criterion #1: Deaf people should be the mainproviders of ministry.As we have seen, Deaf people are best reached byother Deaf people, whether on a local or international level. This means that any ministryserious about reaching the Deaf in a particular community should work primarily throughDeaf people active in that community. If no Deaf believers can be found to work in thecommunity, the primary responsibility of the ministry is to grow Deaf believers who can doso. The goal is for Deaf believers to have initiative and ownership in the work.Criterion #2: The ministry should be activelydeveloping and equipping Deaf leaders.It is one thing to say it would be nice to have Deafleaders; it is another thing to have a clear plan fordeveloping and multiplying Deaf leaders in anorganization. Deaf ministries should be activelydeveloping Deaf leaders at all levels, and the Deafshould be providing this training (see Criterion 1).Criterion #3: The ministry should be developing and using resources in sign language.In order to build leaders and train Deaf workers to be the providers of ministry, accessibleresources must be developed. However, all sign languages have an extreme lack of resourcesavailable in those sign languages. That means that Deaf ministries must make a seriouscommitment to creating quality resources that support their Deaf workers, or they mustwork in close coordination with other ministries that create such resources.7

In particular, there is a great need for thedevelopment of Bible story and Bibletranslation resources that will giveunreached Deaf communities quality initialaccess to Scripture. No sign languagecurrently has a full Bible translation, andmost do not have one verse of Scripturetranslated. The development of signlanguage Bible translations multiplies Deafministry by placing tools in the hands ofother Deaf ministries.Criterion #4: The ministry should be reproducible and sustainable.The role of any ministry should be to work itself out of a job. If ministry empowers localbelievers in a way that those local believers can subsequently reproduce in the lives of others,it will create a movement that expands the work far beyond the direct reaches of theministry itself.Part 4: Next StepsWhere Do We Go From Here?The future ahead for Deaf ministry is an exciting one. If you find you are a hearing individualor organization with a passion to help change the world for one of the largest unreached,unengaged people groups, here are five things you can do right now.1. Provide Funding and Support to Successful Deaf Ministries and OrganizationsAs of right now, it is estimated that among the approximately 1800 language groups that areunengaged with the gospel, 15-20% of them are sign language groups among Deafcommunities. At the same time, out of all of the funds going to reach new unengagedgroups, far less than 15% of these funds are being directed to sign language translationprojects and Deaf ministries. There are only a few translation organizations and ministriesthat promote Deaf leadership and have a track record of training Deaf people to reach otherDeaf. Supporting these organizations that already have experience and expertise is one of themost direct ways to impact the spreading of the gospel among Deaf people worldwide.Funding and other support (e.g., providing building space for Deaf ministries) are critical toDeaf ministry. Deaf people worldwide have unusually high unemployment rates due to8

limited access to quality education and training, which makes solely supporting Deaf ministrythrough Deaf funding an impossible task.2. Help to Provide Training within Deaf MinistriesThe number of Deaf people who are equipped to train and support ministry among the Deafis limited. If your organization has expertise in training others in spreading the gospel (forinstance, in Bible translation, in church planting, etc.) and you are willing to have othersmodify that training to fit the needs of the Deaf, you can connect with Deaf ministriesworking in those areas to help provide access to that training for Deaf leaders.3. Material Resource DevelopmentIf your ministry produces material resources, and those resources would be of value to Deafministries (if translated into sign language and adjusted to match Deaf culture and learningstyles), providing access to those resources for a reduced cost or free of charge, and allowingDeaf ministries to modify the material to fit a Deaf audience, would accelerate the process ofmaterial resource development, as Deaf ministries do not need to reinvent the wheel.4. Connect Deaf Ministries to Other Hearing OrganizationsYour ministry may not be actively working in the Deaf community, but it may haveconnections to other hearing organizations that are working in an area where a Deaf ministryis working. In this case, your organization can help build bridges between the active Deafministry and the surrounding hearing organizations, introducing the organizations to theDeaf ministry and encouraging them to engage in meaningful ways with the Deaf,remembering the key approaches outlined in Part 3.5. Encourage Education and AdvocacyMany hearing organizations are fully unaware of the unique needs in the Deaf community,and some may be trying to work with the Deaf using mismatched approaches outlined in Part2. You can play a role in pointing hearing organizations to resources like this that can helpthem learn about the Deaf and how best to minister to them.DOOR International is a translation and training organization whose mission is to bring God’sWord and reproducing fellowship to the Deaf worldwide. DOOR is a member of the WycliffeGlobal Alliance and the Forum of Bible Agencies International, and is a Count for ZeroOrganization with the Issachar Initiative. For more information about the ministries of DOOR orto support work among the Deaf, visit or contact DOOR by emailat [email protected] Updated Oct. 7, 20159

Up front, we must admit that reliable statistics regarding the Deaf community are difficultto come by. Some of this is related to a confusion in counting people who are deaf versuspeople who are Deaf. Another comes from a lack of census information from countriesrelated to this issue; many countries do not ask, for instance, if sign language is a languageused at home. Thus, most statistics you find are rough estimates unless otherwise noted.2World Federation of the Deaf, Deaf Missions, published in Mission Frontiers icle/the-deaf. See also information from theInternational Mission Board’s Deaf Affinity Group, https://deafpeoples.imb.org4Hearing loss occurs at various levels in individuals, and terminology is loosely used todistinguish these levels. A person is “hard of hearing” if they have some hearing loss, butenough hearing to be able to hear and understand, at least moderately, a spoken language. Ifthey have substantial hearing loss to the point where spoken language is difficult orimpossible in understand, they are considered “deaf.” There is a significant distinctionbetween the terms “deaf” and “Deaf.” The word “deaf” with a lowercase d refers to a level ofaudiological receptivity, i.e., their lack of ability to hear. The word “Deaf” with a capital Drefers to individuals who share a common culture related to their use of sign language, theirvalues and views as Deaf individuals, their rules for behavior, etc. These individuals may havevarying degrees of hearing loss.Gallaudet University, Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center, Federation of the Deaf, ts-fordeaf-children6“The enrolment rate and literacy among Deaf children is far below the average for thepopulation at large. Illiteracy and semi-literacy are serious problems among Deaf people.”World Federation of the Deaf, International, is general consensus among major sign language translation organizations (DOORInternational, SIL International, Deaf Bible Society, etc.) that the number of 350 signlanguages is closer to the actual number.9See, for example, the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders,U.S. Department of Health and Human ages/asl.aspx10U.S. Statistics available from Gallaudet University e2.html11Ibid.110

As of 2015, Deaf people - considered as a global people group - represent one of the largest people groups worldwide that is unreached and unengaged with the Gospel.1It is estimated that out of 70 million Deaf people worldwide,2less than 2% of Deaf people are Christ followers.3,