Deaf people live and interact as a distinct people group. Approximately 6 million strong in North America, they have their own customs, norms, habits, thought patterns, language, and common experiences that identify them as a unique culture group. Deaf people tend to believe that deafness is not a disability or a handicap, but rather the quality that unites Deaf people into a cohesive, vibrant community. Thus,
Deaf people prefer to be called "Deaf" rather than "Hearing Impaired".
Deaf people live in a world that is largely made for those people who can hear and speak. Their many responses to these situations may be a result of on-the-spot ingenuity, and this instills pride in them. Many Deaf people are proud to be Deaf and would want it no other way.
Only 2-4% of Deaf people in North America attend church. We can not afford to maintain the status quo. It's been estimated that fewer than 6 % of American churches have any outreach to the Deaf at all. Most of those who do try something generally restrict their "ministry" to a volunteer signer who's had perhaps a few months of sign language classes, attempting to interpret worship services. The ministry was started and carried on by people who love the Lord. Yet for all their efforts, few Deaf people attend, and often seem disconnected from the fellowship. In most cases, the few Deaf people who do come ultimately just drift away.
Communication is a barrier in the church. Deaf people often feel all alone in a room full of people. They feel like they're sitting in a fish bowl watching others visit, sing, laugh, and study together. Some churches are thoughtful enough to provide an interpreter, but even still, Deaf members or visitors are simply spectators, not participants. Very few are blessed with a Deaf group in which they can study, pray, and sing together, where each person is understood and play a vital part in worship service.
A relationship with Jesus is an experience. How can a Deaf person have a spiritual experience if they feel like they are all alone in a congregation full of people or in a fish bowl wondering what's going on around them? An experience is something you can claim, something you have. You can't claim someone else's experience.
If we are ever going to get serious about Deaf ministry, we're going to start thinking like Deaf people. We're going to have to listen to what they have to say and learn how they perceive the world and themselves. We're going to have to put aside our own prejudices and our own likes and dislikes. We have to move into a world that, for most of us, is unfamiliar and fuzzy to our eyes. If we don't do this, the Deaf community will continue to be the largest unreached people group in North America.
Perhaps you love your church and you want to make it accessible to Deaf people so they can love it too. But realistically, no matter what you do, most Deaf people will never love your hearing church. Nearly everything in your church is very hearing oriented, from the music, an important part of almost every hearing worship service, to the preaching which is 30 to 50 minutes of monologue, to the casual conversation in the lobby, and so forth.
Honestly, Deaf people are not driving past your church every day thinking, "I sure wish they would interpret their services. Then I would attend." No, in fact, most Deaf people are not even looking for a church. Many have had bad experiences with church in the past and they think of them as "prisons" where everyone has be quiet and Deaf people don't know what's going on half the time. So if you put a sign out on the church lawn announcing you are now sign interpreting your services, don't expect a flood of Deaf folks to show up. Deaf people will never be able to experience a hearing church the same way you do.
The Deaf church can feel like a breath of fresh air to a Deaf person who has only known church as a place where they were on the outside looking in through the window of an interpreter. They are no longer spectators; they are now part of the action. The set up of the room is designed to enhance the worship and fellowship experience. Worshipers all sign their praise to God in congregational songs. The message and all information shared are in sign language, their native tongue. Also, Deaf people best learn interactively. In a Deaf church, they are free to ask questions, seek clarification, and discuss meaning together. In the hearing church setting, often deaf people can only be objects of someone else's ministry. In a Deaf church, each person is free to use their spiritual gifts, talents and passion to serve in the work of the ministry. What a better way to learn and share.
Note: having interpreted services, although important, does not mean that your church has a Deaf ministry. A Deaf ministry seeks out Deaf individuals to develop relationships and being willing to invest time in them.