How a church's deaf ministry is sharing the Gospel with those hard of hearing

By The Christian Post |
Redemption Hill Church
Attendees participate in a deaf ministry at Redemption Hill Church in South Hills, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania | Courtesy Redemption Hill Church

A deaf Pennsylvania couple is helping to lead a ministry for the deaf community and encouraging churches to understand the needs of those hard of hearing in their communities.

Pittsburgh residents Megan and Matt Chopek, who both became deaf before age 5 and are now in their 30s, have served in the Deaf Life Gatherings at Redemption Hill Church in Jefferson Hills since October 2018. 

Using their past painful experiences in their previous church, the couple is working to break down "false" stigmas through the ministry in hopes other deaf people won't experience the "church hurt" they have suffered.

The Chopeks have spearheaded the deaf ministry at Redemption Hill alongside an American Sign Language-fluent ministry leader. 

“We just want to let deaf people know God doesn't care if you're deaf. He loves us. His concern is your heart, your sin, where you're going after you die, whether that’s Heaven or not,” Matt Chopek told The Christian Post. 

The Chopeks know firsthand there are issues with how some churches minister to the deaf community, and there are not nearly enough deaf ministries across the nation. 

“There's so many people that are deaf, and they've had their own painful experiences or issues with experiencing hurt within the Church. But, another issue is that there is also a low percentage of the deaf community that knows the Gospel nationally,” Megan Chopek said. 

“Maybe they grew up going to church, or they tried to go to church later on. However, a common issue experienced is that there are no interpreters at the churches they try to attend in order to do sign language for them. This creates a massive language barrier between them and everyone else who is hearing in the churches." 

'Being made healthy spiritually'

Megan Chopek was 4 years old when she discovered she was legally deaf after failing a hearing test at school. Matt Chopek said he discovered he was deaf at age 3. 

In 2019, Matt Chopek had cochlear implant surgery. Since the procedure, he has been able to hear low sounds with a hearing aid, but he is still considered legally deaf.  

The Chopeks believe that God can still heal in the same way He did in biblical times when several deaf people were given the supernatural ability to hear.

However, the two agree that churches shouldn’t promote the notion that “healing is for everyone,” and if someone isn’t healed, they are “lacking a strong enough connection to God.” 

“A lot of deaf people associate the Gospel as only a message about the sick becoming healthy, and they fail to understand that the Gospel isn’t always about becoming healthy physically. But, it’s mainly about being made healthy spiritually,” said Megan Chopek. 

“It’s difficult because there are many deaf people who don't understand this due to the way the Church has wired them to think. A large part of the deaf community involves how we all identify with something specific while being within the community. The culture is really strong. We are really tied to our deaf identity,” Matt Chopek said.

“We need to figure out and say to ourselves, ‘Yes, God loves you. Yes, you are deaf. That's fine. But that's not the priority of your identity. God wants you to understand the priority of your identity should be involved in Him.' And that's huge. It's a lot to think about and change. The deaf community is now struggling with that,” he continued. 

Matt Chopek said he can't fully understand why God allowed him to become deaf from a young age. However, he said he knows God had a purpose and a plan for Him to take “the gift and share the Gospel in sign language with others.”  

“He gave this to me. He gave me the ability to reach out to people. God can use anything to share the Gospel, to allow people to see who He is. At the same time, whether a person is blind, deaf or has a mental health issue, I believe that God can do healing miracles,” Matt Chopek said. 

“I think He allowed us to have specific things happen — specific illnesses, cancer, so forth, whatever — to use these for His glory, to advance the Gospel.”

God gives certain skill sets to certain individuals for an ultimate reason as part of His grand plan, Megan Chopek said.  

“We're not going to just sit back and do nothing with the skills. We're going to go ahead and make disciples. Even if God can heal hearing, I'm still not sure why He hasn’t healed this," she said, pointing at her ears. "But, He's impacted my heart. That's the point." 

Church hurt that cuts deep

Megan and Matt Chopek said before they started attending Redemption Hill, they experienced their own “church hurt” from a previous church they attended. 

“There was a small deaf community in the area where our previous church was already established, and they had an interpreter set up, and everything seemed fine. But, the interpreter left the church and the deaf community just crumbled and they left the church also,” Matt Chopek said.  

“It's hard because we were building a good relationship, and having that relationship was vital. We had also been working closely together with brothers and sisters in Christ. There was a lot of signing. There was a lot of learning. There was a lot of praying together. Then, the interpreter left, and everything just dissolved. There was nothing there anymore. And the two of us recognized that,” he added. 

“We were like, ‘Where do we go? What do we do?’ It was really hard. We had to pick up from that because we didn't know where to go. If I remember right, everything just dissolved.” 

“Everything just didn't work out. It was just really hard. It was hard to communicate. That was tough. And we lost understanding of what was going on. That connection was gone when the interpreter left. Everything evolved, and we were just left. The pastor didn’t do anything to help with the issue, which was the most painful part about it," Megan Chopek added.

A glimmer of hope in ministry 

The Chopeks said it took them a while to pick up where they left off and find a new church home in Redemption Hill because few churches offer interpreters and other options to meet the needs of the deaf population. 

“This church, right now, wow. The senior pastor took the time to learn who we were even before my cochlear. He would pray for us. They saw and learned the situation. When I was struggling, they made the time to learn to sign,” Matt Chopek said.  

“The senior pastor himself, really, he had no plans to learn how to sign. But understanding my situation, he went ahead and started picking up signing. And now, we have really good conversations with the pastor,” he added.  

“Before, he had no plans to sign at all. But, after he learned there was a need, he has since built that skill through training. He takes the time to make an effort to be able to communicate with deaf people. Because it’s really the Holy Spirit. I mean, he has [the Holy Spirit]. He identified the situation. He didn't ignore it. He moves forward boldly in every situation,” Megan Chopek added.

'Good chunk of life' in deaf ministry

Roddey Caughman, the associate pastor and deaf ministry director of Redemption Hill Church, who has worked alongside the Chopeks in leading the church’s deaf ministry, said he is not considered deaf. But, in the past year, he has become hard of hearing in one of his ears. 

Well before he was considered deaf, for over four decades, Caughman studied ASL starting at age 13.

"My wife and I, both, are nationally certified interpreters for the deaf. We're both fluent in American Sign Language. We've been around it for a long time. Right before I became a Christian, when I was about 13 years old, there was a boy the same age who lived near me who was deaf. I started learning sign language from him, and we are still good friends to this day," Caughman told CP.

"In my senior year in high school, I came to faith in Christ, and that same weekend that I came to faith in Christ, I figured, 'Well, I think God probably will want to use me to minister to the deaf.' But, I had no idea what that meant at the time."

When Caughman entered college, he became involved in a campus ministry where he worked with some deaf students. He said doing ministry in that capacity further solidified the calling that he believes God placed on his life. 

"I graduated from college, and I began to pursue ministry opportunities, starting out just basically as an interpreter for church services. And then, that led me to work as a dormitory counselor at the Tennessee School for the Deaf. I did that for five-and-a-half years. That's where I met my wife. She was doing the same exact work as me," Caughman said. 

Caughman and his wife married in Knoxville and had their first child there. As a family, they moved to South Carolina. After making the move, the couple worked for many years off and on as educational interpreters for deaf people working with children and teenagers from kindergarten to college age.

The couple later moved to Pittsburgh, where Caughman helped contribute to the deaf ministry at Redemption Hill Church.

"I've also worked as a missionary. My wife and I were both missionaries in South America for the deaf. Overall, I've worked with the deaf community in various ministry and non-ministerial roles from 1988 until now," Caughman said. 

"It feels like I've always been involved in deaf ministry, in some form or fashion, for a good chunk of my life, most often as just a layperson, ministering, teaching Sunday schools, getting to know people one-on-one and building discipleship." 

Caughman also donates over half his salary towards fundraising.  

Breaking down 'false' church stigmas

Caughman said one of his main goals alongside the Chopeks is to help break down “false" church stigmas that have harmed far too many members of the deaf population today.  

The Chopeks have seen how stigmas have festered in some church communities, such notions as “the deaf community needs healing from their deafness through prayer and deliverance” and if they do not find “healing,” they are “deeply flawed” and “distant from Jesus.”  

In response, the Chopeks wants more congregations to launch deaf ministries to meet the needs of a community often overlooked and judged by the Church.  

“There are tough experiences that deaf people face within the Church due to this belief that ‘you just need to pray for Jesus to take away your deafness,’ and those kinds of statements. Those false beliefs,” Matt Chopek said.  

“For people who are deaf, within the deaf community, it’s an insult to them because they're praying that God takes away their deafness and they push back against the idea that the Church has actually hurt them. And they are taught to never think of the question, ‘Did you know Jesus loves you exactly how you are?’” Megan Chopek added. 

Caughman said that while God can heal, many deaf people are satisfied with the life they are living and don't necessarily feel the need for healing. 

"God certainly has the ability to heal, and there are people who do get healed of various diseases. And for us to say that God cannot do that would be to deny the truth of the Scriptures," he said. "However, in the deaf ministry, deaf people hear when you say, ‘Well, don't you want to be healed?’ And in my experience, many of them say, ‘Well, no, this is my life. I'm satisfied with that.'"

Among the deaf population that Caughman has worked with in ministry, he said very few have sought prayer for healing of their deafness. 

“There are deaf people who would like to be healed, and some ask the Lord for that. So far, out of all those that I've worked with, none of them who have wanted to be healed have found that healing. Most of those that desire healing would be those that started out hearing and later in life, they became deaf and they miss that ability to hear,”  Caughman said. 

“The deaf that I typically work with are men and women who have grown up with that. And to ask them, do you want to be healed and become hearing is just like asking someone who is French, ‘Don't you want to be healed and become a German?’ To them, it means the same thing. They would say, ‘No, this is what I am.'”  

Caughman said that when he ministers to deaf people, he usually refers them to scriptures that teach “God has created us in His own image and what He has created is very good.” 

“When people are created with disabilities, and God chooses not to heal them, that is God's desire for them. He is the Potter, and we are the clay,” Caughman said. 

“When dealing with a situation like this, which might be difficult to handle, certainly, we can ask Him to remove that obstacle, and He may or may not remove it. But, much like Paul, He said that he had ‘a thorn in his flesh,’ ... and he asked repetitively at least three times for God to remove it. God did not.” 

The need for deaf ministry

To meet the dire need for more deaf ministries in churches across the nation, Caughman said, there are two crucial steps churches can take to start their own deaf ministries. 

"I would recommend that they find one or two deaf Christian leaders, preferably pastors in this case, but even if not pastors, Christian leaders who understand the deaf culture and understand what it means to serve Christ as a deaf member of the deaf community," Caughman said. 

"I think that way, any deaf ministry that starts will take on the form of what the deaf in your area understand as fitting to the deaf community," he continued.   

"Secondly, I would recommend pastors look up the website for the Deaf Bible Society. They have a lot of resources to help people who are interested in starting a deaf ministry. I think their website also highlights the different types of ways that you can approach deaf ministry and help pastors figure out what's the best way to start one.” 

The Deaf Bible Society, based out of Arlington, Texas, is a religious organization that aims to fulfill its mission of "providing the Bible by video in the world's many sign languages." 

The ministry organization reports that there are approximately 70 million sign language users worldwide and more than 350 different kinds of sign languages.

However, according to DBS, only "13% of sign languages have access to portions of Scripture," while only one sign language has a full Bible translation.

"There's not much out there in terms of deaf ministries for the deaf in churches nationally, and additionally, the lack of adequate resources for the deaf is a major problem," Caughman said. 

"In my work with the deaf over the years, I know there are many deaf people who love the Lord Jesus and live in small communities where there is nothing there. Even if their church wanted to have an interpreter, they cannot because the other interpreters live in other small little communities elsewhere." 

Caughman said one positive thing that has happened since the COVID-19 pandemic is more churches have added online sermon visibility options.

Online ministry content has allowed more deaf people to be exposed to the Gospel by watching on YouTube and reading sermon captions to understand what is being preached.  

"Fortunately, many deaf people in this situation without churches that have interpreters are able to be a part of ministries that provide services over YouTube or over Zoom and things like that," Caughman said. 

"They do have that connection. But, just like hearing people can, they would like the opportunity to be physically in contact with other deaf men and women who love Jesus."

Churches banning together for deaf ministry

Redemption Hill Senior Pastor Peter Doerfler told CP that it’s important that more churches come together to start deaf ministries because the need is there. 

“I think, if there's a sense of burden, like a conviction that they ought to be serving in this space, then, I think they ought to reach out probably first to other church ministries that are doing their own deaf ministries — whether they're in deaf churches or hearing churches — to kind of understand the lay of the land. Then, along the way, they'll probably start to get connected to interpreters,” Doerfler said.  

“If they're a hearing church, they'll need to hire interpreters if they don't have their own. But, I feel like relational work has to start first by figuring out if they have a pocket of people within their church who share that vision to start a deaf ministry. If they don't, it probably doesn't make sense."

Before the deaf ministry got started at his church, Doerfler said he first held an ASL class at the church to assess whether or not there was a need for it.

A little over a dozen people showed up to the class, and with that turnout, he said he was moved to establish the deaf ministry at Redemption Hill.  

“It’s definitely a discernment process, like any new ministry, to see what works for any particular church. But, I would start there, and then, if you're like, ‘Yes, we should do it,’ and it seems like the doors are opening, my gut would be to either hire an interpreter and/or teach an ASL Bible study that meets near where the deaf might live,” he said. 

Doerfler said the most rewarding aspects of having a deaf ministry at his church are seeing how the community has grown exponentially in the Lord and knowing that he is reaching a group that might not otherwise be reached if it wasn't for the ministry. 

"The deaf population doesn't have as many options of churches to attend, and so, you really try to do your very best. Hearing people are kind of spoiled. They can say, 'It doesn't really work here; I can try this church or this church or that church,'" Doerfler said. 

"I never want to take our deaf church members for granted and think, 'Well, they don't have that many choices, so they aren't going anywhere.' I guess it's more like, how can we deliver the best, knowing there are far fewer options?" 

Originally published by The Christian Post