When you think about your fellow churchgoer, who is the person that you picture? The elderly woman who lives in the high rise down the street from the grocery store. The local dentist who dresses up like a mad scientist to pass out candy for Halloween. The school custodian who volunteers at every church clean-up event. What about the young man with the cognitive impairment who lives in the group home? Or the older woman with cerebral palsy who often works on the computers at the library? Or even the man with the mental illness who can be seen shouting on Main Street?
Across churches, our congregations are filled with people who look just like us and remind us of ourselves. We value the community of our congregations because the people are so easy to connect with. However, if we look around the pews on any given Sunday, I think it is fair to say that the kingdom of God is a bit more diverse than those who come to worship alongside us. Specifically, God’s kingdom on Earth includes a colorful collage of people with different disabilities. Often times, people with disabilities are excluded from congregations, though it is rarely intentional. Churches consider themselves to be welcoming and most assume that sharing a mission statement that includes the sentiment that “all are welcome” should be enough to bring in flocks of folks from every walk of life.
But, it has been said that an invitation to everyone is an invitation to no one. Extending a general welcome is courteous, but ultimately goes unnoticed by the majority of the target audience. Outreach to “non-traditional” congregation members must be intentional. It is about going out into their world in a meaningful way and engaging in relationships that open the door for them to enter our world. This is especially true for welcoming people with disabilities, some of whom may not be familiar with church or may had negative experiences with past congregations. Opening the door and adding an accessible ramp is not enough. We have to be willing to walk alongside them as they enter into this novel setting.
Once we have made the effort to bring people with disabilities into our congregations, we encounter the secondary problem of figuring out how to help them to become involved in the most beneficial way. Like every other person who comes to church, people with disabilities are looking for a community of people to grow with, both spiritually and socially. For those of us who may not have much experience in the disability community, this task may seem daunting. What if I say the wrong thing? I don’t want to offend anyone. What if they don’t worship the way that I do? I don’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable. What if we don’t have the accommodations they need? I don’t want to cause anyone trouble.
The answer to each of these questions can be answered by first looking to
1 Corinthians 16:14 “Let all that you do be done in love.” We are not welcoming people with disabilities into our congregations out of obligation or pity. We are doing it because we love them as brothers and sisters in Christ. This love drives us to ask how we can make church work for them, not demand that they participate in church on our terms. This love draws us into meaningful relationships, not superficial programs. This love necessitates that we enter into the situations where we feel uncomfortable and refuse to emerge until we have found common ground.
Ultimately, welcoming people with disabilities into a congregation is less about attending to special needs; it is about fulfilling the basic needs of all people. The need to be accepted, the need to belong, the need to be appreciated, the need to be loved, and so on. When they are invited into the congregation and choose to engage in a way that is meaningful for them, these are the things that they are hoping to receive, in addition to spiritual nourishment. Perhaps when this happens, we can begin to see our congregation as more than just the conventional members that we are accustomed to.
About the Blog
Journey through the season of Advent with daily updates on the adventures of St. Mark's Lutheran Church in Belliacre, MI as they attempt to cobble together a Christmas Pageant with an unlikely cast of characters.
Stephanie is an art educator and a landscape/portrait artist. Her inspirations come from the amazing people she meets and the gorgeous state of Michigan as well as her home state of Florida. She and he husband love nature. They are out in the water during the summer months and on the snow in the winter enjoying the simple pleasures of life.