According to a study by LifeWay Research, “Nearly every pastor (99 percent) and churchgoer (97 percent) says someone with a disability would feel welcomed and included at their church.”
But families like mine read that statistic and feel a disconnect.
Having a sister with Down syndrome, I’ve been a member of a special-needs family my entire life. The churches I grew up in were truly welcoming to my family. But when our son, James, was diagnosed with autism 10 years ago, I realized our church, which my husband pastored, didn’t have any special-needs families. If asked, we would’ve said anyone with a disability was welcome, but we weren’t living that out.
How can churches become more welcoming to kids, teens, and adults with disabilities? As I reflect on the steps my church took 10 years ago, I’m confident every church can move from “We think people with disabilities would be welcome” to “We know they would be welcome.”
I’m confident every church can move from ‘We think people with disabilities would be welcome’ to ‘We know they would be welcome.’
Here are four ways churches can work toward achieving that:
1. Develop a theology of disability.
In her book Same Lake, Different Boat, Stephanie Hubach presents three perspectives on disability. The modernist perspective sees disability as an abnormal part of life in our normal world. The postmodern perspective sees disability as a normal part of life in our normal world. The biblical perspective, however, sees disability as a normal (expected) part of life in our abnormal world.
Psalm 139 says we are all “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps. 139:14). God took the same care to knit together a person born with Down syndrome as someone born with the typical number of chromosomes. In 2 Samuel 9, David honored Jonathan’s crippled son Mephibosheth by inviting him to eat at his table, valuing their relationship enough to break down the barriers of shame and accessibility.
In John 9, when the disciples asked Jesus if a certain man’s blindness was his fault or his parents’, Jesus corrected their assumptions by saying the man’s disabilities existed “that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3).
Understanding special needs as an expected reality in our abnormal, post-fall world helps us build a theology of disability that values all human life as made in God’s image.
2. Believe every part of Christ’s body is necessary.
Every member of Christ’s body is necessary to fulfill the mission of his church, the body of Christ. Some body parts are weaker than others, but they are still worthy of great honor (1 Cor. 12:12–27). Even more, “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor. 12:26).
If you judged my son James by what he seems able to do for our church family, you may put him at the bottom of the list of valuable church members. He is functionally nonverbal, which means he’s likelier to answer your “Good morning” with a quote from one of his favorite movies than with what we consider an appropriate response.
But after weeks of helping him feel comfortable with the lights and sounds in our worship service, this Mother’s Day he was able to stand with us in the front row during the songs. He wore noise-reducing headphones and leaned against his dad for support, but James’s presence was an encouragement to those around us.
In the following days, we received emails and texts about how much it meant to others to see our son worshiping with us. This moment showed our church that God’s grace is sufficient even in our challenges, and every person can encourage others with the encouragement he has received (2 Cor. 1:3–4).
God’s grace is sufficient even in our challenges, and every person can encourage others with the encouragement he has received.
3. Grow in accessibility.
A big part of coming alongside those with disabilities is breaking down barriers to accessibility. All persons deserve access to the gospel, to community, and to worship. Churches need to be willing to make accommodations, even when it requires sacrifice.
Every activity we do—from Sunday morning worship to small groups to sports camps to potlucks—should be accessible to as many as possible. This may require more money and more volunteers, but what a privilege to trust God to provide! Could it be that he’s already placed people in your church who can help meet the needs of special-needs families? Let’s seek them out and invite them to serve in this way.
Could it be that he’s already placed people in your church who can help meet the needs of special-needs families?
There are many self advocates and family advocates who help churches with the practical side of being more inclusive. And as churches seek out these resources, more and more will become available.
4. Seek out special-needs families.
One in five families in the U.S. has a member with a disability. But we shouldn’t expect them to join our churches if we’re not purposefully seeking them out.
Our church plans outreach events specifically targeting special-needs families, such as sensory-friendly movie mornings and a reserved time at the local bounce house. We host respite nights and a day of pampering for moms and caregivers. Instead of settling for a “come and see” approach, we seek out families who are less likely to attend church. We let them know they’re welcome and that we’re committed to learning how to best serve their family.
We also remind our members with disabilities, our special-needs families, and those who work in healthcare and special education that they are missionaries. They know the struggles special-needs families face, and they understand the often-confusing language of acronyms and diagnoses. As a church, we labor to encourage and equip these frontline missionaries.
Becoming a more welcoming church to people with disabilities requires us to die to ourselves in small and big ways. But the reward is great: a church body reflecting the compassion of Jesus for every kind of person.