2 Corinthians 12:7-10 (ESV)
… a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
So in part 1, I discuss how we tend to hide disability in the church because we don’t really know how it fits in our theology, kind of like a hole in a rich man’s sock. In part 2, I showed how God used many heroes in the Bible while they were still disabled to change lives. In part 3, I talk about how everyone who gets healed still ends up dying one day and that healing isn’t about the absence of illness or injury, but about the restoration of the spirit. In this part, I want to discuss where disability belongs in our churches, which is front a center of our theology and our ministry, not to receive sympathy, but as examples of Christ.
So do all churches need disability ministries?
What!?! I hear the screams of all my readers rise up in unison. Before you hang me by my toenails, let me explain.
Not all churches have youth ministries, children ministries, men and women’s ministries; yet all these demographics should feel comfortable attending any typical church. Some churches are more successful than others in this, I admit, but the ideal church should be diverse and accepting without having segregated ministries. Why should disability be different? The disabled are people too, created by God as they are. Exodus 4:11 (ESV) says, “Then the Lord said to him, ‘Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?'”
Most people I meet, and even well-meaning articles online don’t realize how much they treat disability as something other. It’s out there to be ministered too, but they can’t relate. Yet, every single one of us deals with trials of various kinds, whether financial, relational, death of a loved one, loss of a job, persecution, etc. We still attend, minister, and are accepted in the church and are seen as faithful Christians.
Most people don’t realize that the majority of parents who have children with disabilities stop attending church. According to All God’s Children by Joni Eareckson Tada and Gene Newman, only 5% of churches have a ministry for people with disabilities, and 95% of people with a disability do not actively attend any church. 20% of the population is disabled. Here is a post from a pastor’s wife who has noticed the same problem as me (https://www.ellenstumbo.com/confessions-pastors-wife-church-forgetting-us/). I have also met many of these parents and seen their stories in my Facebook groups. Not only is the church service challenging for a special needs person because of the sensory elements (bright lights, loud music, tons of people, weird smells, unpredictable schedules, etc.), but many of these children are actually pushed out of the church both intentionally and unintentionally. I heard one parent describe how children were physically pulled away from her child with Down syndrome and told they shouldn’t play with him. I saw another child in a wheelchair left in the corner of a Sunday School class while the teacher taught the rest of the children. I even heard one parent tell me that they were kicked out of a church because their child was too loud. This doesn’t happen just to children either.
Adults, too, are kicked out of churches for their disabilities. I met a blind girl in college who was kicked out of the choir because the pastor’s wife didn’t like all the strange faces she made. I have heard of people in wheelchairs get frustrated that the only doors they can use to enter the church are always locked. Here is a post of another person in a wheelchair who struggled (https://www.christiantoday.com/article/thingsdisabledpeopleknow-churches-arent-good-with-disability/131526.htm). I met deaf people who couldn’t understand the sign language interpreters at the churches because they didn’t sign real ASL. Also, the churches couldn’t understand why the deaf people kept sitting right next to the drums and the music section when they had their deaf section on the other side of the church. The church leadership didn’t realize that the deaf can feel the drums and actually enjoy the music if it’s loud enough. The anger, hurt, and resentment among the disabled who are attacked continuously to be prayed for by well-meaning evangelist, pastors, and church members is genuine.
Did you know churches and Christian schools in America campaigned to be exempt from disability access law – and succeeded? What does that tell the special needs community about the church?
To these people, every evangelist is trying to be a faith healer, going up to them uninvited and demanding, “Be healed in Jesus name!” Then, when they aren’t, the evangelist shouts and spits with his hand on their head, trying his hardest to force that healing to happen. Finally, when God has gives a firm “no” (just like for Paul), the evangelist leaves the victim feeling depressed and rejected by God.
But this doesn’t have to be! Instead of trying to force a physical healing when God chooses not to, let us focus on the heart. The hurts, the need for love, and acceptance are very real for everyone. God still loves the disabled person just as much as the preacher on the stage. Then we should allow, even encourage, every person to attend, be discipled, and encouraged in their own calling to minister to those in their world, even if that means becoming a preacher on the stage. Yes, even in a wheelchair, even blind, even deaf!
1 Corinthians 12:12-27 (ESV) says, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.
(Emphasis added, cause I want you to pay attention to that even if you skim the rest!)
Some think that those with disabilities might be able to attend church, but they certainly can’t minister. This is NOT true! I know a boy with cerebral palsy who wants to be a music minister. I can’t wait to see him do it! I weep thinking about how beautiful that will be. Luckily, he isn’t alone. A minister in the UK, Haydon Spenceley, also has Ceribal Palsey (https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2018/6-july/features/features/ordinations-disabled-but-enabled). I once had someone tell me that they thought my son with autism would grow up to be a minister. Can you imagine? A boy who couldn’t hold the simplest conversation at five years old? And yet I have met a minister who was on the autistic spectrum. Here is an article from other autistic ministers, Lamar Hardwick (https://www.christianitytoday.com/pastors/2017/may-web-exclusives/how-i-leverage-my-autism-for-pastoral-ministry.html), and Dennis Sanders ( https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2015-04/why-i-dread-pastoral-visits). I have also seen a Christian motivational speaker who had no arms or legs, Nick Vujicic (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nknzSWDcUgA). Many people know of Joni Tada who has ministered to thousands from her wheelchair and with her books (https://www.reviveourhearts.com/season/a-conversation-with-joni/).
What am I saying?
I am saying people with disabilities aren’t “other” to feel sorry for or to ignore. They are people who need Jesus to heal their hearts and lead them to the purpose he created them for.
I don’t know if you, reading this, are one with a disability or perhaps one who has rarely even met a person with a disability, but what I want you to know is God can use everyone. He loves everyone. He has a plan for everyone! He has ordered our steps. He knew before you were born what abilities you would have, and he made you that way on purpose (Psalm 139:13-14). He says you were wonderfully made.
I know it is hard for both those with disabilities and those without to understand each other. It takes an openness and vulnerability from both parties to learn God’s purposes, but we are commanded to try and carry each other’s burdens, to learn about each other’s needs (Galatians 6:2-3).
Those with disabilities will need to forgive the church for their ignorance and then take the role of teacher to instruct those around you about the world of disability. Most people on either side don’t realize that there is a unique world of disability with medical treatments, therapies, assistive devices, lifestyle modifications, unique terminology, unique laws, and tons of paperwork for everything. It may be hard for those with disabilities to believe, but many people have no experience with disabilities at all. You may be their first encounter, and those newbies are often afraid of doing the wrong thing, so they try to avoid trying at all. Please, keep trying to find a church community who will try. It will be enriching to you when you succeed. There are those who get it in the church. It is still a work in progress, though.
For those without disabilities in the church, don’t run away from the issue. Reach out! Here are articles by Christians and churches who are addressing the issue of inclusion: (note: I don’t attend all these different denominations, but I am in support of their concern for inclusion)
For those who want a simple guide on how to begin including those with disabilities in the church, here are some easy and cheap steps EVERY church can implement:
1) Be kind – It may seem common sense, but this is the primary thing that makes a church inclusive or not. the majority of the complaints I read about the church from those with disabilities fall right here in the realm of normal kindness. When a person with a disability attends your church, talk to the disabled person, not just their caretaker. Shake their hand. Ask how you can help them feel comfortable there. If they are a person with autism or speech and language struggles, asked them a question and then give them extra time to answer. Even if they don’t respond or even look at you, continue to include them in the conversation. It is very likely they understand you, but can’t communicate. This was the primary reason why I attend our current church, which does not have a special needs program. The people at my church speak to my son and accept him even when he doesn’t answer.
40 “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. 41 The one who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and the one who receives a righteous person because he is a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. 42 And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.” Matthew 10:40-42 (ESV)
2) Listen – This is another common sense one, but one most people don’t do. People may be kind, but then they often assume, by the label or diagnosis you tell them that they know exactly what you need. STOP! Every disability is unique. A person in a wheelchair may want to sit in the front of the sanctuary so they can see the stage when everyone stands or they may want to sit in the back so no one can stare at them. A person with autism may want to sit in the back of the church so they can escape when they experience sensory overload or sit in the front so they can focus without distractions. A blind person may want to sit in front of the preacher so they can hear better or perhaps in the back because that’s where the speakers are. Asked the person with the disability what they need and then listen.
3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Philippians 2:3-4 (ESV)
3) Educate yourself – Read up about accommodating disabilities. There are many books on Amazon. It is astounding how little some people know about the possible needs of those with a disability who come into their church. I heard about someone who was deaf being asked if they needed braille (a writing system for the blind). I knew of another person who said their child was autistic and were told that was fine as long as they don’t color on the furniture (they thought they meant artistic). It is impossible to become an expert on everything, but just get a general overview so you know what basic disabilities are. This helps you be better prepared to understand the oddities of each disability without having a full thirty-minute lesson on what a person is dealing with. Believe me, it gets tiring to repeat over an over again the full description of what autism is and isn’t before getting to what my son specifically needs.
15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. Ephesians 4:15-16 (ESV)
4) Imagine your service through the eyes of those with the most common disabilities – How would a person in a wheelchair get into your building, see the service, partake communion? What about a person who can’t see well? What about those with hearing aids or deaf? How about intellectual disabilities? With a little imagination and small tweaks, your service can become much more comfortable to attend. If a person with a disability is able to go to Walmart or McDonald’s, they should be able to participate in church too.
21 In that same hour he rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. Luke 10:21 (ESV)
Some basic ideas to help those with disabilities are:
* Project the words of songs and notes for the sermon onto the wall (written in a non-serif font such as Arial) for those who have vision problems, hearing problems, and intellectual disabilities.
* Have a pamphlet/bulletin with the order of service for those on the autistic spectrum.
* Have a buddy system for children with special needs to be helped by an older child volunteer in Sunday School. (Don’t be surprised if parents of special needs children would rather keep their children with them because of anxiety issues or previous hurts)
* Post contact information on websites so that special needs adults and parents of special needs children can call to ask if the church can meet their needs when they attend. We contacted our church about my son’s autism. They provided us a visual schedule that had velcro pieces and encouraged us to let them know if they could do anything more. It was fantastic!
* Check that a wheelchair can get into your building and sit close to the front of the sanctuary if they want.
5) Have grace and patience – People with special needs may not act like everyone else. A person born blind has no idea that people are looking at the facial expressions they are making. They don’t even know what their facial expressions look like compared to others. Those on the autistic spectrum participate in many different kinds of stemming (repeated motions) and echolalia (repeating what other people are saying). A person with an intellectual disability may act like a child even if they are in an adult body. Some people with hidden disabilities may seem lazy because they won’t stand when the congregation does. All of these things need to be understood with patience and grace beyond that of even typical society. If possible, when you see a parent whose child with an intellectual disability or autism is having a hard time, instead of just ignoring it, comfort the family and tell them that they are loved at church. Honestly, it’s hard for these families even to be there and horribly embarrassing when their child misbehaves, even if they can’t help it.
25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. 26 For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. 1 Corinthians 1:25-29 (ESV)
6) Preach about it – This last one is on my “when you wish upon a star” list. The easiest way for a pastor to get the whole church on board with accepting those with disabilities is to talk about it at the pulpit, yet, in my whole life, I have NEVER heard a single sermon about including people with disabilities in the church. I have never even heard it mentioned in passing from the pulpit. I have attended church my whole life, been a member at big and small churches who had disabled members, and not once have I heard disability referred to outside of teachings on healing. In these four posts, I hope I have enough verses that someone might be able to scrounge up a statement or two to tell their congregations that God made the disabled person just the way they are and loves them as much as anyone else. Believe it or not, that is all it takes to make a person feel included: acknowledging they exist and are welcomed.
3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4 For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, 5 so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. 6 Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; 7 if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; 8 the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. Romans 12:3-8 (ESV).
So, in conclusion, the disabled are not just “the future healed” but people who God wants to minister in their weakness until the day he either heals them or calls them to their heavenly home. These people may never become pastors or even leaders or volunteers (depending on their abilities), but we should encourage everyone to seek out their created purpose as a member of the church body. They are loved by God as they are, not as a burden on society nor as mysteries nor as accidents, but as an example of Christ on earth. Each one of us was created as we are on purpose and we each need to be there for each other to fulfill our purpose.