Disability is a topic that rarely crosses the minds of most churchgoers -- until it strikes someone they love.
As a parent of a child with special needs, and as an academic working in the field of disability theology, I’ve been engaging for years with churches puzzled about how best to be welcoming to people with disabilities, especially families who have children with special needs.
Often, pastors are only slightly embarrassed to admit that they haven’t thought about the theological questions surrounding disability. They do not have to, research tells us, because most pastors are not regularly confronted with it in their churches.
Bethany Fox, in writing “Disability and the Way of Jesus,” interviewed pastors from a wide range of Christian traditions in the Los Angeles area.
Pastors typically described their relationship to people with special needs as “responsive,” Fox found. As one pastor put it, “When people come to us, then we try to answer those needs and help them in whatever way we can.”
The stories pastors told were almost always framed in terms of the needs for help or accommodation that people with disabilities presented to the congregation.
Fox found, in sum, that most pastors experience the appearance at church of people with disabilities as a challenge, representing “burdens and practical tasks for the church’s leadership that benefit only the people with disabilities themselves.”
About 19% of people in the United States live with some type of disability, according to government statistics. This is not a rare life circumstance. Yet people with disabilities are far less likely to attend worship services, Bible studies and other church activities than those without disabilities. What keeps them from coming?
A U.S. study of more than 400 churchgoing families with a special needs child found that a third had left a church because they found it unwelcoming. Nearly half said they had refrained from participating in some church activity because they felt that their family member was not well received.
In “Redefining Perfect,” theologian Amy Jacober describes a research project in which she extensively surveyed the experiences of children, teens and families in churches:
Again and again I was told that families cherished the church, but once they had a child with a special need, they could no longer be involved. I heard stories of being asked to leave as their child was too disruptive. Others were told that no one was able to handle their child. For many, they experienced sitting in pews, working hard to “handle” their own child and no one came to say hello, let alone help. What all but a few had in common is that they felt unwelcomed in countless small ways. It wasn’t that anyone told them out loud church was no place for a family impacted by disability, but that was the message they received loud and clear. At some point, they just got too tired to keep trying and experience rejection and stress in a place that was established by God to allow us to bear one another’s burdens.
By radiating a passive lack of welcome, the church, like most places in modern society, becomes yet another social space people with special needs feel they should avoid.
But here’s the amazing truth: if Christians give some attention to thinking well about the disability experience, they will discover it as an especially promising gateway to truly life-giving ways of living as a Christian.
Notice that I did not say churches need to set up a disability ministry.
Church leaders gravitate to the idea of a separate disability ministry, because it means they can turn the “problem” over to experts.
But as a solution to a “problem,” such a ministry will be hard-pressed to thrive.
Sometimes, there’s a long delay after the need for special ministry becomes apparent as churches try to find an expert to run the program. Other times, especially in bigger, richer churches, a disability minister is hired and separate services begun that cater to those with special needs, but there is no real connection with the rest of the congregation.
Sarah Shea and Sam Ip, pastors in a large and successful disability ministry at an evangelical megachurch in Hong Kong, came to Scotland to study with my colleagues and me in Aberdeen because they needed to spend some time thinking about how to get their church to engage more with the people they minister to.
Most of the people who attend their ministry live in a sheltered housing complex in a nearby high-rise apartment building. It is for many their only trip out of their care home all week.
Though their church’s special needs ministry is well supported, it meets outside the main sanctuary. For years, Shea and Ip have been trying to persuade the church that they need their disabled brothers and sisters worshipping with them -- so far, without success.
This may be an extreme case, but it is not atypical. Churches can imagine ministering to people with disabilities but find it much harder to understand themselves as worshipping with people with disabilities, especially intellectual disabilities.
Once churches have programs, they fit people into them -- and the rest of the congregation can proceed as if the “problem” of disability is resolved. What is lacking is an appreciation of mutual interdependence.
It is hard to preach on this theme, harder to let someone with disabilities preach on this theme, and harder still to invite a person with disabilities onto the pastoral staff. Yet a yearning for unity in genuine diversity points in all these directions and more.
Of course, some great work is being done in a few high-quality special needs ministries that have sprung up over the last decade.
If you have a ministry in your church and it is working, Amen! Any church that manages to open a welcoming and secure space for those with disabilities and their families is to be commended.
At the same time, something vital is lost if all members of a congregation do not have opportunities to get to know and receive the gifts of people with special needs in their church.
Christians have to be able to discern the difference between a ministry that solves a “problem” for a congregation and the full-blooded New Testament vision of genuine mutual interdependence that is the essence of the body of Christ.