One of the most challenging responsibilities of the local church is to be a place where authentic, relevant, and transforming conversations can take place. The church should be the center for conversation about God, faith, love, hope, justice, and reconciliation. This challenge is especially true when it comes to having the conversation about disability inclusion in our churches.
Talking about how to include people with diverse abilities into the life of the church is not an exact science. I myself live with a developmental disability and am continually searching for ways to communicate to churches and pastors the necessity of becoming more disability-inclusive.
There are several things to consider when discussing disability inclusion. Is person first or identity first language more appropriate? Are the terms ‘special needs’ or ‘disability’ offensive or demeaning? What should we call our ministry? Should we ask parents or caregivers to disclose a diagnosis?
Ultimately, each church will need to take inventory of how they can best serve the disability community, but there are a few things to strongly consider that may help you make a real impact for God’s glory. One of my favorite examples of how to create a culture of healthy dialogue in the church is found in Paul’s first letter to his protégé Timothy:
“When I left for Macedonia, I urged you to stay there in Ephesus and stop those whose teaching is contrary to the truth. Don’t let them waste their time in endless discussion of myths and spiritual pedigrees. These things only lead to meaningless speculations, which don’t help people live a life of faith in God. The purpose of my instruction is that all believers would be filled with love that comes from a pure heart, a clear conscience, and genuine faith.” (1 Timothy 1:3-5 NLT)
First, stay focused on the big picture.
Love has been and will always be the point of faith in Jesus. God loves His creation. God loves humanity. God believes that even in our fallen state, we humans have the capacity to love unconditionally, because we bear the image of God. Paul tells Timothy that all of his instruction—instruction that comes from God—is aimed at helping humanity to be full of the love of Christ. This love comes from having a heart that is pure and a conscience that is clear.
In essence, Paul advocates for not just creating safe spaces but the creation of brave spaces. The church needs to carve out space in its ministry to the disability community that fosters a sense of authenticity. Families impacted by disabilities don’t need nor do they have time for pretense. The dynamics between spirit and flesh are more than an intangible concept to ponder. Because of my autism, I wake up every day with the risk of my body and brain doing things that I do not control. In many ways, my faith leads a rebellion against my flesh, and gives me the courage live to the best of my ability each day. Where can I talk about the real challenges of life with disability and not be judged? Where can people empty their hearts and clear their consciences? We have support groups for grief, divorce, substance abuse, and sexual addiction; all of those are brave spaces where people talk about the realities they face. Is the church open to creating opportunities for those impacted by disability, to share what they really deal with every day?
Paul tells Timothy that the type of love we need to fill our hearts comes from the ability to have places and spaces where the true heaviness in our hearts can be released, so our souls can be refreshed. Changing the way we talk about disability in church starts with creating opportunities for those impacted by disability to bravely and safely share their reality.
Second, offer messages and ministry that have spiritual impact.
One of Paul’s pet peeves was a church that engaged in meaningless discussions that did nothing to give practical application to living a life of faith in God. Too often the conversation about special needs and disability ministry is about people with disabilities—without consideration for how the discussion can actually help them live a life of faith! I think what Paul is saying is to avoid the trap of being so technical that we forget to speak to the spiritual needs of the disability community. Yes, we need programs, budgets, and training on how to handle situations that are unique to persons with physical, developmental, and intellectual disabilities, but we cannot neglect their spiritual lives.
When Jesus was interrupted by four men who lowered their friend down through a roof so he could be healed, Jesus choose to address the man’s spiritual needs as well as his practical needs. If the church is to be truly inclusive, then its mission, vision, and values should be accessible to those with disabilities. If the primary purpose is to preach the gospel and to help everyone grow into a deeper relationship with Christ, then there must be real conversations that help move people with disabilities closer to this goal. After all, if we believe in the power of the Holy Spirit, then disability is not a barrier to His work in the hearts of humanity.
Finally, commit to having difficult conversations.
When Paul opens his letter to Timothy, he points to the type of commitment that it will take to change the conversation. He urges Timothy to stay in Ephesus, even though Timothy didn’t want to stay there. I can only imagine how challenging it was for Timothy to have to remain engaged in conversations that were uncomfortable.
Talking about disability-related issues is uncomfortable for many in the church. Oftentimes, it is simply the result of being uneducated. There are as many myths and misunderstandings about disability as there were myths that Paul warned Timothy about. Sometimes I cringe when talking about disability-related issues with other pastors or Christians, because quite honestly they sometimes say things that are unbiblical and unhelpful. Despite it all, I find myself having to remain engaged for the sake of change and for the sake of the gospel.
Sometimes changing the conversation in our congregations about disability will be a great challenge. But seeing the change of hearts, minds, and eternal destiny is well worth the effort.