In a world where one of the largest unreached people groups is those who have disabilities and additional needs – with a figure of 95 per cent unreached – I would like to think that the Church worldwide could truly open their doors, not just to let people in, but to reach out into our communities too.
If we want to reach people with disabilities and additional needs, and their families, with the good news of Jesus, we need to ask ourselves whether our churches are truly places that are open and welcoming to these communities.
When we speak about a church that is truly open, we are referring to both access and valuing difference.
Our thinking is not just about physical access, but intellectual and sensory accessibility too. It is seeing disability and difference as normal in the life of the church, and not the exception. Seeing people of all abilities alive in faith and in service, freed to serve and follow their gifting.
Belonging is key. Having an accessible church does not always make it an “open” church. By “belonging” we mean being missed because of who you are, rather than sensing relief because the perceived difficulties of access have been resolved by your absence. Belonging comes in the welcome, in understanding and recognising where difficulties may lie. It is in the invitations given and the acceptance of who someone is. It is also understanding what is needed by an individual to access all that the church gives, in life and faith.
This will be a church where all can participate in worship regardless of what is needed to facilitate that worship.
Personal preference often prevents some from taking part in all forms of worship. We need to be humble enough to realise that making the church accessible to the few will most likely make it more accessible to all, and that may mean putting down our own preferences in how we present, praise and preach.
We need to recognise that those needing special accommodations often feel guilty for asking – often because of the way the request has been received in the past – and therefore they may not ask again.
It is good to have at least a basic understanding of what is needed and have a church that naturally meets those needs, and can begin to meet other needs as they arise. The question “What do you need?” is greatly under used, and would prevent so much hurt and misunderstanding. I think it should be added to normal Christian phrases – near the top of the list.
A church that is open views all people as God’s creation. They do not view some as a health and safety risk due to having a mobility aid, a guide dog or an intellectual disability. They do not see those with disabilities, additional needs or illnesses as a project for prayer, assuming that being well is the only way you can be whole. They do not view them as an object of pity either. And above all, they do not question their faith because of their circumstances. We must all realise that not all healing is physical – there is a distinct difference between curing and healing. Healing can also be acceptance of circumstances beyond our control, and that includes disability.
In this sort of church, having a disability or an additional need is not a barrier to ministry. In fact, ministry is encouraged and gifting is facilitated with all who attend – according to spiritual gifting, and not an ill-informed perception of what a person can or cannot do.
The church often misses out on tremendous blessing because we see the disability or need before we see gifts. But we also need to note that we are not blessed by them because of their disability, but rather because God has uniquely gifted them in the area they minister in.
As the Church worldwide let’s truly open our doors and our hearts to one of the largest unreached people groups – those with disabilities and additional needs – and also reach out and build relationships with disabled people within our communities, sharing with them the good news of Jesus.
Apparently one in five people have a disability or additional need of some form or another. I long to see that reflected in our churches, showing that we are truly open and not creating barriers which prevent anyone coming into a living relationship with Jesus.