Many Christians I spend time with are deeply concerned about matters of inclusiveness. Sometimes by this they mean that they wish that their churches were more racially diverse. Others wish the church was more accepting of gay and lesbian people. Sometimes they mean to talk about socio-economic diversity. Only occasionally, however, are they talking about creating a church that is more welcoming of people with disabilities.
Most often, we understand inclusiveness as a change of attitude. The idea is that if we, or others in our congregations, can simply get past our prejudices, we can be a more inclusive church, one that reflects more fully the kingdom of God. Surely there's some truth to this, but it's not nearly enough. Changing the demographics of any congregation will take more than a change of attitude. It takes sweat equity, shared leadership, and a willingness to live and worship in new ways.
One in five people has some form of disability. Think of the wide range of conditions that we refer to when we talk about people with disabilities: autism (which now accounts for one in eighty-eight live births), Down Syndrome, impairments of mobility, blindness and low vision, deafness, PTSD, dementia and Alzheimer's, and many other conditions are considered disabling. People with disabilities are all around us, all the time, and yet many feel shut out from the life of the church. Quite often, parents of children with disabilities simply don't go to church because (a) they don't feel their child is welcome, (b) they don't feel the church is equipped or the staff trained to deal with their child, or (c) it's just too difficult. How many people are not hearing the gospel, not experiencing Christian community, because they or a family member has a disability? How many children with disabilities are missing out on an upbringing in the church?
"But I don't have any people with disabilities in my church."
First, this is probably not true. Many people have hidden disabilities that they conceal in order to prevent others from forming prejudicial opinions about their level of ability.
Second, people with more obvious disabilities might be more willing to show up to a church that is intentionally welcoming of them. This means more than having a wheelchair ramp. It means having staff who have some orientation/training related to welcoming people across a broad range of disabilities. It may mean having a sign interpreter in worship, having accessible bathrooms, and creating space in the sanctuary for wheelchairs. It means having Sunday school teachers who are prepared to welcome children with special needs. It means many other things as well. If you are not sure what needs to be done in your church to welcome people with disabilities, you can have a disability audit. We just had one at United, and part of what we learned was how much we still have to learn about hospitality. Being welcoming is not easy business, but it is crucial for the fulfillment of the church's mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ.
For all of the talk about inclusiveness among mainline Protestants, many of us are still failing to welcome into our churches thousands and thousands of people who need to hear the gospel. And this leads me to the conclusion that we really need to rethink what we mean by "inclusiveness." Where is the furor over the unwitting exclusion of these people? How much time will we spend at our next General Conference talking about this matter?
Each year, United Theological Seminary and Ginghamsburg UMC jointly host a church renewal conference called "Light the Fire!" This year's conference will be on church renewal and people with disabilities. It will be held on May 8-9 2014. If you have any interest in learning more about these matters, please see the information below:
Registration for this year's Light the Fire! 2014 conference is open to the public. United is offering a special rate of $99 each (that's a $50 savings!) if registered by March 21st (World Down Syndrome Day).
Light the Fire! 2014: The Fullness of Christ -- A Church for All People will be held at Ginghamsburg Church, 6759 S. County Road 25A, Tipp City, OH. Featured speakers include Marva J. Dawn, William "Bill" Gaventa, Barbara J. Newman, Jeremy Schipper and Mike Slaughter.
This year's Light the Fire! conference will equip clergy and laity to be faithful in ministry with people with disabilities. The conference will include theological discussion with plenty of "how to" sessions for creating a church of people of all abilities. For more information or to register, visit United's website.