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Welcoming Those on the Margins: Disability

“A radically accepting church.”

Could your church or ministry be described this way? Now don’t freak out. I’m not talking about being radically accepting of unrepentant sin. But we’ve got to stop having such a hard and visceral reaction to being known as being accepting. Not all forms of acceptance are evil.

We all wanted to be accepted in our churches while we carried with us the shame and guilt of our sin as Jesus dealt kindly with us through his people. When my wife was visiting a church in the community she had just moved to, she was approached after the service by a woman who told her in no uncertain terms, “We don’t like sinners here. The church is only as strong as its weakest link”.

We should recoil from this, but it might be closer to the truth of how our churches function than we like to admit.

Do we create places for those on the margins of society to come and be known, loved, and met by the love of Christ?


An Historical Example

This was the way of the early church as they grappled and understood the radical new ethic given to them by the resurrected Lord Jesus. We have some understanding of how the early church cared for infants, children, and adults with dignity and value seeing them as loved by God and able to participate in the community of faith. This same outlook included the disabled.

One of the Cappadocian Fathers and an influential early church thinker, Gregory of Nyssa, contributed to an understanding of the place of the disabled in the Church as indivisible to the way of Christ, “The hand is mutilated but it is not insensitive to assistance. The foot is gangrenous but always able to run to God; the eye is missing, but it discerns invisible goodness nonetheless, to the enlightenment of the soul” (On the Love of the Poor).

Commenting upon Gregory of Nyssa’s assertion, Almut Caspary said, “The social integration of the weak, the ill, the lame, the old, and the poor was seen as integral to the way of Christ and therefore of human redemption” (Disability in the Christian Tradition).

Bringing those on the margins into the community of the Church is not optional for God’s people, because Jesus’ teaching in Matt 25:40 (“Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”) has always been applied in the church community throughout the history of the church.


Not Just ADA Compliant

My church is getting ready to renovate an old church building. One of the major considerations every contractor we’ve talked with had is in making the building ADA compliant. This means creating easy access into the building and, in case of emergency, safe and easy access to exits for those in wheelchairs or who otherwise need assistance to get around. There is an agreed upon lowest common denominator in these codes that every contractor is shooting for to pass inspections.

Sadly, I think many churches approach those with disabilities in the same way. What is the lowest bar we can set to be inclusive? I pray this is not intentional, but I think there is a better way. That better way is thinking not about the least we can do to welcome those with disabilities, but what are the opportunities we have to increase the width of our welcome to see those with disabilities enjoy the life of Christ in the community of his people unhindered?

It might look like providing ASL translations of your service, extra room in your rows of chairs for wheelchairs, more training for kids ministry leaders to welcome and care for children with disabilities, and so on. What if these measures were already in place before someone who needed them ever came through the door?

Ministry leaders and pastors, spend some time with your leadership teams widening the doors of your church, both physically and metaphorically. Pray for the differently abled people in your community, that they would feel welcome to walk through those doors. And pray the Lord would bless you with saints affected by disability and find them meaningful places to participate in the body. It is not just our Christian duty, but our Christian joy to enjoy worship with all those the Lord calls into his body from all across the spectrum of abilities.

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