This is part 3 of a series on disability ministry. You can read part 1 here.

We are continuing a discussion about the church becoming an inclusive place for persons with disability. This becoming is fluid in its implementation and has no set destination. Each person and each family may present unique opportunities or reveal assumptions that must be challenged.

However, there are obvious places to start in order to create an environment that communicates a wider welcome. Churches that have not intentionally thought through their approach to disability ministry may be reflecting a society of marginalization rather than leading the way for the community as a whole to become more inclusive. A church that includes persons with disability is a more accurate reflection of the body of Christ to the watching world.

Create a Welcoming Environment

My wife and I recently started to attend a new church and got to take our little family—including our daughter with disability—into a new space. Going to a new place for us requires the type of strategy normally allotted to the takeover of hostile countries. We had to pre-talk to the children’s ministry. We had to prepare our daughter’s assigned buddy in order to equip her on how to deal with certain behaviors that manifest because of her autism.

I encourage church leaders—both lay and clergy—to experience their own programming and facilities through the eyes of a person or family with disability. Start at the parking lot and go through all the steps:

  • What if you were in a wheelchair?
  • What if you were blind?
  • What if you were deaf?
  • What if you had a child who might have an outburst or doesn’t prefer loud noises or needs a buddy in order to attend Sunday school?

After experiencing your facility and programming this way, notice whether you were welcomed by a knowledgeable person who could answer your questions about the church’s available disability supports (such as hearing equipment, accessible bathrooms, kids’ ministry, etc.).

Align Your Communication Methods

Typically there are many different people who might communicate on behalf of a church community—whether greeters, pastors, teachers, or outreach leaders. This abundant availability of potential interaction points sounds positive, but it can actually hurt a church’s chances to welcome persons with disability if just one of these people is unhelpful in their approach. Unfortunately, many families and persons with disability have personally experienced a time when their presence was not valued, either in the church or places in the community.

It is important that everyone who communicates on behalf of a church is on the same page regarding the church’s approach to disability, available support services, and how to obtain unknown information. Therefore, everyone representing the church should be able to articulate a specified level of competence when communicating about disability. A church team that demonstrates a welcoming and uniform approach will go a long way toward worshiper retention when persons and families experiencing disability arrive at your doors.

I always advise churches to have one person to point to for answers to questions regarding disability that go beyond the scope of the common knowledge. This allows everyone to point to the same answer when unanticipated issues arise. It also ensures that someone is running with finding answers during the week when others on the church team have moved on to other things. This does not mean all responsibility falls on this one person, but it aids in making sure education and understanding continue to grow within the church.

Learn the Language

I cannot overstate that how we talk about disability in the church should not be dismissed. When a certain segment of the population has been culturally marginalized and often neglected by the church, words can be the tools by which we build bridges or obstacles between ourselves and persons with disability.

Person-first language is a simple way to prioritize the humanity of the individual rather than the disability. For instance, do not say autistic child, but do say child with autism. Or, do not say disabled person but do say person with disability.

Unsurprisingly, there are also words or phrases that are considered offensive and should never be used to communicate to or about persons whom you long to include and welcome. This list is not exhaustive, but it reflects the terms most commonly used within churches. Do not use terms like suffers from, handicap, able-bodied, retarded (including mentally retarded).

As Christians, we must be a people who communicate the important message that all are valued, loved, and accepted regardless of achievement or ability.

 Always Listen

I understand that, many times, provisions like the ones provided here surrounding how we use language can cause folks to throw up their hands in fear of doing something wrong. However, I hope you will not feel that way. Rather, take time to ask the families and persons experiencing disability how you’re doing and what can be done to be a more welcoming place to others in your community. And if you have families or persons experiencing disability in your faith community who come to you with suggestions for improvement, always listen patiently and politely to their concerns and ensure that your response to these interactions is first and foremost a commitment to improvement.

As Christians, we must be a people who communicate the important message that all are valued, loved, and accepted regardless of achievement or ability. I hope you will partner with me and with those in your faith community to propel the church forward in this way.