From Pity to Community
The evolution of disability ministries
On a June morning in 2002, my wife and I celebrated the birth of our daughter, Lilly. However, our festive mood halted abruptly when the doctor told us our baby had Down syndrome and would face a lifetime of challenges.
We were still processing this new reality weeks later when we introduced Lilly at church. That’s when we first heard well-meaning Christian friends and leaders make insensitive comments like, “Let me pray for your baby — to get the Down syndrome out.”
Such experiences forced me to evaluate my own blind spots. During my years of pastoral training, I never heard a lecture on the theology or practice of disability ministry.
Given the number of people disability affects — either directly or as caregivers — a lack of understanding in our churches is a problem.
In Changing Attitudes About Disability, Dan Vander Plaats identifies five stages of attitudes toward disability and their impact on ministry:
The first stage is ignorance. Churchgoers in this stage don’t know anyone with disabilities and may even assume God doesn’t use them.
The second stage is pity. It’s easy to feel sorry for people with disabilities, while also assuming someone else should help them.
The third stage is care. Christians in this stage believe they have an obligation to minister to individuals with disabilities since God created all people in His image.
The fourth stage is friendship. After getting to know people with disabilities, the benefits of worshipping alongside them become apparent.
The fifth stage is co-laborers. This involves an understanding that people with disabilities can fully respond to God’s call on their lives through service and ministry.
Where on this continuum are you? Where is your congregation? Regardless of the stage in the journey, keep moving toward greater understanding and inclusion.
Awareness moves churches from ignorance to pity.
A century ago in the U.S., there was little disability awareness. People like Lilly were quietly removed from society, sterilized, placed in institutions, and forgotten.
Even today, disability awareness in many churches is low.
Increase your own awareness by reaching out to people in your congregation and community who live with disabilities. Listen to them. Provide opportunities for them and their families to share their stories.
Some pastors welcome people with disabilities but insist on trying to pray them back to normalcy. Because of the history of marginalization, disabled parishioners may interpret this as suggesting they or their families have no value to God.
When a disabled person comes forward for prayer, don’t assume you know the need. Many people who are born with disabilities embrace their identity as a part of God’s diverse creation. However, like anyone else, they may seek healing for an illness, injury, or emotional wound. Always ask how you should pray.
To advance from pity to care, churches must commit to providing access.
In recent years, some churches have made great strides in this area, developing classes for special needs children and respite nights for caregivers.
Even before the pandemic, innovative congregations offered online services with host pastors to reach people who could not attend in person. In 2020, many more churches joined them. Since that time, disability advocates have been asking pastors to keep online options available.
An inclusive and diverse church that lives up to the prophetic promise of 1 Corinthians 12
is well worth the investments of time, energy and resources.
Churches must also continue to examine barriers that make in-person attendance difficult, such as a lack of transportation.
Consider whether your ministry and evangelism opportunities inadvertently exclude people with disabilities.
Evaluate your facilities. Are the restrooms, foyers, aisles, and preaching platforms accessible for wheelchair users?
While Sunday services are increasingly welcoming, opportunities for people with disabilities to participate in ministries that require more intentional planning and support remain limited. Examples include midweek kids’ programs and summer camps.
Integrating people with disabilities and their family members into the life of the church helps congregations transition from care to friendship.
As part of my doctoral research at the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, Missouri, I conducted an accessibility survey of churchgoers with disabilities and their caregivers.
Respondents strongly indicated they want more than just programs. They long to belong and feel included. They crave interaction that goes beyond Sunday morning “hellos.” They want friendship.
When asked what they most need from their churches, caregivers ranked friends above respite ministries. Caregiving can be lonely and isolating. Like everyone else, special needs families desire community.
The same survey revealed only 45% of pastors ever talked to people with disabilities, and only 45% of churchgoers who live in special needs households talked to their pastors on a regular basis. This needs to change.
If you want your congregation to become more inclusive, you must lead the way through meaningful integration and interaction. Spend time with disabled people and their families. Learn about their concerns, needs, and daily experiences.
There will always be a place for care-centric ministries in the Church, but churches that thrive at this stage will also intentionally develop relationships among people with and without disability.
Integrated adult Bible studies or serve teams, for example, can help build relationships that extend beyond the walls of the church.
This may require reimagining what church looks like and who can serve in what positions. It may also require sacrificing perceived efficiency for authentic relationships.
Nevertheless, an inclusive and diverse church that lives up to the prophetic promise of 1 Corinthians 12 is well worth the investments of time, energy and resources.
The final step, from friendship to co-laborers, calls for engagement.
At a gathering of disability ministers in 2004, I watched a non-speaking ordained minister in a wheelchair use a communication device to preach a deeply convicting sermon. I had never seen Zechariah 4:6 demonstrated so clearly: “‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty.”
In that moment, I realized people with disabilities can minister to me. This simple revelation made a profound impact on my life and ministry.
Disability does not limit God’s ability to use people for His glory, and it shouldn’t limit your vision of what God can do through them. Just as you would do with other parishioners, encourage disabled people who express a ministry calling to follow in obedience and seek training.
Not every person with a disability has a calling to full-time ministry (although many do but have no opportunity). Yet God calls all Christ followers to Kingdom service. Your job as a church leader is to equip and empower them (Ephesians 4:12).
People with disabilities can minister to the whole congregation — not just others with disabilities. When you provide a place for them to worship, learn, grow, and serve, everyone benefits.
God often reveals His strength through what some might perceive as weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9–10). As you value each person’s contribution to the unfolding work of redemption, your church will increasingly reflect the heart of Jesus.
This article appears in the Summer 2022 edition of Influence magazine.