Many churches have accessible seating in the sanctuary, but an inaccessible stage

Written by J.M. Bergman

Imagine you are part of your church’s ministry team. One day someone new arrives and they are using a walker. You know exactly where to seat them—with everyone else who uses physical aids (usually in the back or a separate room with extra space), and you know the perfect small group for them to join. It focuses on why life is unfair but God is still good. 

These responses are often well-meaning. Yet treatment like this has left countless people feeling diminished or incapable.

When someone approaches people with visible health issues in church, it is too often with the agenda of serving them rather than engaging with them to find out who they are, how they want to connect, and how they may want to serve others. In an article for Christianity Today, Amy Julia Becker writes that most Christians “only see the needs associated with disability. But when we only see the needs, we miss out on the gifts.” We often also make assumptions about a person’s ability to lead and participate in the service based on our limited knowledge of their condition.

This form of ableism wordlessly declares that people with physical health issues are unworthy of leadership and are of less value to the Body than others. 

Jasmine Duckworth is the community development manager at Christian Horizons, a Canadian organization that serves people with developmental disabilities and works to dismantle ableism in churches. “Many churches have accessible seating in the sanctuary, but an inaccessible stage,” she says. “This sends a strong message about who is expected to lead and who is expected to follow.” This also applies to who gets to sing in choir, lead worship, and read announcements.

In an article for The Canadian Journal of Theology, Mental Health and Disability, Duckworth writes that “[In Canada] we are socialized to believe that productivity, contribution, hierarchy, power, authority, and ability are all qualities we should value.” By placing value in these attributes we disregard the value and power of learning vulnerability.

During our interview, Duckworth wisely drew my attention to 1 Corinthians 12:26, which states: “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it. If one part is honoured, every part shares in its joy. You are the body of Christ; each one of you is a part of it.” As in our human anatomy, the Body of Christ will only function at an optimal level when the entire Body is regularly being used and continuously strengthened. 

Duckworth pointed to Ephesians 2:10 which says, “He has made us to belong to Christ Jesus so we can work for Him.” These terms, us, we, and belong are by definition inclusive. So why doesn’t everyone feel like they belong to and can add value to the body of Christ? 

Duckworth says that too often when she accompanied people with disabilities into a church service, an usher asked them to move to the back of the sanctuary, away from friends and family, or to a nursery or other small room so they wouldn’t be a distraction or disturbance to the rest of the congregation. In other words: everyone is welcome here, but if you might distract the majority, then you should stay out of sight and ear shot. This ignores the fact that their gifts could benefit the congregation had they been sought out, recognized, and engaged.

Jesus, our Lord and Master, sought relationships with those on the fringes of society who had nothing obvious to give Him: the unclean (Luke 10), the diseased (Luke 4), and the crippled (Matthew 9). He spent most of His time in common areas where disabled people could have full access to His presence. This is a striking contrast to how many Canadian churches structure their services. 

On numerous occasions, when power and authority could have been attributed to Him by the gathering crowds—like in John 5 when He heals the paralyzed man—Jesus withdrew instead. Status was not the reason He came. Rather, He came, among other reasons, to reverse the broken theology that says only esteemed people are worthy of sharing what God has taught and done for them.

One of my favourite examples of this is in Luke 8 where Jesus turns to the woman deemed unclean because of her long-term bleeding. In front of the entire crowd, He addressed her as daughter, a title that signifies belonging and importance. I think this relational bond left more of an impact on her and those who witnessed this exchange than the healing He spoke over her after that. 

 Similarly, in Mark 10 Jesus crosses paths with a blind man who begs Jesus to help Him. Rather than immediately “fixing him” by giving him the healing everyone assumed the man wanted, Jesus asked him to come close so He could personally ask: “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:48). The state of our physical bodies will not influence our eternities; rather, Jesus’ ministry was to heal broken souls. The blind man did end up asking for healing, but then, having encountered Jesus’ inclusion love, joined Jesus in His travelling ministry.

So what does inclusive ministry look like? The Disability and Faith Forum describes it as “a ministry which enables, empowers and engages all persons within the worshiping community, regardless of ability.” I believe the key to inclusive ministry is to establish common ground, seeing everyone as equal members of the Church Body living together.

A good place to start is to have authentic conversations with those who have survived on the fringes of Church culture. Conversations where people with visible health issues are given a voice to impact their own spiritual journey and to also connect as equals with their sisters and brothers in Christ. Duckworth suggests asking if they would like to be part of the welcome committee, pray with those in need, help lead worship, or preach. Another step could be to engage with organizations such as Christian Horizons that provide excellent resources for churches to further their knowledge in this area. 

Some may think that people with health issues have nothing to offer the rest of the Church Body. Duckworth argues the opposite is true. She says the disability community “teaches [others] to communicate without spoken language, how to adapt, how to advocate for themselves and others, how to laugh at adversity, how to revel in routine, how to rest well, and how to find joy in the small things.” How refreshing, authentic, and practical. 

J.M. Bergman is an internationally-read author and creative content writer who has also worked in editing. She has published two novels and has written for a number of Christian magazines on topics such as trauma, grief, recovery, and wellness. Her upcoming release, a poetry collection dialoguing her journey from chronic pain to identity, will be available soon. J.M. lives in Manitoba with her husband and their exceptionally cute black lab.