This article is written for pastors and answers the question, “Why should we care?”
Disability ministry is not a program. It’s accepting people with disabilities for who they are and recognizing they have the same opportunity to know and serve the Lord as anyone. It starts with sharing the Gospel, discipling, and trying to answer hard questions, all the way to helping find a place to serve the Lord. I share my story to help people understand disability ministry isn’t just an idealistic idea people in disability ministry leadership dream about. It’s real. I have lived it and believe it can happen anywhere.
I can’t give you a step-by-step plan to include people with disabilities at your church. You don’t need one. When I want to serve somewhere, the answer at my church is always, “Let’s see how we can make that work.”
Your church might need a little more organization. I am thrilled when seeing churches offer special ministries like respite care and Sunday school. Disability ministry is not one size fits all. Each church must do what is best for their people.
I can, however, suggest several areas your church can welcome people with disabilities. This is not a complete list, but a starting point. The first involves an exercise I often do with kids. I show them a nice crisp dollar bill and ask what we can do with it. We could buy a candy bar or a Coke, for example. Or maybe put the dollar in the offering. Then I crinkle it up. I ask again, “What can you do with this?” I get the same answers.
“Well,” I say, “That’s how it’s like with God. We are just as valuable to him if we are a new crisp dollar or if we are crinkled. Our worth to Him is priceless.”
It’s true, isn’t it? God loves us just the way we are.
There are three responses church people usually have towards people with disabilities. The first is something I rarely hear: disability is caused by sin, either by the devil or from my not having enough faith to overcome the alleged sin. Sometimes, people even pray over me for deliverance. They never seem to get to the point during their prayers where they expect me to walk. The second response is what the Bible sometimes teaches: I am cursed. (see John 9, for example) The devil caused my disability. We don’t want the devil at our church, so we can either heal the person with a disability or he must leave. But God ordains disability. It’s not a punishment. God didn’t cause the disability.
On the flip side, people sometimes treat me as if I am an angel and can’t do wrong. I’m no angel—ask my wife. They talk down at me as if I can’t understand them. They seem to be saying, “God bless disabled people because they don’t know any better and already have a hard time.” I sometimes wonder: do they think I have a free ticket to heaven?
I’m a sinner. The Bible says all people have fallen short of God’s glory. That includes people with disabilities. We can be as good or bad as anyone. Sin has to do with the heart and our shared human condition and I fall prey to greed, pride, and lust like everyone. I can’t wait for a new body in heaven, but am more concerned with the process of sanctification in the here and now.
People with disabilities are people first and their disabilities come second. That’s why I always write, “people with disabilities” and not “disabled people.” We should focus on the person first and the disability second. Whenever Jesus encountered people He healed, He always saw the person first and talked directly to them (See Mark 2:5). Jesus knew the person needed his full attention. His example is something we can follow when welcoming people with disabilities to church.
People are people first. Look beyond their disabilities and begin developing a relationship. Using your normal voice, talk directly to the person, not to his/her helper. It’s all right to shake hands and give hugs. From day one at my church, people saw me and got to know me first. People wanted to be friends because they genuinely wanted to know me. Once that happened, they dealt with my disability as it became an issue, such as getting my chair into homes or helping me with a plate of food.
Secondly, your building doesn’t have to be perfect. Of course, building codes and ADA requirements must be met, but that doesn’t mean ramps have to be everywhere, including to the pulpit. Don’t let accessibility issues keep people from attending or serving. The sanctuary at my church isn’t special. I park my wheelchair by a pew and sit near friends. I read Scripture in front of the altar. I’m not picky because I’m there to worship and serve the Lord, which is more important than being in a fully accessible building. When I taught Sunday school, the class met in the basement and was no elevator. I had to go around to an outside door. I didn’t even give it another thought —I just wheeled myself around.
Building issues can be easily solved using a little knowledge and creativity. Friends build ramps so I can enter their homes. An automatic door opener helps, but the absence of one shouldn’t keep people from attending. Although accessibility issues are important, friends and the Lord are more important. My friends do whatever it takes to make sure I’m included.
Thirdly, one question church leaders often ask, “What do you need from me?”
You’re already taking the first step: reading this article or others like it. Knowledge is power, and I hope you’ve learned something from my story. The best you can do for your flock with disabilities is be willing to learn from them. You may not understand their daily struggles, but you understand the Lord is good. Sometimes ministry is just showing up. Your people with disabilities may just need you to show up and be Jesus with skin on.
Fourthly, advocating is another place to help. People fear what they don’t understand. Now that you have a better understanding of people with disabilities, I hope you’re able to talk to your staff and equip them. Help them develop a welcoming environment for people with disabilities into their areas of ministry.
One word about money—it’s tight. That’s why I don’t advocate for an expensive disability ministry. Like anything, you can spend as much or little as you like, but the key is people. Get to know people with disabilities and ministry will happen with or without money. People with disabilities and their families have needs, and I encourage you to walk alongside on their journey, but what they really need is love. They need godly men and women to walk with them. My best interactions with my pastors over the years had nothing to do with my disability.
And lastly, I have tried stressing that the eyes of my friends and mine are focused on the Lord. I challenge you to do the same. This may seem insulting to hear, but how often do we forget. When younger, I didn’t want anything to do with people with disabilities. I wasn’t like them though I had cerebral palsy. I was so much better. God had to change my heart before I could work with them. As long as my eyes are on Him, I can see people with disabilities as people, but the moment I take my eyes off Him, I see a disability. This is why my church works. We see people, not disabilities. We see the Lord, not faults. When focused on Him, anything is possible.
***This is an excerpt of Tait’s book, In the Accessible Church. To order a copy of Tait’s book, please visit amazon.com.