There are 11 million disabled people in the UK – that’s 17% of the population.
To put that in context, ethnic minority groups make up 14%. Think of the impact that ethnic minorities have made on our national identity – on our cultural, social and economic life. Another comparison – children aged 11 and under make up about 13% of the population. Think how much our churches invest in babies, toddlers and primary school-aged children.
There are more disabled people than there are ethnic minorities, more disabled people than there are children. We need to talk about disability.
But where to start? Here are six conversations that every church should have about disability:
1. Are there disabled people in our church?
We need to understand who is in our church. And it’s no good just counting the wheelchairs! Most disability is hard to see. Mental health issues, Autism spectrum disorders, learning difficulties and long term pain are not obvious. Some may even be trying to mask their fading vision or growing fatigue. We’ve got to take the time to get to know and trust each other, and find out what each others’ needs are.
1b. If they’re not in our church where are local disabled people? I guarantee that there are disabled people in your street, in the same road as your church, throughout your neighbourhood. Where are they? Where are your local care homes, day centres, isolated older people?
2. What do our disabled sisters and brothers think about our church? If you don’t know how to start that conversation, just try asking ‘Is there one thing we could do to make things better for you?’ or ‘What do you wish that everyone understood about you?’ You may be surprised. After conducting dozens of interviews for churches, I am often saddened by the simplicity of requests – long term problems that can be remedied almost immediately.
3. Is our church building physically accessible? There is no excuse for not having an accessible church building. On a human level it’s illegal and on a spiritual level it’s indefensible. But don’t assume that making your building accessible will cost tens of thousands of pounds – making a church better for someone with autism probably won’t cost more than ten pounds. And things like better lighting and better signage benefit everybody.
When we’re talking about church buildings, we need to think about all of our venues, not just our Sunday morning meeting room. How often have you been told that the real heart of the church isn’t the Sunday service, but home groups, prayer meetings or pastorates? Well are those venues accessible? Or are we blocking people’s access to the heart of our churches?
4. Where are our disabled leaders? Where are disabled preachers, youth leaders, administrators, evangelists and missionaries? And if we can’t see any, where are they going to come from? Who are we going to mentor, train and support as they grow into the people God created them to be? God has given everybody gifts to build up the church – let’s not miss the gifts He’s given to disabled people.
5. Do we have a healthy theology of healing? Do we know what we believe about God’s healing power? Does our church teaching to equip us to grapple with questions of disability and healing? Do we offer guidelines to our prayer teams? In my experience, more disabled people leave church over issues of prayer than any other reason. Prayer that’s not asked for, prayer that makes assumptions and doesn’t listen, prayer that asks God to make disabled people ‘normal’ – it’s almost ‘prayer abuse’. We must understand what we believe about healing.
6. What are our sticking points? Can we take an honest look at our church and ask ourselves what are our non-negotiables? What are we not prepared to change? I don’t mean theologically, I mean culturally. All churches have their sticking points. It may be the historic building, the intellectually rigorous sermon, or the volume of the worship band! Are these a barrier to disabled people? Then maybe we need to re-examine them, and our hearts, in light of God’s radical welcome, the infinite mercy and unquantifiable love he has for us.
In Luke, Jesus tells some stories about lost things – and I think that the church has lost, and is losing disabled people: ‘Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them….”
Then what? If you lose one sheep, do you say:
• To be honest, there are probably more appropriate flocks for that one anyway
• I’ve been given responsibility for a lot of sheep, I can’t just go chasing after every one that runs off
• Searching for one sheep is costly – it’s wiser to use my time and energy on something that benefits the whole flock
• Even if I do go searching, I may not find it anyway!
No, “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them…. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home rejoicing.”
Let’s talk about disability.