Supporting churches to include people with Autism and Learning Disabilties

“Living then, as every one of you does, in pure grace, it’s important that you not misinterpret yourselves as people who are bringing this goodness to God. No, God brings it all to you. The only accurate way to understand ourselves is by what God is and by what he does for us, not by what we are and what we do for him.

4-6 In this way we are like the various parts of a human body. Each part gets its meaning from the body as a whole, not the other way around. The body we’re talking about is Christ’s body of chosen people. Each of us finds our meaning and function as a part of his body. But as a chopped-off finger or cut-off toe we wouldn’t amount to much, would we? So since we find ourselves fashioned into all these excellently formed and marvelously functioning parts in Christ’s body, let’s just go ahead and be what we were made to be, without enviously or pridefully comparing ourselves with each other, or trying to be something we aren’t.”              1 Corinthians 12: 3-6  The Message

The thing about labels of disability or additional needs is that they are based on a deficit model.  The diagnostic criteria for Autism or ADHD, for example, is a list of things the person isn’t able to do.  We say that people who are deaf are ‘hearing impaired’ and a person who is blind is defined by the fact they cannot see.   There are so many ‘disorders’ these days that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual that professionals use to identify these disorders is currently on version 5 and 947 pages thick, compared to version 1 which was only 132 pages long.

When we seek to be an inclusive church we are doing everyone a disservice if we approach people’s differences as deficits.  The Bible tells us we are one body of different parts and that each part is a valuable and necessary part without which the rest of the body cannot function.  I think we could get better at understanding this.  I think we could  develop a less hierarchical model in churches.  Yes, we need leaders (shepherds of Jesus’s flock) but we tend to put them on pedestals and think that they can do everything and should be perfect.  It’s little wonder that so many ministers and leaders fall from that pedestal.  We ought never have put them there in the first place.

When people with learning disabilities or who are autistic, or blind or deaf come are part of our church it is very easy to start with what they cannot do.  They can’t read the notices,  they can’t hear the sermon, they can’t stay for tea after the service, they can’t keep quiet in the service…etc…etc…

But what if we had a different place to start?  What if we started with what they CAN do?

I CAN

I recently met with a church worker, a mum and her son who has Down’s Syndrome.  He was just four years old and they came to my house to chat through some ideas about helping the little boy settle into Sunday School when he moved from the creche into the class.   One thing we started with was what could he do and what did he like.  I found out he could sign some words and he liked singing and sensory toys.  His mum told me this, but he could tell me too, not verbally but by me getting on the floor with him and imitating what he was doing.  I sang a song and signed it, and he joined in…and then asked for it again (and again…)  When we allow the child with additional needs to tell us what they CAN do we have something to start us off.

An adult with learning difficulties wants to come to our Sunday service.  I will start with the same approach.  What CAN he do?  In our Good News Group, we get to know our members by finding out what their interests and abilities are.  We start with “I CAN”.

Starting with “I CAN” means that you listen and don’t assume.  It means you adjust the way you do things to make it engaging, meaningful and inclusive based on what that person CAN do.  We are still learning.  Each time a new person comes we start again.  And the thing is,  when we read 1 Corinthians 12,  the bit that says we all have gifts…then we can find out what those gifts are.  We want to teach ourselves and the world that people with differences are not to be pitied or patronised or excluded. The body of Christ is something so diverse and inclusive everyone should want and can be an equally valued part of it….now let’s help the church catch up with that!

WE CAN

The other aspect of this is how we function as a community.  And to do that we can develop the attitude and practice of being a community.  In this highly individualised society we value independence….not interdependence.  A body is by it’s nature a whole entity.  The Bible warns us of thinking that one part is more important than another.  God turns this world’s values upside down.  In order to be his people we need to ask what “WE CAN” do together.  So when that little boy I mentioned earlier starts his Sunday School class, the church is asking what “we can’ do together to make him included and valued.  We talked a lot about how making all children work together, for example, all learning signing together, will help all of them understand the inclusivity of God’s Kingdom.   When the man with learning difficulties comes to our church service we will ask what “we can” do to adapt our service so that he can feel part of us, included and valued.  We should be doing this for everyone, and all together.   That’s God’s community.

WE CAN also give space for everyone to tell their stories.  We can learn so much from listening to how God is working in each of our lives.  Listening takes away the need to assume things (which can often be wrong) and can help us see that everyone has faith and gifts to offer our community.

We know we’re going to make mistakes and we know we are often falling into judgemental attitudes, moaning, complaining and assuming things about people that just aren’t true.  We get angry and uppity about unimportant things and let the important things pass us by because we prefer not to speak up…..Well,  that’s my confession, anyway!

So as a faith community, believers and followers of Jesus, WE CAN focus on what it is that joins us together.  Jesus died, was raised to life and sent the Holy Spirit to be with us so that we could be more like Jesus.  It’s the Resurrection that unites us.  It’s the gift of faith by GRACE that levels us.   WE CAN because Jesus has promised to give us all we need.  He forgives us so WE CAN forgive each other.

It is humbling and exciting to be in a church that isn’t perfect.  And yet, on Easter Sunday, our Good News Group will be leading the Easter Day service.  We will be working as a team, sharing our gifts with our congregation and visitors…because what we share more than anything else is our love of Jesus and our faith in his Resurrection from the dead.

We are saved by grace –

together…

AMEN and Hallelujah!!!

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Comments on: "The “I can – We can” approach to inclusion in Church" (5)

  1. Great stuff as always Lynn, thanks for your caring heart and wise words! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Nice post and something that’s always worth bearing in mind. The story that springs to mind is Moses – he spends all his time telling God why he can’t do something that eventually God gives him both barrels and just tells him to get on with it – because it’s not about what Moses or you or I can do, it’s about what God can do through us.

    That’s why the opposite of this post – “I can’t – you can’t” is so frustrating – because it flies in the face of everything else we hear at church about God’s power and grace. Don’t tell me that God will build your church to have a 1,000 members then tell me autism awareness is a barrier!

    My eldest loves putting chairs away after the service. That’s his act of service and it makes him a part of the body like everyone else. And God can work through that, just like he can work through everything else in our churches, because where two or three are gathered in his name, there he is in the midst – and it doesn’t matter if those people are autistic or have Down Syndrome, or any other additional need. Don’t put a church’s talents in a fancy hierarchy, ‘cos God’ll look at that and laugh!

    (I wrote more about this sort of thing at https://mattsbibleblog.wordpress.com/2016/05/08/disability-parents-and-the-church-gifts/ )

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I love this, thank you so much. I also blog about equality and faith. This is my most important (to me!) post and it touches on a lot of what you say here too.

    http://dreamingequality.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/an-upside-down-kingdom.html?m=1

    I write as the parent of an 11-year old who uses a wheelchair.

    Liked by 1 person

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