Supporting churches to include people with Autism and Learning Disabilties

each one different

Church – a unique assortment of people, like these buttons!

I’ve had a break from blogging but not from work and ministry.  I have been exploring some new ideas and in the end, became a bit overwhelmed by the amount of work that this was generating.  I learn by trying things out, by researching and making plans.  Sometimes these don’t go as I expected and I learn about my own limitations and that I’ve probably gone down the wrong road. I see this as part of my spiritual growth.  I have always believed that as Christians we grow more through the storms than we do when everything is going smoothly.  I can now realise that I have been doing some growing.  I’m sure there is a lot more to learn!

During this past year God has, of course, been so faithful and allowed me to see him at work.  I’ve had a number of opportunities to talk to individuals and churches who are exploring how they might make their church more accessible or wanting to start up an additional needs ministry from scratch.  I’ve learned so much from them by watching the journey they are travelling.

It has led me to put together a few questions that people might ask themselves as they begin to build a more accessible church.

  1. What do you mean by disabilities or additional needs?  What is your theology of disability in the church?

Ok. Now those are two questions and they are the big ones.  It is worth spending time doing some research and having some discussion about this right at the beginning.  There are at least two main models of disability, (and I am explaining these very simply) the medical model which looks at disability as something wrong with the person and often our view that a person needs ‘fixing’ comes from this.  If we believe that disabled people need praying for healing and that their disability is a result of sin or a mistake in evolution (I’ve heard all those things) then we might need to look more carefully at the social model of disability.  The social model looks at how society is organised and that failure to adapt and make provision for different needs is what causes disability.  That is, people are disabled because society is disabling them. Where we stand as Christians on these, matters.  They will inform how we approach making our churches accessible and how we see gifts, service and discipleship for everyone. It is important to talk to disabled Christians and listen to their views.  Disability can come from illness, impairment, genetic causes or accidents.  We might consider carefully the language we use and invite disabled people to guide that conversation.  Generally, look for positive words and descriptions.  We need to validate and honour people in our congregations, whoever they are.

An example is using person first language.  It can seem honourable to say a person is a person first, then they have a certain condition. For example, a person who is deaf, or a person who uses a wheelchair.  We must also be aware that some people do prefer not to describe themselves in this way.  For example, autistic people often prefer using the term ‘autistic’ rather than ‘person with autism’.  Don’t feel bogged down with worry about the language.  Have the conversation, talk to people with disabilities and read up on the matter.  Be aware that language changes over time.  Only 30 years ago it was acceptable to call people with learning disabilities ‘educationally subnormal’.  Be humble and open to learn.  You will.

I am not a trained theologian, but as I search the Bible I see quite clearly how Jesus made God’s kingdom accessible.  He welcomed what society saw as broken people, he sought out those on the edge of society, those excluded.  He told them that disability wasn’t the result of sin, but so that God’s glory could be seen.  King David welcomed Mephibosheth, son of Jonathan, to the king’s table.  It is worth spending time looking at Scripture and asking the Lord to lead you through to a theology that matches his love.  My favourite passage is in 1 Corinthians 12. (This from the Easy Read Version).

One Body but Many Parts

12 There is one body, but it has many parts. But all its many parts make up one body. It is the same with Christ. 13 We were all baptized by one Holy Spirit. And so we are formed into one body. It didn’t matter whether we were Jews or Gentiles, slaves or free people. We were all given the same Spirit to drink. 14 So the body is not made up of just one part. It has many parts.

14 And a person’s body has more than one part. It has many parts. 15 The foot might say, “I am not a hand, so I don’t belong to the body.” But saying this would not stop the foot from being a part of the body. 16 The ear might say, “I am not an eye, so I don’t belong to the body.” But saying this would not make the ear stop being a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, it would not be able to hear. If the whole body were an ear, it would not be able to smell anything. 18-19 If each part of the body were the same part, there would be no body. But as it is, God put the parts in the body as he wanted them. He made a place for each one.20 So there are many parts, but only one body.

21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the foot, “I don’t need you!” 22 No, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are actually very important. 23 And the parts that we think are not worth very much are the parts we give the most care to. And we give special care to the parts of the body that we don’t want to show. 24 The more beautiful parts don’t need this special care. But God put the body together and gave more honour to the parts that need it. 25 God did this so that our body would not be divided. God wanted the different parts to care the same for each other. 26 If one part of the body suffers, then all the other parts suffer with it. Or if one part is honored, then all the other parts share its honour.

My challenge to you is to not assume that those with disabilities are the little toes of the body. Neither should we assume they are the ‘dishonourable’ parts.  We could even start by asking if they are the neck? The part that connects the body to the head?!

Here’s a resource you might be interested in. A guide to starting a disability ministry.   It’s aimed at supporting children and carer’s but the same principles should apply to adults too.  (More about that in another blog).

I have some more questions but I don’t want to make this blog post too long.  I’ll continue the questions you might ask in my next blog…

It’s nice to be back.

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Comments on: "Building an Accessible Church (1)" (2)

  1. Thank you for writing this. I agree 100% about your theology on this. As someone who has seen the changes you mentioned over the last 50 years (I was trained as a teacher of the educationally subnormal (severe) ) I can vouch to the truth of what you say. I do think the words we use shapes the way we think of people. The most divisive words in the English Language is “them” and “us.” We change the language we change the perception of them. I know the term we use now is people “with additional needs” but I prefer with learning difficulties ( not disabilities) as that includes me. But other terms might be more beneficial and maybe our friends in the learning difficulties could help us use the words they feel comfortable with. Well done for having this discussion in the first place

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