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Introduction to Accessible Churches and Disability Advocacy

About this guide

This guide is a revision of what was previously called the Inclusion Handbook: Everybody Belongs, Everybody Serves. It has been created by and for those who love God and all of God’s people. We long for the church to embrace and to engage people with disabilities and their families, not only as recipients but also as ministers of God’s goodness to the world.

The first two versions of the Inclusion Handbook were born out of the Disability Concerns partnership between the Christian Reformed Church in North America and the Reformed Church in America. Disability Concerns was then joined by two parachurch organizations that have encouraged and assisted in the development of this new edition: Christian Horizons and Elim Christian Services, both of which primarily serve people with intellectual disabilities.

This edition provides “digging deeper” elements, as previous editions did. Rather than relying on content experts in the field, however, we have sought out “experts in life,” people who have a disability or whose life experience has been in close proximity to people with disabilities.

Ways to grow beyond this guide

Wherever you and your faith community find yourselves along the journey toward full inclusion, look for the resources and experts God has already provided. Alongside prayer and God’s Word, there are people in your community who are already advocating and working for belonging. This includes people with disabilities and their families, leaders, volunteers, special education teachers, community support staff, and the list goes on. Ask God to guide you and your congregation in the steps needed to enfold and to engage people with disabilities and their families into the life of your church. Get to know people in your faith community to learn best how they might experience belonging and contribute their gifts in service to others.

Effective ministry is relational ministry, and advocacy work will take time for people to understand, appreciate, and engage. Don’t lose hope. You are planting seeds that others will water, while witnessing to the truth that God uses everyone—even us—to create a world where everybody belongs, and we all serve together.

Goals for accessible churches

Accessible churches seek to bring about the full participation of people with disabilities in the life of the church and the full participation of the church in the lives of people with disabilities.

We envision gospel-centered, inclusive, mission-driven churches engaging and engaged by people with disabilities, realizing that our goals benefit the whole church.

We strive for hospitable and healthy churches that intentionally:

  • Glorify God by including every person as indispensable in the work of the church.
  • Foster belonging and reduce the isolation and disconnectedness experienced by people with disabilities and their families.
  • Nurture the spiritual lives of people with disabilities so that they become professing and active members.
  • Encourage the gifts of people with disabilities so that they can serve God fully, and so the church can truly be the body of Christ together.
  • The goal is a church where everybody belongs and everybody serves so that God’s kingdom is truly “at hand.”

The biblical foundation of disability advocacy

Jesus began his public ministry proclaiming that God’s kingdom was at hand, ushering it in through word and deed. Near the end of his ministry, during the Last Supper, he said he would not abandon his disciples but promised the Holy Spirit as the Advocate or “Helper” to carry on his work. We are each called to join the Holy Spirit in this work of helping one another and being an advocate with people with disabilities.

In the context of this guide, advocacy for an accessible church that ministers to all its members can take place from the perspective of someone who has a disability or by anyone else in the congregation. It is our hope that church leaders and volunteers lead the way in modeling this spiritual work of advocacy.

The Bible provides a foundation for this work:

  • Since all people are created in the image of God, all have intrinsic value that is based on who they are, not on what they can do:

“Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image…’”
(Genesis 1:26, NRSV).

  • The body of Christ, the church, has many parts but is ONE. Therefore, each member of Christ’s body (each person) is essential for a healthy church:

“Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ.…those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable,”
(1 Corinthians 12:12, 22)

  • All believers are called by God; therefore, each believer has a mission to fulfill that has been given by God:

“For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do”
(Ephesians 2:10)

All believers have spiritual gifts; therefore, each believer receives from God the gifts needed to accomplish this mission: “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them”
(1 Corinthians 12:4)

  • All believers have spiritual gifts; therefore, each believer receives from God the gifts needed to accomplish this mission:

“There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them”
(1 Corinthians 12:4)

  • All believers are invited to participate in God’s work; therefore, every member of Christ’s body fulfills an essential and unique function in the body: “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good”

“Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good”
(1 Corinthians 12:7)

  • Though all are equal and essential in the kingdom, we will need to give more of ourselves for the sake of others in order to ensure equality:

“Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality”
(2 Corinthians 8:13)

  • In healthy churches, everybody belongs:

“Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling”
(1 Peter 4:8-9)

  • In healthy churches, everybody serves:

“Each one should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms”
(1 Peter 4:10)

The importance of working together and building relationships

The medical, educational, and social service communities give labels to people such as “autism,” “cerebral palsy,” “dementia,” and “macular degeneration.” These labels can be useful for understanding and helping people, but a person is not his or her label. Instead, the goal is working together to build relationships with everyone in your church, regardless of ability.

Barb Newman writes in Autism and Your Church:

My mother-in-law was diagnosed with diabetes. It’s helpful for me to know this when she comes to my home. It helps me understand why we have needles in the garbage. It helps me stock up on the right kind of foods before she arrives for a visit. It also helped me understand the day she felt so strange in the grocery store and asked me to give her some orange juice before I had even paid for it. But it would be a mistake to overly focus on my mother-in-law’s condition and fail to appreciate her unique personality and interests. We don’t think about diabetes all the time; we laugh, talk, cry, shop, and watch movies together. Although I am grateful to be aware of the diabetic piece of my mother- in-law, it is only a portion of the complex and delightful person she is.

Similarly, knowing the particular disability a person lives with will help churches to better understand and help that person, but people are individuals with wonderfully complex needs, gifts, joys, challenges, and interests. As advocates, we must encourage people in our churches to focus on people and relationships. While labels can be important and valuable to people with disabilities, it’s important to focus first on the relationships that make us who we are.  

Take Kyle, for example. When the education team thinks about how best to include Kyle in Sunday school, they take his Down syndrome into account, but they also note Kyle’s likes and dislikes, things that calm him and make him agitated, ways that he learns best, and classroom activities that are challenging for him. Most importantly, they consider Kyle’s gifts and encourage him to use them in the classroom and the church.

Newman says that naming someone’s disability is like telling what state her family visited on their last vacation. It gives you a general idea what the vacation was about, but until you talk with the Newmans about what they did on vacation, you don’t know much about it. In the same way, we will not get to know the people with disabilities in our churches until each one of them is noticed when they arrive, known while they are there, and missed when they are gone.

For further information:

  • Unexpected Guests at God’s Banquet: Welcoming People with Disabilities into the Church, by Brett Webb-Mitchell
  • Including People with Disabilities in Faith Communities: A Guide for Service Providers, Families, and Congregations, by Erik W. Carter
  •  Explore for many helpful articles on language and attitudes about disability.
Everybody Belongs, Serving Together is a collaboration of RCA and CRCNA Disability Concerns, Christian Horizons, and Elim Christian Services.

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