5 things that can help a church to become a welcoming and safe place for families with disabilities

In Canada today the disability community makes up 15.4 per cent of our population. (Statistics Canada 2012). That means that if you have a congregation of one hundred people, assuming you represent the population, you should have fifteen people with disabilities. Does your church reflect these numbers?

One disability that has received much media attention is autism. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in sixty-eight children are born with autism. If you took all of the children who attend Sunday school in every church in your city, would the number of children with autism reflect this ratio?

The truth is that it is easier for families with disabilities to not attend church and it is a challenge for congregations with limited resources to minister to such families.

But it is not impossible.

I come to this issue with two perspectives. I am a pastor of a fairly small church that desires to be disability-friendly. At the same time, I am a father of two children on the severe end of the autism spectrum.

I know what it is like to bring children to church, not knowing if they will disrupt the service or even have a serious meltdown. I also know what it is like to try and reach out to families with disabilities but without the resources of a megachurch.

My experience is that effective ministry can take place, even without an official disability ministry or a large budget.

Here are some things that can help a church to become a welcoming and safe place for families with disabilities.

  1. Respect - It is important to see people as having value simply from being created in the image of God and not based on what they can do.
  2. Inclusion - People with disabilities should not be hidden from the life of the community. Congregations who embrace people of all abilities have discovered that everyone can be a blessing.
  3. Communication - Church leaders, family, and people with disabilities should be in conversation about how inclusion can take place and what accommodations are needed.
  4. Sensitivity - While people should not feel as if they must walk on egg shells around people with disabilities and their families, common sense should be used. Think about the language that is used and avoid common, but pejorative words.
  5. Leadership - The pastor and other leaders often set the tone of the culture of the church. How does the pastor react when a person makes a loud noise in the middle of their sermon? Leading from a place of grace can do much to help the rest of the congregation to be welcoming.

While these steps will help a church to begin their journey to becoming a welcoming place for people with disabilities and their families, there is much more to learn.

There will be a conference on October 28-30, 2016 in Niagara Falls, called Life to the Full. This conference will be promoting the values of Ability, Belonging and Community with some fantastic keynote speakers, as well as workshop leaders, who can help equip our churches to be the best they can be.

Love for people with disabilities is important, but love with knowledge can transform congregations. Jesus promised life to the full (John 10:10), and that is something that should be available to people of all abilities.

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About the author

ChristianWeek Columnist

Stephen J. Bedard is an author, blogger and speaker. He is interested in discipleship, apologetics and disability advocacy. He co-wrote the award-winning book, Unmasking the Pagan Christ, which was also made into a documentary. He is the director of Hope’s Reason Ministry and editor of Hope’s Reason: A Journal of Apologetics. Additional writing can be found on his website stephenjbedard.com