01 March 2008
A mission made possible
Rev John Naude examines the relationship between the Church and disabled people...
Within the UK, 15 per cent of the population have a registered disability of some sort, but disabled people certainly do not make up 15 per cent of church congregations. Are we failing to reach them?
When I say disabled people, it's easy to assume that l"m talking about people who use wheelchairs. This is partly due to the influence of TV and to the fact that people in wheelchairs are easily recognised as being disabled. However, people who are hard of hearing or deaf are also disabled, as are those who have a visual impairment or are blind, plus of course people with a learning disability.
Many of us can easily recognise these disabilities, but the term also includes those people with such hidden disabilities as epilepsy, arthritis, mental illness, dyslexia or even HN/Aids. Disability affects all people regardless of gender, age, social standing and race.
If disabled people are not part of the Church, we need to ask ourselves why. Does the Church work to include disabled people, or are they merely seen as recipients of our charity? Historically the Church has been instrumental in helping to change some of society's responses to disabled people, but in today's culture, it is the Church that is a long way behind society.
As a society we often define people by their medical condition, even though in most cases we don't know anything about it, or have a very limited experience of it. In seeing the person this way, we seek to help them through prayer or healing services. Yet wh!le some disabled people do indeed come seeking healing, we must not be so presumptuous as to assume what the healing is for. And we must never blame or accuse the person of a lack of faith if they are not healed.
And there's another problem: we tend to see them as people who don't have a great deal to offer the body of Christ. We may ask them to pray, but neglect looking for other gifts that they may have.
By seeing this condition as the thing that limits them, our urge is to help them to fit in with by tl)~ng to make them walk, stand, hear, see and so on. Disabled people call this the medical model of disability. But instead of seeing their medical condition as a problem, most disabled people have difficulties with the way society responds to their impairment. This would be called the social model of disa bility.
For example, I have a physical disability which means that I use a wheelchair. The problems I face are often not related to the fact that I have a physical disability, but to the way society creates an environment that limits my involvement. People who use wheelchairscannot enter buildings with steps. It is not using a wheelchair that limits them, but the steps of the building.
The biggest problem disabled people face is that of attitudes. Many people may say "we all have some kind of disability", but most disabled people would respond by asking if you face any form of discrimination because of it. If I say I use a wheelchair, or if I had epilepsy, people may make assumptions of what I can or cannot do, which can mean they'll think twice about considering whether to give me an interview (let alone a job). However, as a Christian, 1 think it is very limiting to say that our problems are all created by society. Disabled people have a role to play in helping change both our society and the Church. So some parts of the Christian disabled community have identified a third model, the relational model, which says that we are all made to be in relationship with God and with each other.
We need God and each other to lind our true identity. God created us in perfect relationship with Him. Then after the fall He sought to restore that relationship through the person of Jesus Christ. We are therefore created to be in relationship with God.
Yet it doesn't end there. we have the gift of communication and we are in relationship with each other. There is a vertical and a horizontal relationship: the vertical to God, the horizontal to each other.
Disabled people are part of society and are created in God's image, with gifts for His Church. We are a part of the body of Christ that the apostle Paul writes about in 1 Corinthians 12. We are not a broken part of the body being dragged along, but we contribute vitally, bringing the unique gifts that God has given each of us. The Church is realty missing out on the huge contribution that disabled people can bring to God 's Church and His world.
The Church has a mission to communicate the good news of Jesus Christ to all people. But I would say that it is failing by not even considering disabled people, who need to hear that they are accepted and welcomed by a God who recognises that we are separated from Him due to our sin, not our disability.
So our mission is to open our doors and hearts and welcome disabled people into our churches. Rather than just looking at the difficulties of making our churches more accessible, we must recognise that our attitudes can prevent the good news of Jesus Christ being heard. We have a mission, a mission made possible because of Jesus' love for each and every one of us.
- For more information, visit: www.churchesforall.org.uk