I last saw Kay Morgan-Gurr, in person, towards the end of 2019, at the Evangelical Alliance’s annual council meeting. Kay, one of the organisation’s council members and a co-founder of the Additional Needs Alliance, joined with others to explore how churches might better connect with young adults in their 20s and 30s.

So much in church ministry and worship has changed since that gathering; and these changes, caused by the coronavirus pandemic, have brought to the fore Christians with disabilities or additional needs and their access to church life.

Accessibility has long been a challenge for the church. One would not be wrong in concluding that the past 26 years Kay has spent trying to help churches widen access, and the little progress that she feels has been made, is an indicator of how difficult it is to meet such as a great range of needs.

COVID-19 has added another dimension: online church. Kay says this could probably resolve some of the accessibility issues, but it would only ever be part of the solution – and churches still need to get it right.

I spoke with Kay about some of the challenges and, and why this turbulent season might be our chance to make our worship more inclusive.

What has gathering to worship looked like for you since the UK went into lockdown in March?

Church has a livestreamed service which features a lot for the children. It’s wonderful for them, and me, as I do children’s work through the Additional Needs Alliance (ANA) and Children Matter. We meet on Zoom in the evening, which builds community, and use WhatsApp for general chitchat – everyday life stuff along with spiritual things. Being an introvert, I’ve enjoyed online fellowship. What’s also been welcome, and I find this quite amusing, is that no one has offered me a miracle cure for my disability, nor has anyone insisted they lay hands on me in prayer.

At the ANA, which helps churches create places of belonging for children and young people with additional needs or disabilities, our core team has met every fortnight on Skype to talk and pray. We previously met once or twice a year. We need to support each other more, because the people we care for are struggling more.

In an article you wrote, you indicated that online church has been a lifeline for people with disabilities or additional needs.

Many churches have said more people have attended their services since church went online. My church has seen an inexplicable increase, including people from other countries tuning in. Perhaps this covers the large number of people who haven’t been able to access church for a while, for lots of different reasons.

Conversely, some churches have lost almost a third of their congregation amid the pandemic, and they don’t know where they’ve gone. That percentage almost matches the amount of people who have a disability and might need something extra from online services, such as closed captioning or British Sign Language.

If a church is more accessible, it may well attract people from another church who can’t get what they need at their home church. Our church is picking up children with additional needs because much of what we’re doing could be helpful for them.

Has the pandemic helped hit home how many people with disabilities or additional needs are excluded from corporate worship?

Initially, yes, and many churches said they’d remember this when church buildings reopened. When we started to return, churches forgot all over again. If the pastor is doing all the work around accessibility, this is no surprise, as there’s a lot to contend with right now.

Many churches do have a blended approach, in that they run digital church alongside the physical, and this aids accessibility. But many, unfortunately, are not recognising how aspects of an online service, such as language, can be barrier for people with disabilities or additional needs.

Then there’s participation. The attitude is often, we’re doing this for those out there”. Have some forgotten that those out there’ can serve in the church? My church and others have invited me to preach over Zoom. It’s vital Christians with disabilities or additional needs are involved in the life of the church.

Are online services an obvious way for churches to start to widen accessibility?

Yes, an online option would help many, but not all. I’m currently advising churches that are livestreaming to see this channel as the window to the church. Make it as accessible as possible, I say. If they want to run an in-depth Bible study for the more theologically minded, that should be an optional extra. Another group might be set up for those with learning disabilities. This type of segmentation will be required as an extra to that more accessible Sunday service.

It’s impossible to cater for everyone, and small churches and those where few people muck in can do very little. So I always advise that churches try and find the things that will make the biggest difference for the most people, and if they do that they’ll find it makes gathered worship better for everybody.

Even more is required to remove barriers, isn’t it? It’s not just getting online church right and adapting our church buildings.

Attitudes – the way people view disability is holding back the church. It’s often assumed that a disabled person can’t take part in services. I use a wheelchair and I’m currently busy consulting and ministering, because people don’t see my wheelchair. Initially, though, they thought this level of activity would be too difficult for me. We need to get to a place where we see disabled people the same as everyone else.

What’s the least we can get away with?” This is the question I’m most often asked when doing consultancy work with a church. That’s the wrong question! How can I get everyone to feel like they belong to this church?” That’s the right question. Belonging is being missed. This is another reason I value online fellowship: my Christian friends on Facebook will notice if I’ve not been there for a few days, and they’d check in on me.

Sadly, not a lot of progress has been made over the past 26 years I’ve been serving in this ministry. It doesn’t help that when disabled people speak about these issues, typically only disabled people engage. If I write about general children’s work, however, it gets a high readership. We’re not getting the message through to the people who need to hear it, especially where children with additional needs are concerned.

And as I mentioned, pastors are busy. Youth and children’s workers, those who work with the seniors – so many ministry leaders want their time, and they have to navigate a fine line on who they listen to and what they do. Maybe they need help, someone to do this for them, such as a champion in this area.

Where can churches go to find out how they can become more accessible?

If you have disabled people in your church, talk to them. Don’t make decisions without them; they’re the experts. Contact Christian organisations that specialise in this, such as Evangelical Alliance members Churches for All, Torch Trust, Through the Roof, and Count Everyone In, among others. If yours is a small church, with limited resources, I offer consultancy free of charge.

Always remember that our shared worship is as much about belonging and inclusion as it as about accessibility. So, yes, we are to take steps to facilitate access to online and in-person services, but we’re to also build relationship and community. For people with disabilities or additional needs, this looks like offering support, being sociable, not just having them look at a bunch of people on the screen, particularly in these times.

It’s vital Christians with disabilities or additional needs are involved in the life of the church.