If the worship leader starts by trumpeting, “Let’s all stand to worship God this morning,” I flinch. This worship service probably isn’t going to include me. Again.
That’s because I’m physically disabled. I’m unable to stand for long periods to sing, or pray, or greet visitors, or read Scripture. Just being in a crowd upsets my physical balance and emotions. And I know I’m not the only one. But I have rarely been to a worship service that clearly takes the disabled into account, and I have been to lots and lots of churches, as pastor, president, professor, and worshiper.
I didn’t become sensitized to the physically disabled until I became one. That gave me a new lens through which to view church ministry.
In my last pastorate my church had interpretation for the deaf in the united worship service. A paraplegic sang in the choir. There were specialized classes and worship for the mentally disabled. We conformed to every federal and state recommendation regarding physical accessibility. But we never planned ordinary services with the disabled and elderly in mind.
It’s not just worship services that unintentionally exclude people like me, but actually most church ministries. The typical men’s ministry reaches out to guys who bowl or hike or bike. Overnight retreats are for the mobile and independent, golf outings for the hardy, discipleship classes for those who drive at night. These are great, essential outreaches for the physically active!
But without dropping those events, I’d suggest once or twice a year planning things deliberately to include the disabled: board games, TV sports, an evening of humor, morning coffee time.
I’m encouraged when my church’s worship leader invites the congregation to join in worshiping God from the heart, “standing or sitting as suits you best.” A note in the order of worship that welcomes the disabled to join as they can from the heart recognizes our need. An elder’s offer to pray with me on Sundays when I can’t leave home says I count. This isn’t political correctness but spiritual inclusiveness.
Before my crippling disease I had no idea how hard it is to be weak in a world that worships strength. And I had no idea how many of us disabled there are, and how many ways there are to be disabled—physically, emotionally, mentally. I don’t blame others for their insensitivity; I was one of them, completely oblivious.
The church has always been the center of my life, and of my family’s. That’s where I find biblical challenge, encouragement, service, spiritual and social community. I want to be vitally connected, not invisible and useless at this stage of life. And I want other disabled people also to find their home in Christ’s church.
What could your church do differently to include people like me?
This guest blog is written by the former President and Professor Emeritus of Columbia International University. Dr. Miller’s disability stems from Parkinson’s disease.