Church Response to People with Disabilities: 3 Approaches

A post by guest blogger, Barbara Bushart, MDIV, MSW, adjunct professor at Northeastern Seminary. 


Between the ages of twenty-three and thirty I lost my hearing due to a genetic condition inherited from my maternal grandmother.  I began to notice that the world is frequently inaccessible and sadder still, that Christian churches and ministries also are often ill equipped to offer genuine hospitality and inclusion to those living with diverse disabilities.  Conversations with many people over the years have provided some common unhelpful approaches as well as a recommendation for incorporating people with disabilities into the full life of the Church:

The Overly- Enthusiastic Healing Approach

In this scenario, the person with a disability is viewed as an “opportunity” to display the power of God to the world by a healing event. Conversely, an absence of healing may be interpreted as evidence of unrepentant sin or a shameful lack of faith.  The person with a disability may be judged as spiritually unfit in some regard and blamed for the persistent physical condition where healing appears to fail.

The Sainthood Approach

Here, people with disabilities are held up as examples of God’s special favor, chosen to suffer as Christ suffered and to demonstrate God’s strength through weakness. Living on a pedestal is nearly as difficult as living under judgment; in both cases the categorizations create obstacles to true fellowship and mutuality. 

The “Many Members: One Body” Approach

Thankfully, many churches and fellowships are recognizing that individuals with disabilities are not objects to either cure or venerate, but simply people: people to be fully enveloped into the life of the Church, people who offer unique gifts and perspectives, people who complement other members and complete the Body of Christ. This approach requires an openness to listen to people with disabilities and to learn from them how to improve accessibility and create a church experience where the gifts of all God’s people are respected.

Barbara Bushart, MDIV, MSW, Adjunct professor,
Disability Awareness for Christian Ministers and Laypersons
Northeastern Seminary

Watch for helpful suggestions in part 2, learn more about the Disability Awareness class offered April 9 – May 7, 2012.

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