If You Make Room They Will Come: Welcoming People with Disabilities

The family of God is not complete unless all are present—people of all ages and races and physical abilities.What do disabilities have to do with worship and justice? People with disabilities were the last group in the United States to receive legal rights. Those with mental retardation were not allowed to go to school until 1974; they were not allowed to live in communities (in group homes) until the 1980s. (See box below for some statistics about people with disabilities.)
Here’s what happened when one church set out to make sure it was including people who have disabilities in the family of God.

About ten years ago Plymouth Heights Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, appointed a Disability Committee to oversee ministry to people with disabilities within their congregation. They began by coming up with a list of people who had any sort of disability—from attention deficit disorder to muscular dystrophy to stroke victims—and then asking how the church could best minister to them and their families. In thinking about people with disabilities and worship, Plymouth Heights started considering their worship space, their worship services, even their parking lots. The timing was important because several years later, when the time came for them to renovate their worship space and enlarge their church facilities, they were ready.

The Worship Space

During the process of remodeling, Plymouth Heights was very intentional about making room for people with disabilities. They replaced the pews with new ones without side barriers. They included pew cutouts to make room for wheelchairs. They moved the pews farther apart so people with walkers could get in and out of them more easily. They made their platform wheelchair accessible. They improved the lighting in their sanctuary to make reading easier.

All of these changes helped create a more welcoming space for the many people with mental disabilities who attend Plymouth Heights Church because of the active Friendship program it sponsors (see box on p. 24).

The Worship Service

Worship planners became more conscious and careful about introducing each person and each part of the worship service for those who could not read. They intentionally included repetition of short phrases in parts of the service each week, such as having the worship leader follow the reading of Scripture with “The Word of the Lord” and having the people reply, “Thanks be to God.” Such phrases can be memorized and spoken by those who cannot follow a written bulletin.

They also invited members of a Friendship class to sing as a choir in some of their worship services and were careful to include songs people were learning in Friendship class in congregational singing.

More importantly, worship planners invited people with mental retardation to sit with different families, never more than one to a family, so that they were integrated throughout the worshiping community. As a result, the church has become known as a welcoming place for everyone.

The Parking Lot

By becoming intentional about creating space for all of God’s children to worship together, Plymouth Heights started to grow. Word spread that they were an accessible and friendly church and more and more people started coming. Soon the twelve parking spaces reserved for people with disabilities were not enough. Now Plymouth Heights has a waiting list of people who want to get involved in the Friendship program. Visitors notice that there’s something different about this church. By combining their concern for justice for people with disabilities and their worship, Plymouth Heights has grown into a fuller awareness and experience of the family of God. Members comment, “The family of God is not complete unless all are present”—including those with disabilities.   

People with Disabilities: The Numbers

In 2000, a Harris Poll commissioned by the National Organization on Disabilities found that there are 54 million people with disabilities in the United States—one-fifth of the population. Of this number, seven and a half million people have retardation. A few other findings:

  • 65 percent of the general population attend church once a month.
  • 47 percent of those with disabilities attend church once a month.

In a congregation that reflects the general population, one in five would likely have a disability, and almost half of those would attend worship once a month. It’s important to remember that not all disabilities are visible, and in every country of the world, those with disabilities are at the bottom of the ladder.

—Nella Uitvlugt

Preaching Tips

Every sermon should somewhere connect meaningfully with worshipers with mental impairments. However, you may well be asked in some services to tune your message more specifically to them. Here are some things to keep in mind in either instance.

  • Be an integral part of the worship planning team. The entire service must reinforce the sermon theme in singing, prayer, offering, sacraments, and other faith responses.
  • Don’t “talk down.” This remains gospel proclamation for the ecclesia, not a cutesy children’s chat. Each worshiper is your sister or brother for whom Christ died.
  • Keep it simple but not simplistic. You’ll be amazed at what registers with worshipers who are mentally impaired. And the rest of the body responds equally well to meaning-full simplicity.
  • Keep it personal. You can tap into rich reserves of people knowledge, especially where intellectual skills aren’t strong.
  • Repeat one theme many times, approaching it from various perspectives.
  • Invite meaningful verbal response/interaction by the worshiping body as a whole.
  • Let the message “breathe.” Segment the message into bite-sized pieces and use “change-ups” and “hooks” more often to refocus attention.
  • Use story instead of analogy—Bible stories and personal stories.
  • Use lots of humor that’s respectful, uncomplicated, and directly relevant.
  • Use examples that are especially relevant to the life circumstances of persons with mental impairments—adults as well as children.
  • Incorporate lyrics of favorite songs.
  • Use visuals.
  • Incorporate simple dialog with impaired persons or with persons they know and respect (be sure to arrange that beforehand).
  • Start with lots of energy but end with meaningful calm (care providers will bless you for it!).
  • Give due weight to experiencing and doing as well as understanding. Our faith needs nourishment on all these levels.
  • Summarize the theme at the end and keep it “good news.” But don’t cut corners with addressing the need for faith, confession, commitment, and discipleship throughout your message.
  • Keep it short but not too short—15-20 minutes.
  • Remember three key points: Show them Jesus. Show them Jesus. Show them Jesus.

—Robert DeMoor

Friendship Ministries

Friendship Ministries is a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help churches and organizations around the world share God’s love with people who have mental impairments. It has grown into a ministry that encompasses more than thirty denominations in North America. The ministry is expanding to Hispanic churches in the United States and into Latin America where Amistad, the Spanish version of Friendship Bible Studies, is used.

The Friendship program model includes a group session that brings people with mental impairments and leaders together for praise and worship and a Bible story, followed by a time when friends meet individually with a mentor to learn together what it means to be a part of God’s family. Friendship’s greatest impact happens in this one-on-one relationship.

Friendship Bible Studies, a curriculum for youth and adults with mental impairments, forms the basis for Friendship Ministries. It includes Bible stories from both the Old and New Testaments as well as a series of short courses dealing with issues people with mental impairments face in their everyday lives and a course based on the Ten Commandments.

For information about starting a Friendship group in your church, order a free sample pack from Friendship Ministries:

E-mail: friendship@friendship.org

—Marlene Brands, Friendship curriculum editor

Elizabeth Vander Haagen is a pastor at Boston Square Christian Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan.


Reformed Worship 68 © June 2003, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.