Disability Friendly Churches

Pastoral care givers and theologians warn us of the minefield faith and scriptures create when used inappropriately. This is especially true as we consider the ill and disabled. Not only do we do a disservice when we over-emphasize the power of faith to bring healing, but also when we misinterpret the language of "healing" vs "cure" and inadvertently denigrate those with chronic disease or disability.  Even our jargon (lame, retarded, unclean) can hurt.

I intended to highlight the do's and don'ts of being an inclusive and welcoming church for those who are differently-abled and differently healed.  But I discovered that I needed a primer on the complexity of this issue.  So I'm sharing my primer with you!

Here are a treasure trove of resources for your use.  If you know of a church that is welcoming for the disabled and/or has trained its community to use language and theology appropriately, please post an anecdote! If you need resources, read on!

Disabilities and Faith is a website that offers a wealth of resources - even a PowerPoint presentation  that can help generate sensitivity to how we talk and interact around each other's differences in church.  There is soooo much material here...go digging!

This short blog post is about 5 things restaurants can do to be hospitable to wheelchairs, but its important for our church potlucks too!

Accessible meetings and conferences are highlighted in an online, free guidebook published by the ADA Hospitality website. It's a great resource for thinking of our space-use and hospitality around sight and sound.

And finally, a video that could be watched and discussed at your place of worship:

I hope these resources will help you think about how your community widens the welcome to everyone.  The great sadness is that over 85% of people identify as belonging to a faith tradition but less than half actually go to a house of worship even once a month. (Stats from the National Organization on Disability). Barriers include architectural challenges, programmatic barriers, and attitudes of the community.  This is a statistic we shouldn't ignore. It's one we can change - for the better.


That Christmas Eve Service....

Christmas music is on the radio, trees are being decorated across the country, it’s time for pastors to start planning that Christmas Eve Service – if they haven’t already!  Christmas Eve brings new faces into our churches. Family members from out of town, non-attendees who come by invitation, and those who value the tradition of religious worship on the high holy days. 

It’s easy to be annoyed at those folks, as if they are not your “real” congregation.  But take the 30,000 foot view and notice something: at least twice every year, those folks are probably dependably going to be in your community.  Their needs and interests are different, but longitudinally, they are valuable participants in the life of your church. 

In his excellent article in The Atlantic Monthly, entitled “In defense of Christmas-and-Easter Christians", Jacob Lupfer noted that there are three reasons why most Christians from across America’s spectrum of churches have become disaffected: they feel hurt by the church, they are angry at their former tradition, or they are bored.  He notes that “churches have often failed to offer a compelling vision of lifelong Christian spiritual community, and they often don’t acknowledge their own fault in driving people away.”


So, as your church prepares for Christmas Eve, maybe it’s time to think about those Christmas/Easter folks (aka ChrEasters) in a new light.  Here are five things to consider:

Visitors to your Christmas Eve service are hoping for:

1.      BREVITY – to really engage non-church people, consider offering a couple of shorter services specifically targeted for the irregular attenders; or at the very least make sure you don’t sing all 5 verses of O Come All Ye Faithful!

2.       MEANING  - contextualize and make relevant the holiday in your sermon. This is the time to go for the heart and imagination, put your intellectual sermon aside for next Sunday.

3.       NOSTALGIC FULFILLMENT – most everyone loves candles and greenery, the solemn singing of Silent Night.  Christmas and Easter are the times to invest in beautifying the sanctuary and making it shine!

4.       VALUE FOR THE CHILDREN – parents bring children to church because they were brought to church. They want their children to experience something of value and to be valued by those in attendance. Easy wins: children’s choir, gifts for children before or after the service, a targeted children’s sermon without asking children to come forward.

5.       FAMILIARITY – even if they’ve been away for years, it’s comforting to say a prayer they memorized in childhood or sing familiar songs. Don’t do Lessons & Carols without familiar carols!

It’s imperative that we as churches cultivate and widen our communities. That we articulate and embody the love and welcome that are ours.  Most ChrEasters are not going to attend our churches regularly and that’s okay. That doesn’t mean that they are un-Christian or damned. It means they do spirituality in different ways. But we can invite them in to more regular community by doing the following:

1.       Have festive events throughout the year. What if Pentecost became a carnival and samba dance party? How about a saintly costume party around Halloween? You get the idea! 

2.       Make your sermons and worship contextually relevant. Boredom should not be the second thing that newcomers experience, right after bewilderment.

3.       Counter the “commodification” of spirituality – name that regular attendance is a way of deepening relationship – with God and other. Prove that this is true by modeling Jesus’-style love and welcome for each other.

4.       Claim your identity as an intentional community.  We don’t emphasize enough the power of our social capital as churches. People are longing to belong.

Finally, here are some very practical tips for enjoying that special Christmas Eve service and widening the welcome in your parish:

1.       Create a holiday playlist to have on in the lobby/narthex, and in the sanctuary prior to the service

2.       Spray a festive holiday smell throughout your space prior to service. Bake cookies in the church kitchen and serve them afterward.  Don’t make many – most people will skedaddle – just let that aroma be a part of the welcome!

3.       Create a holiday photo booth with props and a cardboard sign that has the church name. Collect the photos of possible for your website and social media.

For unto us, a child is born, unto us a son is given. The wonder of Christmas is the arrival of the unexpected.  Love became incarnate in Jesus.  Let’s participate in that celebration with welcome for all – the expected folks, the surprises, and the ones we haven’t seen since Easter. They are all a part of the family even when it feels a little awkward!


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CONVENTIONal Wisdom: Learning from the business

Conventions and Conferences are big business

Chances are, 6 out of 10 people reading this have attended a two-day or longer overnight gathering that identified as a conference or convention.  Since the turn of the century, conventions have grown exponentially, both in the number of them, and the number of people attending.  While it’s difficult to get a handle on the numbers, best estimates suggest that 40 million Americans now attend one of the 500,000 conferences and conventions hosted each year in the US.  That’s a lot of people!

These are big money generators for host cities and facilities. They add revenue, visitors and attractiveness to a city.  It's possible that conferences and conventions are becoming a substitute for the local church by providing the espresso version of social capital and Meaning . 

Conventions are designed for like-minded people to network, and they are designed for a heavy download of meaningful information.   When I read the literature from CONVENE, the industry magazine of the Professional Convention Management Association (of which I receive a free subscription – thanks PCMA!), what I see is a growing sense from the industry that their work is to create safe, welcoming environments for social networking and that their keynotes must, absolutely must, inspire and ignite.  Sound familiar?  The articles in the most recent magazine focused on inclusion, on how to get people to come to conventions year after year, and engaging creative approaches for widening convention/conference reach. 

So, here in a nutshell are some things to think about in terms of what Conventions/Conferences might teach us.  I’m not going to connect the dots. I think you'll find it easy to do by yourself.

Why people attend out of town conventions and conferences

  • ·         To gain social capital – they’ll meet people of common interest or who can support their work
  • ·         Gain knowledge, skill, deeper connection to the topic and the most recent innovations
  • ·         Like how it serves their development as a person or professional
  • ·         They have to because it’s a requirement

Cost to attend

  • ·         Travel time, conference time, TIME
  • ·         Registration, Lodging, Travel, MONEY
  • ·         Temporary loss of local relationships

Convention Facilities

  • ·         Designed for functionality and access
  • ·         Prioritize visitor needs
  • ·         Clean
  • ·         Predictable spaces and furniture layouts
  • ·         Provide necessary IT and Equipment
  • ·         Accessible for hearing impaired and disabled

Convention Swag

  • ·         Name tags – always
  • ·         Agendas – always
  • ·         Take home momentoes

Conference Structure

  • ·         Keynotes who are engaging and inspiring
  • ·         Breakouts that are planned to optimize the total experience
  • ·         Social time designed to capitalize on networking those who don’t know each other

So, take just a couple of things – like swag and breakouts.  What if we as churches designed our Sundays to visitor friendly? Would we give out a free coffee mug with our church logo (super easy to do and not that expensive)?  Would we design our Sunday mornings with breakouts that might include say, three choices for adults and teens during the Spiritual Formation time? 

If we take the best practices from those who are succeeding in gathering people across hundreds of miles, who are giving the time and treasure in exchange for what they offer, we might strengthen our capacity to attract more people to experience the greatest meaning of all – life in the fullness of God’s love.

--Rev. Rebecca Ragland