Church: without barriers?

“I’m just the same as you!”

Those words had a huge impact on me as I was getting to know one of the young women at church. Until then, like so many others, I hadn’t been good at seeing past the externals that signal huge difference. My friend is a bright, articulate, creative, resilient, faithful, struggling saint. God has called her to live in a body that she experiences as a prison.

Her brain’s commands get mistranslated on the way to her muscles. She is dependent on others to help her do everything from personal care to communication. At the same time, her body imposes involuntary movements and sounds. It refuses to allow her to use her vocal cords to speak, or her facial expressions to communicate and connect as most of us do. When she shared that she is just like me inside, it was as if a light went on. I started to move toward her with a transformed mindset.

The last few years of doing life together have seen us both on a journey of growth. With her permission, I wanted to take time here to reflect on some of the lessons and some of the enduring challenges. She has shown me there is so much more to church being safe and welcoming than making sure ramps, lifts and toilets are up-to-spec (vital though these basic things are).

From problem to partner

Too often people with disabilities (and their families) have to navigate structures that just aren’t fit-for-purpose. I have become painfully aware of how many barriers stand in the way of being able to live a full, satisfying and dignified life when your needs are beyond the norm. Even when it comes to joining in regular church services, it can end up feeling like the effort is just too much.

If we’re honest, their ‘difference’ feels like the problem.

My friend has challenged me to move beyond compassion at what is, undoubtedly, profound suffering and to see her as a sister first and foremost. From difference being the main paradigm to sameness. Someone who is like me! Since she is in Christ, the fundamental realities of our lives now and for eternity are the same. She has been given as a gift to her local church. She is part of the body. We need her if we are to grow up and be a fully functioning body (1 Cor 12:12-27; Eph 4:11-16).

It has been brilliant watching her gain confidence that she has a specific calling and role to play (not limited to being someone who prays!) Because of her particular perspective, she is able to pioneer additional needs ministry in the church. She is looking for ways to bring down obstacles, like welcoming others who find it impossible to get to a church service to worship with her at her home. Distinctive needs can give rise to fresh solutions!

Just like me, my friend is saint, sufferer and sinner. She needs people who get to know where she is struggling to live by faith in her particular circumstances. We need to hear her testimony of holding onto the Lord when life is unimaginably hard at times. To laugh together, weep together, and pray together.

On healing

Churches can polarise unhelpfully in their functional beliefs about healing. Either healing is simply about full physical functioning (maybe in response to enough faith), or it is only to be had in the New Creation, when every tear is fully and finally wiped away. For someone living with disability, this can be deeply disempowering and confusing. My friend has been honest in admitting that there were times when she wanted either physical healing or heaven now. The anger and frustration that resulted was profound. Perhaps worse, there can be an underlying impression within church culture that doesn’t see the possibility of blessing and purpose in the experience of disability; it is just to be stoically endured until heaven.

This perspective misunderstands God’s sovereignty and his love. My friend has started to believe that, in wisdom and love, God has called her to live with these particular challenges and opportunities in a way that honours him. Her situation is not an accident. God is at work in and through her. How wonderful to hear her reflecting on her journey recently and for her to acknowledge that God has been healing her. Not in the way she originally wanted, but so much more wonderfully. She is taking steps of faith and obedience each day and discovering that God is faithful! She has hope for now and for eternity.

Don’t we all need to be reminded of this when life is messy and we can’t seem to find a solution to what is paining us most?

A church without barriers

At the same time, my friend needs the church to be pushing with her against the different barriers that hold her back. This brings me back to thinking about sameness and difference. My friend wrestles with concerns about feeling different – the way kids sometimes stare, her worry about her vocalisations. I suspect she also recoils from being perceived as different. This week we thought together about the radical message of the vibrant, counter-cultural, New Testament church…barriers that seemed entrenched have been erased in Jesus. Jew-Greek, male-female, slave-free, now irrelevant. “All one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). 

We would love you to think about who in your church community still feels out of place. Who do you still see mostly as different? How can you live out the reality that those barriers are gone?

We are God’s new creation already (Gal 6:15), but there is often still room to grow into that beautiful reality.