Note from Mark Stephenson: A friend of mine, Rich Dixon, became paralyzed from the waist down after a fall from a roof a number of years ago. His book, Relentless Grace, which I highly recommend, is a memoir about his grief at the loss of some of his physical capabilities and his experience of God's grace in the new life that God has given to Rich since his injuries.
With Rich's permission, I've copied an entry from his blog, Bouncing Back. In it, Rich applies an excuse analysis to physical accessibility of church buildings. The same analysis could be used to consider accessibility and inclusion in church communications, language used in worship and other settings, educational programming, youth group, small groups, outreach activities, work projects, and all other church related activities.
I recently discovered a unique, innovative ministry in Toronto, Canada called The Abilities Church. I copied a few items from their web site:
- Jesus said that we must receive him as little children. The pure gospel is manifested through the weak and simple and not the strong, smart, or sophisticated.
- The Abilities Church is a place where everyone is included and no one is excluded.
- The Abilities Church is a place where everyone belongs and is accepted equally.
Does anyone else have the same questions that echoed through my mind as I read their mission?
Why should a church with these values be unique?
How could these statements NOT be at the core of a church that claims to follow Jesus?
I’ll begin with a personal disclaimer—this isn’t about me. My church is about as accessible as it gets. Easy entry, no thick carpets, elevator, and no exclusive pews with defined disability areas—I sit wherever I choose by simply moving a chair. (If you don’t think pews with limited cutouts are exclusive, ask yourself how you’d feel if you had to sit in a certain area because you have grey hair or children or blue eyes.)
Of course I sit in exactly the same spot each week, but that’s a personal issue.
I’ve spoken on a couple of occasions from the main platform, which I reached easily via a lift. If I could carry a tune anywhere other than a bucket I could even join the choir. Short of providing my own personal indoor parking space, my church is as accessible and welcoming as possible.
But I know that’s not the situation everywhere. Some buildings are marginally accessible, and some contain barriers that exclude folks with disabilities or relegate them to obvious second-class status.
My friend Mark Stephenson works on disability issues for his denomination. Check out his blog for some great insights about physical accessibility.
Last time I proposed this diagram as a way of understanding excuses and reasons. Today I want to use it to examine the issue of accessibility.
TASK: Make the church truly physically accessible.
Do I really WANT to do it?
We know we’re supposed to say YES, but I’m not certain that’s universally true.
Some people don’t want to sacrifice the pews, thick carpeting, and other traditional architecture. They believe ramps detract from the building’s appearance. They don’t care if the only spot for wheelchairs is in the back or the aisles. They don’t want the discomfort that they feel around people who appear different.
We may not like those attitudes, but at least they’re honest. If you don’t want to change, admit it and accept responsibility for your choice.
For the sake of this article, let’s assume that we actually desire an accessible building.
Am I ABLE to do it?
This answer is unquestionably YES. The standards are clear, the knowledge and technology exists. Obviously it’s more difficult with some buildings than others, but accommodations are possible. No church lacks the ability to create seamless, universal, barrier-free accessibility.
But what about the cost? Well, that brings us to the final question.
Am I WILLING to do it?
Making existing buildings accessible can be expensive, and many congregations dismiss the idea simply because there’s no room in the budget. That’s why this question is essential.
Budgets are not a reason. They’re an excuse.
Nearly every congregation provides significant financial support to missionaries and mission organizations. They’re setting priorities, deciding that missions are more important than other possible activities.
What if a congregation decided that ministering to the disabled in their own community was a priority? What if they decided that providing opportunities for fellowship and participation in ministry was an essential function of the church? What if they decided that welcoming those with physical challenges wasn’t optional?
Such a congregation would face the difficult task of re-aligning financial commitments to align with ministry priorities. They may decide that they’re not willing to sacrifice current programs.
But do you see the difference? They’re no longer using the budget as an excuse. They’re not claiming that they can’t do it. They’re accepting responsibility for their choices by acknowledging the REASON their building isn’t accessible.
How many churches have honestly stated that they’re not willing to re-align their priorities, that accessibility isn’t as important as other budget items? I’d guess there aren’t very many.
How many have claimed it’s not possible because it’s too expensive? That’s an excuse that seeks to deflect responsibility for their difficult choices.
I am not …
advocating that churches ought to stop supporting missionaries. I am not claiming that ministering to persons with disabilities should be a greater priority than bringing Jesus’ message to other countries that need it desperately. Needs are great; budgets are strained, and church leaders must make difficult choices.
I am …
asking whether the person down the street who’s lost and isolated and wonders where God went is, by default or tradition, less important than anyone else. I am asking why that person’s need for fellowship and a place to discover and deploy his gifts is so readily dismissed as financially impossible.
REASONS AND EXCUSES
When asked about budget concerns in light of a struggling economy, a wise pastor recently said, “God’s economy is not the world’s economy.”
I think he was reminding us not to make excuses, suggesting that just maybe God’s big enough to provide what’s needed to do the ministry He puts in our hearts.
I think he was encouraging us to find the courage to accept responsibility for our choices instead of making excuses.