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You Must Be This. . . To Attend This Church

One misconception or misunderstanding of the nature of disability within the church is that persons with disabilities, especially cognitive and/or emotional disabilities, are not able to experience worship or God. As a result of this belief, many good-intentioned people indicate that they would prefer “those people” to have their own classroom outside of the corporate worship service. While it is true that many people with disabilities appreciate the shared experience of other persons who are facing life with disabilities, respect of human dignity and shared humanity demands we recognize that all be able to worship God together. This belief is tied to the belief that as a member of the human race people are entitled to a 100 point IQ, the ability to walk and run, see and hear, smell and taste, and speak and touch. From this point of view, anyone who does not posses these characteristics is someone deserving of pity or who has failed to pass some human litmus test, and therefore, unable to worship God. Unfortunately, this belief does not account for people with IQ’s of 150, super Athletes, or anyone who distinguishes themselves above the average. If this myth were accurate then Michael Jordan and Stephen Hawking (although his use of a wheelchair would prevent him from accessing most Church pulpits) should be the next worship leaders at your local congregation.



Another problem with this belief is that it creates an “other” or an “us and them” situation inside the church. Further, it chooses to define a person’s “humanity” and ability to experience God by what they look like or how smart they are, not the condition of their heart. It does not choose to identify a person’s “humanity” by how much they love or are capable of receiving love. This is counter to a Christian worldview yet permeates every aspect of “Christian” culture. Though not, the only victims of the entitlement worldview, individuals with disabilities often find themselves shut out of leadership, Church membership and Christian fellowship because they have failed to meet the entrance requirement for Christian culture.
Words such as disability, handicap, challenge, disorder, and others are tossed about in an attempt to explain situations and conditions that most fail to appreciate. Why is it that a person with an average IQ of 100 will willingly support a segregated classroom for someone labeled as mentally retarded due to an IQ of 65? Yet, that same person believes that they are entitled to share a pew and worship with an Uber genius with an IQ of 145. In reality that “average” person has much more in common, intellectually, with the person labeled as mentally retarded then he or she does with the person who hold the higher IQ. Yet, because of our inability to recognize the gifts that people of different ability levels, and from different background bring to our worship the modern Church has been limited from making inroads toward inclusion. The Church assumes that there is no ceiling for who should be allowed in our congregation, so the rich and super smart are welcomed to their own pew, and the senior citizens are welcomed to take cruises and sit on the board. However, we have definitely put an arbitrary floor in regards to income, age (why are their no Junior High Schoolers on my board?), mental acuity and ability level. Why is this? Ultimately it goes back to the idea that so few churches are choosing to embrace the Manger as a way of life, and are holding on to innkeeper methods of worship that further divide and marginalize.
My sister-in-law and her family came down to visit my wife and I recently. One day we all went to a local amusement park. Since most of my nieces and nephews were very young, my wife and most of the family spent their time in the kiddie area of the amusement park. However, this prompted me and my eight-year old niece to get a little restless and bored. She asked me if we could go on one of the big roller coasters. So we walked up to the entrance of the biggest roller coaster there. There was a sign at the beginning of the line that had a cartoon character holding his hand up which said “You must be this tall to ride this ride.” My niece backed up against the sign and was about an inch shy of the requirement. She was heart broken. As she stood there trying to will herself another inch of height. Soon, a group of teenagers walked by the place we were standing. Apparently, the group had been debating going on this roller coaster, but one of the boys did not want to go. One of the girls in the group realized that my niece wanted to go on the ride, but was unable to and sad as a result. She looked at the boy who had been reluctant, and point at my niece. “Don’t you feel ashamed? This little girl is brave enough to go on, why can’t you?” Ultimately, the boy got in line with his friends and went on the ride. My niece and I left to find another ride that might be a little kinder to individuals of her stature.
I think access to the Church is often like that roller coaster. Someone in the local congregation (sometimes a pastor or board member or regular attendee) is standing out in the front of the church with their hand up informing newcomers that they must be “this smart” or “this able” or “this thin” or “this pretty” or “this rich” to participate in this congregation. Like the teenage boy at the amusement park, meeting the arbitrary requirements does not mean that all who meet the requirements will participate. However, unlike the amusement park, God does not hold His hand up and tell us that we must meet some entrance requirement prior to worship. Christ, on Calvary, met all of our entrance requirements. When God sees us trying to enter the thrill ride that is a relationship with God, He notes that the admission is paid and we are free to ride. It is a shame to think that some believe that Christ’s mercy only extends to the smart, the pretty or the strong, as if compared to God we are any of these things.