The ways Christian Reformed congregations minister to those living with disabilities have changed dramatically over the past 30 years.
Disability advocates gain additional skills for their work in churches at this conference sponsored by Disability Concerns.
But for all the progress the denomination has made since 1982, when Disability Concerns was formed to better serve congregants with mental and physical impairments, there’s still work to be done.
In 30 years, churches’ attitudes and methods for being more welcoming and inclusive have changed.
That’s where Mark Stephenson, director of Disability Concerns, believes efforts need to keep moving forward.
“The natural human reaction is for us to see someone living with a disability and assume that that’s the most important thing we can know about that person,” Stephenson said. “That’s only just one aspect of who that person is.”
Thirty years ago, Stephenson says, churches struggled to reach out to congregants with disabilities. Many church members believed that rather than including people with disabilities, they should be sent to institutions where their issues could be dealt with.
In 1985, synod encouraged churches to become more welcoming—in their attitude, through their communication, and by making houses of worship more accessible.
Stephenson said that early on, many of those living with impairments were ignored, as pastors tended to limit themselves to disabilities they were able to see. Those with hearing or visual impairments, mental illness, eating disorders, and the like were often overlooked.
That makes Disability Concerns’ ongoing efforts even more important.
By establishing denomination-wide support systems—in the CRC and, more recently, in the Reformed Church in America—congregants have found the help they’re looking for.
“There is now a community within the church community, just as we have families or households of faith,” said Hank Kuntz, who has volunteered with Disability Concerns in greater Toronto for 15 years.
Every year, the number of CRC congregations providing better accessibility and services to the disabled grows. As of January, almost 90 percent of churches included barrier-free worship areas, while almost 85 percent offered main entrances accessible to wheelchairs.
A survey of churches also showed 49 congregations offer sign language services to the hearing impaired, while hundreds of churches offer large-print bulletins for the visually impaired.
But more can be done.
Kuntz suggests the church needs to better educate younger church members about disabilities, preparing them for difficulties they may experience later in life.
Stephenson insists some churches must also better embrace Disability Concerns’ philosophy of “Everybody belongs, everybody serves,” allowing those who live with impairments to be able to use their gifts rather than be defined by their disabilities.
“It’s that whole tendency to judge people by our first impressions and automatically assume that they’re unable to do all kinds of things,” Stephenson said.
“The reality is everyone has gifts, and everyone has challenges.”