Even though virtually all Protestant pastors and churchgoers believe disabled individuals would feel comfortable at their church, a smaller proportion takes action steps to make sure this is a reality.
LifeWay Research revealed results from its survey of more than 1,000 Protestant pastors and churchgoers in the United States last September to see how accommodating believers are toward those with disabilities.
"Nearly every pastor (99%) and churchgoer (97%) says someone with a disability would feel welcomed and included at their church, [and] 81% strongly agree on both," LifeWay Research divulged last week.
Going after those not connected to the flock
Nearly every pastor surveyed agreed that adjustments should be made to accommodate churchgoers with special needs.
"Almost all pastors (99%) say local churches should make necessary facility modifications to become more accessible to people with physical disabilities – even when it is not required by law," the study found. "Three-quarters of Protestant pastors (76%) say local churches have a responsibility to provide financial resources and support to individuals with disabilities and their families."
Scott McConnell, executive director for LifeWay Research, says Scripture calls for Christians – especially leaders – to make that extra effort to make sure that none are left out of the church body.
"Jesus's parable of a shepherd leaving the 99 to pursue one lost sheep demonstrates the priority churches must place on providing access to everyone," McConnell asserts. "It may inconvenience the current flock by moving a teaching location or changing activities, but pastors and churchgoers say they see the need to do so. They believe creating access for everyone to hear the gospel and participate in the body of Christ matters."
But what's being done?
When it comes to how churches are helping the disabled and their families, most have some sort of plan to accommodate them. LifeWay discovered that almost every pastor (95%) reported that their church is involved in at least one of five different ways to care for those with disabilities and their families.
In fact, three in four pastors call upon congregants to donate their time to help the disabled, with a majority contributing funds or services to their families (see graph). One in two churches have staff designated to serve the physically and mentally challenged, while less than a third of churches hold activities or classes for them.
The bigger the better?
According to the study, the larger the church the more likely it is to accommodate those with special needs.
"While three quarters (75%) of churches with worship attendance topping 250 say they provide such assistants, 54% of churches with 100 to 249, 46% of churches with 50 to 99, and 35% of churches with less than 50 say they do the same," the data shows.
Despite the fact disabled individuals often find a lack of specific accommodations, they are rarely left out.
"Many churches likely won't have the resources to provide classes or events specifically designed for only those with disabilities, but they will still have opportunities to help those individuals participate in the life of their church," McConnell notes.
Make the effort
Jamie Sumner – whose son has cerebral palsy – wrote the upcoming book "Eat, Sleep, Save the World" to assist parents with disabled children. She argues that churches must be intentional when addressing special needs.
"Until you have a plan in place that accommodates those with special needs all the way from nursery-age to senior citizen, then you can't accurately make this claim," contends Sumner, whose church created a disabled ministry.
"They asked us what we needed and started slowly. Now we serve many families with children with special needs. It's a lot of work, but it has changed our lives."
The author says Jesus doesn't leave anyone out – and neither should churches.
"You have to make an extra effort," Sumner insists, referring to churches. "If that isn't done, we don't go back [to that church because] everyone deserves a church home."
She points out that Jesus instructed his followers to care for those in need – not only those in poverty, but those in need of fellowship, friends and support.
"We must show those who walk through the world differently from us that we have thought about them and have made room for them," she adds. "It's not their job to pave the way – it's our job to make the way easier for them first. Consider all the areas that must be met – spiritual, physical, social and emotional – and then ask special needs coordinators at other churches how they meet those needs at every age level."