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Everybody Belongs. Everybody Serves. — Inclusive Worship for the Disabled
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By Michelle Riley Jones, Minister for Music and Worship
Capitol Hill Seventh-day Adventist Church, Washington, DC

In his article, "Gospel Accountability: When Can Special Needs Adults Understand the Gospel?" Gene Nabi states: “Anyone with a disability, however severe, can come into God’s kingdom. They can be as receptive to the working of the Holy Spirit as anyone else. To question whether anyone has the capacity to come into the kingdom questions the power of the Holy Spirit.” Since differently abled individuals are given the capacity to come into the kingdom (created and called by God and able to respond to God’s calling (Genesis 1:26, Ephesians 2:10), how much more we should embrace that they too should also minister for the Kingdom (specially gifted and invited to participate in ministry by God—1 Corinthians 12:4, 7)?
                                        
Many times churches offers only two options for those with disabilities: miraculous healing or heroic suffering. Neither of these options are acceptable to people with disabilities. According to the Scriptures, the church’s role is to promote wholeness and abundant life in Jesus (John 10:10). Wholeness does not always mean that disability or illness will be removed from our midst. When people are accepted as they are, they are empowered to move toward wholeness. The healing ministry of Jesus was concerned with the whole person: body, mind, and spirit. This meaning has been obscured wherever persons with disabilities become “victims” of healing rather than persons whose lives are healed.
 
Your church’s worship inclusion planning can provide for wholeness of mind, body, and spirit by building on four principles:
  • All people are created in God’s image.—Genesis 1:26
  • All people are called by God.—Ephesians 2:10
  • All people have special gifts.—1 Corinthians 12:4
  • All people are invited to participate in God’s ministry.—1 Corinthians 12:7
Beyond signing ministries or wheelchair ramps, little evidence can be found of our purposeful attempts to include all in the worship and activities of the Church. As part of your weekly worship planning, consider strategies that will enable all people to feel included as they participate in worship. Persons with disabilities are wonderful ministers to others; they are not solely to be the recipients of ministry only.  Expand your disability ministry and provide information to both your congregation and the community on your inclusive worship opportunities.
 
General Suggestions
  1. Expand your Sign Interpretation Ministry to a Disability Ministry and look for opportunities to address other disabilities.
  2. Conduct a basic assessment of your church’s accessibility or bring in a consultant for a full and formal assessment.
  3. Make sure church members know it is unlawful to discriminate against disabled people.
  4. Train pastor, elders, ministry leaders, and church staff on disability awareness.
  5. Many of the people in our congregations are elderly and may have developed disabilities, particularly physical or sensory impairments. As the age of a congregation increases, so does the incidence of disability. Therefore, we need to be aware of people’s needs on an on-going basis.
  6. Review church activities regularly to make sure they are accessible to disabled people.
  7. Review your church website to consider its accessibility.
Worship Planning Suggestions
  1. When planning worship, consider the abilities and disabilities of all those you are hoping to include. Include persons with disabilities as liturgists, ushers, communion servers, and preachers—all the ways people who are able-bodied share their gifts with the church.
  2. Ask people with disabilities how they want to participate in the sacramental celebrations of the church. Don’t presume to know or make decisions on their behalf.
  3. Develop an awareness of the forms and amount of physical movement involved in worship. Consider the amount of time that is spent standing, kneeling, and sitting in worship. The flow among these movements may seem appropriate, but for some people—whether temporarily able-bodied or disabled—too much time may be spent in one of these postures. Solicit and be receptive to feedback. Help create worship services and space that welcome diverse forms of physical participation. Communicate clearly, both in attitude and in print, that anyone may choose not to participate in any action on the basis of comfort or conscience.
  4. Provide some general guidelines to your greeters and ushers on how to interact with persons with various disabilities including hearing impairment, speech impairment, mobility impairment, learning disabilities, and other disabilities.
  5. Encourage the use of multiple cues in worship. Combine simple printed directions in the bulletin with oral and physical cues that facilitate the participation of all people in worship. For example, when the congregation should stand, a simple indication in the bulletin combined with the verbal cue “Please rise as you are able,” and the physical cue of raising one’s arms effectively provide multiple cues to the congregation.
Disability-specific Suggestions
  • Inclusion of People with Intellectual Impairment.   People with an intellectual disability tend to learn more easily by using their senses of sight, touch, smell, and taste, rather than listening to words. Active learning is more effective than passive learning. The use of physical and visual props is very effective. Therefore, the use of drama, mime, music, and visual effects is very effective when including people with intellectual disabilities in worship, and in fact for the inclusion of all people.
  • Inclusion of People with Physical Disability.   Mobility and access will be the two crucial issues for the inclusion of people with a physical disability. Once the person is in the building, assist him or her to an appropriate place to sit. Ask what his or her preference is for seating. It is often helpful to position a wheelchair within the body of the congregation, rather than in an isolated position. A person with a walking frame/stick will probably be more comfortable at the end of a row so that access is more readily obtained. 
  • Inclusion of People with Visual Impairment.  Ask the person where he or she wishes to be seated. The position of lighting may be important. The provision of large-print hymn books, Bibles, orders of service, and well-lit and positioned hymn number boards or screens is important for those with little or no vision. It is important to have someone to accompany the person so that a commentary can be given of aspects of the service that are not auditory.
  • Inclusion of People with Hearing Impairment.  A clear amplification system that doesn’t distort the spoken word is essential. Speakers need to speak distinctly, not too quickly, and should always face the congregation. A hearing loop facility is also necessary. Visual cues should be matched with the spoken word where possible. These include: hymn number boards, designation of readings, and printed orders of service. Gestures and facial expressions of worship leaders are also important.
Additional Resources
The North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists Disabilities Ministries has developed several resources for churches and may be contacted at (585) 329-9275 or via their website at http://www.nad-dm.org.
 
Worship Service Elements
Below are three resources you may use in your worship service to call the congregation's attention to embrace, uplift, and include the differently abled.  When we value disabled people and foster worship and other activities where disabled people are fully involved, not just as members of the congregation, but actively using their gifts and skills in church life, everyone is blessed as a result. 
 
CALL TO WORSHIP: God Sees That It’s Good
By Michelle Riley Jones 
 
We come with different abilities of mind, body, and spirit.
When God made us, he looked around and saw that it was good. 
It is good because we are all created in the image of God;
It is good because we are all gifted and called of God;
It is good because we can all come into God’s presence knowing that in the divine we are made whole;
It is good because our Creator has invited us all to participate in ministry. 
Now look around and see the goodness of God in all persons! 
Let us all celebrate the goodness of God!
 
LITANY:  Everybody Belongs. Everybody Serves.
By Michelle Riley Jones 
 
Leader: Lord, you have taught us that we are all created in your image; we are all gifted and called by you, and are all invited to participate in your ministry. Today we pray for those who are sick with debilitating conditions…and for those who have good health but are not thankful and are poor stewards of your temple. We pray for those who have limited or no vision…and for those whose eyes can see those in distress but look away.
 
Congregation:  You created us all in your image, gifted, and called us all to participate in your ministry. Everybody belongs. Everybody serves.
 
Leader: We pray for those whose lips wish to speak but cannot…and for those whose mouths are full of hurtful words and judgment instead of kindness, encouragement, love, and understanding.  We pray for those whose minds work differently than ours or whose emotions are disturbed…and for those who close their minds and cannot seem to care for anyone who is different than they are.
 
Congregation: You created us all in your image, gifted, and called us all to participate in your ministry. Everybody belongs. Everybody serves.
 
Leader: We pray for those who are deaf or cannot hear well…and for those whose ears refuse to listen to others. We pray for those who have limited or no mobility of their limbs…and for those whose arms should embrace and serve those in need yet do not have the compassion to reach out.
 
ALL: You created us all in your image, gifted, and called us all, to participate in your ministry. Lord, speak to us today and change our hearts that we may have love for all and that our church becomes a place where everybody belongs and everybody serves. According to your will and to your glory. Amen.
 
SONG: Lord I Got a Right
Traditional Negro Spiritual
 
These traditional song texts say that each of us is called into this life and each of us is worthy of respect (even if we are differently abled) as we search for our paths forward.
 
Lord! I got a right!
Lord! I got a right!
Lord! I got a right!
I got a right to the tree of life.

If anybody asks you 
Who I am, who I am, who I am
If anybody asks you who I am, 
Tell them I’m a child of God.