Disabling Worship: Evaluating Worship Practices to Welcome Individuals with Disabilities

This paper examines the impact of corporate worship practices on people with disabilities and their families. Numerous voices lament the general absence of people with disabilities from modern churches, especially considering their historic inclusion. This paper argues that corporate worship practices bare some blame for this absence as they add layers of difficulty and separation. Three areas of corporate worship are specifically addressed: the setting, the seating, and the sermon. In the evangelical church, there is a tendency to believe current practices are what has always been observed. However, as Paul Bradshaw, Maxwell Johnson, Robin Barfield, etc. argue, there has been great diversity of worship practice from the earliest days of the church varying based on context. The historic diversity of worship practices even in the early church suggests the modern church should be open to adjustments that align with the Scriptural imperatives for worship to create a more welcoming environment for people with disabilities.
For example, in some churches, longer sermons suggest greater devotion to Scripture. Yet the length of a sermon can establish a significant barrier for people with certain types of disabilities (cognitive disorders, pain inducing conditions, etc.). Seating concerns also present a challenge, as pews (or interlocked rows of chairs) confine the person in a wheelchair or with limited mobility to specific places, usually on the periphery. As seating in general was absent from most worship spaces prior to the 16th century, churches should rethink their commitment to the current approach. Additionally, the visual and acoustic features of worship spaces, often designed to accommodate large groups, introduce challenges for those with sensory disorders. Geoffrey Wainwright observes there was great diversity regarding worship venues even in the early church, demonstrating a willingness to accommodate to the church’s context. As the specifics of the seating, the setting, and the sermon are not clearly addressed in Scripture, churches should evaluate how these elements impact people with disabilities and their families.
Several problematic practices are addressed within this paper. Additionally, several accommodations or changes to these practices are suggested. Churches are encouraged to rethink their commitment to practices that may unintentionally isolate and exclude in favor of more compassionate responses to people with disability. The church must reimagine our worship space and practices within the parameters of Scripture and built on the foundation of Jesus to welcome these families into our fellowship.