6 ways to welcome families with disabilities in the church

May 9, 2019

I watched with a smile on my face as the family of three walked up to the welcome desk in our preschool area. They were visiting our church for the first time, so I introduced myself and gave them the information card to fill out as we checked in their four-year-old boy for Sunday School. I noticed the little boy used a walker, and chatted with his mom as we made the long walk down the hall to his assigned classroom.

But as I entered the classroom, my heart sunk, and I knew they wouldn’t be back. We weren’t prepared to have a child with a physical disability in our Sunday School space.

The walk to his classroom was long and across old carpet that rippled, which creates an unnecessary challenge when using any kind of mobility device. The tiny classroom had large furniture that made it difficult to independently navigate. I was disappointed at this revelation because I should know better—I’ve taught children with disabilities for a long time. But that morning I entered the classroom not as a ministry director but as a mom that was visiting for the first time, and as a child who wants and needs to belong to a peer group without restrictions.

I know we didn’t meet the needs of that family, but how could I move forward? I didn’t want to be one of the reasons why 32 percent of parents change their place of worship because their child with a disability was not included or even welcomed. My church isn’t small, but we still face a lot of constraints that many others face, such as having an older building we can’t renovate any time soon, and a limited budget and volunteer base. We aren’t in a place where we can or should begin an entire slate of programs.

But we do need to move from being reactive to being proactive. We do need for our church to reflect the population of the community around us. We should all be prepared for inclusive ministry on a Sunday morning or any time the doors are open. Below are suggestions for churches to consider as you strive to be inclusive of people with disabilities:

  1. Modify your welcome process. Include an online registration form on your church website for families to fill out prior to arrival at church. This minimizes the time waiting to get checked in and helps get children settled quicker. It also helps staff and volunteers prepare beforehand if it’s a form that can be emailed prior to Sunday. Be sure to include questions on your form about allergies, a child’s likes/dislikes, how to support a child, and a place for parents to write any extra comments they choose.
  2. Ensure your programs are physically accessible beyond ADA requirements. Katie Wetherbee and Jolene Philo in their book Every Child Welcome suggest designating one door a “gentle entrance” where there are just one or two greeters who are trained to have calm voices, little or no-touch greetings (no high-fives, hugs, etc), dim or soft lighting, and minimal wall décor. A church foyer can be overwhelming and chaotic, even painful to people struggling with sensory sensitivities. Additionally, make sure classrooms are open enough so that children can independently navigate around them and access materials without a lot of difficulty. Other things to consider are: offering flexible seating, keeping classroom wall décor to a minimum, dimming classroom lights, and having noise-cancelling headphones on hand for children with sensitivities to loud noises.
  3. Train a few consistent volunteers to be a “buddy” to children who need extra support. This person isn’t another classroom teacher or the child’s parent, but functions as a “guide on the side” to help children interact with others and engage with curriculum. If you need help with training, you could contact your local or state association and they can help you network with others. Additionally, you could consider calling a school and reach out to a teacher or other service provider for their expertise.
  4. Train your team to teach and lead inclusively. Again, you may need to reach out to other ministry leaders to help train your team. It’s important to develop consistent classroom routines, provide visual schedules, plan for transition times, and learn about various strategies to support children’s social and spiritual development.
  5. Think across the lifespan. If you have an elementary student with a disability, remember that eventually that child will be in student ministry. Think through how to best minister to adults with disabilities as well. When you have whole-church events and programs, plan for your program to be accessible to all people.
  6. Learn to communicate well. Use first names and learn preferred terminology. Ask families how they’d like to be involved and what their previous experiences have been. Ask how you can best support their family. Communicate value and love to those you encounter. You never know the effort it took to just arrive at church.

The key to supporting people with disabilities at church is developing relationships over programming. Look people in the eyes, and tell them you’re glad they came to church today. Be humble enough to admit that you don’t know all the answers but you want to be a support. Ask what families need, and presume competence in people with disabilities. Most of all, do all you can to let people know they are valued and a vital part of your church body.

Tracy McElhattan

Dr. Tracy McElhattan serves as director of Early Childhood Ministries at Blue Valley Baptist Church in Overland Park, Kansas. She also writes and edits Sunday School curriculum for children with special needs for LifeWay Kids. Previously, Tracy worked in public education for 13 years, including teaching and research. She earned … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24