- SHANNON DINGLE
Going through RNS
“I agree that online church is an intriguing idea for including families and people affected by disabilities,” I said, leaning back in my chair. “But I don’t think it can work.”
I said those words in 2009, in a casual conversation with other inclusive ministry leaders about what it might look like for churches to be truly accessible to people with disabilities. I was not opposed to the online church at the time. I just couldn’t imagine how to make it work.
PICTURE: Samantha Borges/Unsplash
The ideal model, we believed, would be a hybrid church, creating online communities linked to traditional in-person churches, so that attendance could be fluid and connections made in ways that included people of all ages, abilities and availability to be present in the same space as the church building. Well-equipped mega-churches with big budgets already had the technical capabilities to broadcast services and host online discussion groups. Most churches were and still are small and faithful, however, with more limited resources.
To implement a hybrid model, we knew we would need a system of training, funding and support. We missed all three. But even if we had the money, time, and expertise to do it all, we would need buy-in. We needed leaders to believe that people with disabilities deserved to be fully included in the church, as people like everyone else rather than service projects to be pitied, perpetual children to be around or pets to pat on the head.
“COVID-19 has proven to be the catalyst for such change. Churches have begun to massively shift to online models, to protect people from a deadly virus. Over the weeks we have seen that this new Normality wasn’t going away any time soon, church Leaders began moving their faith communities online People with disabilities who had pleaded for more accessible models of ministry, who were told that the online church was not possible, saw the requested accommodations become realities. While we were thrilled to finally be able to engage with our churches through new programs, our pain was undeniable.”
At that time, every American church with a strong inclusive ministry had one thing in common: the pastor had a child or grandchild diagnosed with a disability. Churches have not changed to be welcoming unless leaders first love a particular person with a disability. I had no idea what it would take to get more churches to say yes to even considering inclusive online services.
A decade later, COVID-19 has proven to be the catalyst for such change. Churches have started adopting online models en masse, to protect people from a deadly virus. As the weeks passed and we could see that this new normal wasn’t going away anytime soon, church leaders began taking their faith communities online.
People with disabilities who had pleaded for more accessible models of ministry, who were told that online church was not possible, have seen their requested accommodations become realities. While we were thrilled to finally be able to engage with our churches through new programs, our pain was undeniable.
Jesus tells a parable, recorded in Luke 15 and Matthew 18, known as the parable of the lost sheep. In it, a shepherd has 100 sheep and one disappears. The Good Shepherd fetches a lost sheep and brings it back to the 99 others in a spirit of joy and celebration. But is it a cute story that we read as pure fiction, or do we believe it?
Consider, for a moment, that the story is that of a disabled person and 99 able-bodied people, and that instead of a field, the setting is a church. When there was a need to be able to participate in the community of believers from home or in a hospital using technology, we in the church stuck with 99. Those virtual church options that were branded as impossible for one became possible when COVID-19 safety measures, such as not meeting in person, were also necessary for the other 99. Accommodation has never been impossible for one. We made the choice that the 99 people with disabilities deserved such an option to become available, which revealed what we thought about the one person with a disability: they alone were not worthy, not in the way the church operated. before the pandemic.
Now, as churches reopen for in-person services, the inclusive hybrid model can finally work, right?
Yes, but some people don’t want it to be that way. Last weekend, Tish Harrison Warren, a priest in the conservative sect of Anglican churches and opinion writer for The New York Timesadvocated for an end to the online church, although she acknowledged that the practice would re-marginalize some members who have been included by the online worship connection.
As to whether online church should be an option or not, it already is and it’s not going away. The logistics of communion practices, for example, deserve to be studied and planned, but let us consider them and plan them. Should online church happen? Regardless of your answer, it is happening.
This debate also extends to how we categorize relationships; is someone you only know online a friend, or does friendship require physical closeness? Communal embodied experiences in friendships or worship do not require physical closeness. Conversely, I was physically present in religious services without anything incarnating beyond the most superficial appearance.
My personal preference will always include in-person engagement with the people I call my church, usually in the building we also call church. I understand that other people have their own preferences, and I see no benefit in determining which disabilities or circumstances justify each choice. As with other disability accommodation, people with disabilities will also benefit: shift workers, single parents and those displaced, whether by choice or necessity, can all benefit from worship models, including opportunities for line.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 26% of adults are disabled. One in 10 adults aged 18 and over – and double for those aged 65 and over – have a disability that affects one or more domains of functioning enough to demand the support of others. We know that COVID-19 disproportionately harms people with medical vulnerabilities, and some people who need to stay home to avoid COVID also stay home for part or all of the flu season, in plus hospitalizations, surgeries, sleep disturbances, and other circumstances preventing church attendance.
The most important fact we continue to ignore in these debates, however, is that people with disabilities are more likely to have the conditions that make COVID-19 most at risk: three times more likely to have heart disease. , twice as likely to have diabetes and most likely to be immunocompromised by nature or due to medication. Along the same lines, people with disabilities experience higher rates of poverty, less stable employment, and lower rates of driving and access to a vehicle to drive than people with disabilities – which also hinders attendance. from the church.
Given these statistics, we are not talking about one lost sheep, but rather 10 or 20 lost out of 100. With the online church, people with disabilities – including me and my family – have been welcomed to the church in more ways and more often than ever. before. Let’s keep it that way instead of shouting, “Hey, Jesus, we’re going to take the one you brought back and throw it to the elements and the predators!” We go back to how we were before. »
We have the framework in place to continue to welcome people with disabilities praying from home, even as in-person services become safer. The choice is easy. Keep welcoming us.
Shannon Dingle is a Christian writer and activist.