More than ninety percent of people with significant disabilities do not attend or participate in church life[1], yet it is estimated that less than five percent of Australian churches have any kind of intentional disability ministry or outreach.[2]

God’s perspective on disability

One of the major aspects of Jesus’ ministry on earth was his outreach to people with disabilities, who also played a prominent role in witnessing to the fact that he was the Messiah. In Luke 14, Jesus has given the church a mandate to make every effort to reach out to people with disabilities and ensure that they also have the opportunity to hear the gospel and find a place of belonging and ministry in the church.[3] He concludes by saying that his house will not be full without their inclusion (Luke 14:23). They are an indispensable part of God’s family.

The idea that those we may be seeing as of lower priority, are not so in God’s economy is a theme also found in Paul’s letters. As he reminded the Corinthian church, every member of the church has gifts to be used for the common good (1 Corinthians 12:7) and every part of the body of Christ is needed for the body to function. In fact, he goes on to say that “those parts which seem to be weaker are indispensable” (1 Corinthians 12:22). It seems entirely appropriate to include in this group of weaker members, those ‘weakened’ by significant disability or those who care for them. Elsewhere Paul speaks about learning through the experience of a disabling “thorn in the flesh” to boast in his own weakness and incapacity, because through that weakness God’s power was able to work and be “made perfect” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).

Joni Eareckson-Tada speaks of this learning being available to the church that ministers to and alongside people with disabilities and their families, through which we discover that “God’s power shows up best in weakness.” She speaks of the life and faith shaping gift of disability in her life, through which she has learnt obedience, recognized the extent of her sin and poverty before God, experienced God’s strength and sufficiency working in the midst of her weakness and seen God work through her in her church to deepen its capacity for love and service. She concludes that “People with disabilities are the way to creating a caring church that truly reflects the love of God, as well as his power.”[4] Could it be that our church communities are less caring and overall weaker than any of us would like, because we have not been including and learning from people with disabilities?

Certainly in the context of evangelistic strategies that focus on reaching the ‘influencers’ and those that are deemed most strategic for taking the work of God forward in the world, ministry to and with people who live with significant disability is going to be thought of as a lesser priority. But this kind of thinking possibly has more in common with the performance-oriented thinking of the world, than with a biblical worldview. As J. I. Packer states, “God doesn’t want us for the sake of the things we can do for Him. He wants our love. He wants our fellowship. He wants our worship. And any of us – rich or poor, healthy or ill – can offer Him this.”[5]

It is an interesting exercise to look at the images of believers on the websites of Sydney’s Connect ’09 and that of NCLS (National Church Life Survey). Both depict the church in terms of able-bodied people:



ncls logo


When we look at the images of church these websites promote, are we inadvertently sending a message to people who are blind for example, or who live with degenerating illness, or who care for children who have Down’s syndrome or schizophrenia or cerebral palsy that they are not as welcome in the church? I think quite likely we are.

What is disability ministry?

Disability ministry is an activity of Christians with and without disabilities working together to reach people affected by disabilities (including their caring families) with the gospel of God’s grace in Christ.

Disability ministry is a holistic word-and-deed ministry that involves considering spiritual, physical, social and emotional needs. It aims to integrate people into the church and to meet their needs in a way that serves as a witness to the surrounding community (Matthew 5:16)

Disability ministry is not a charity response that focuses primarily on a person’s limitations, but a mutual ministry that supports people with disabilities to utilise their God-given gifts and talents in the church for the benefit of others.

Disability ministry – whether large or small – is made up of many small and ordinary acts of kindness expressed by one person to another, and so is within the reach and capacity of every church. And the benefits to all are substantial. New people are brought to Christ, the church is strengthened as everyone is given the opportunity to use his or her spiritual gifts, and the community sees God at work in real and practical ways, ultimately bringing glory to him.

Where is disability ministry happening?

In America, through Joni and Friends and other organizations, disability ministry is growing in evangelical churches, and both the lives of people with disabilities and the culture of churches are being changed as a result.[6]

In the UK, through the organization Through the Roof, similar ministry is taking place that is equipping evangelical churches to remove barriers of architecture, communication and attitude that prevent people with disabilities from attending a local church and responding to the gospel.[7]

In New Zealand through Christian Ministries with the Disabled Trust, a camping program is bringing together people with disabilities and church members as their support people, to hear about Jesus and grow in their faith.[8] Church members are returning to their local churches at the end of these camps equipped and inspired to seek out people with disabilities living in their local communities, and by word and example to commend God’s love in Jesus to them.

Why the absence of evangelical disability ministry in Australia?

So why is it that Australian evangelicals have largely ignored this group of people, who according to Lausanne, are one of the most unreached people groups in the world today?[9]

  • Are we unaware of being unwelcoming? Surely when we say everyone is welcome in our church, we mean everyone. Why does there need to be a special invitation or effort?
  • Are we uncertain how to imitate Jesus in this area, who responded to disability in most cases with miraculous healing? The question of healing is a difficult area for people with disabilities as well as for us. Many have been hurt by Christian assumptions and ‘healing’ attempts.
  • Are we uncomfortable with ministry that involves works of service, because our evangelical focus is largely on proclaiming the gospel through preaching and word-based ministries?
  • Do we assume that God wants us to reach people who understand and reason as we do? Perhaps we don’t think that a person with intellectual disability can understand the gospel of grace.
  • Do we think we need formal training? There is a bewildering array of disabilities after all, and who knows how many legal restrictions and obligations to getting involved.
  • Do we see church as a place to recharge and receive ministry rather than to give?
  • Do we think that people living with significant disability are spiritually innocent, with a free ticket to heaven because of their disability?
  • Are we motivated by pity and unable to see any productive purpose or usefulness to the church in disability?
  • Being time-poor like everyone else, do we decline involvement in a ministry that might require more time than we have to give?
  • Are we worried about the cost?
  • Do we feel afraid, ignorant, challenged in our faith? How can we minister to a person or family whose road is so much harder than ours? Are we ignorant of the number of people with disabilities in our neighbourhoods, and the extent of their isolation within both our communities and our churches? Disability still causes isolation today. People who lose physical capacity through degenerating illness stay at home. Children with significant physical disability require special transport to travel anywhere, and so largely stay at home. Parents of children with significant disabilities experience what some have called the cruellest form of isolation. People who once held responsible full-time jobs find caring means they can’t work, are financially poor, often sleep-deprived, and lose heart, motivation and self-confidence. For all these reasons, people affected by disability are absent from the ‘common-room’ places that typically our church outreach attempts target.
  • Have we assumed that people with disabilities don’t come to our programs and services because they don’t want to, just like everyone else who stays away?

Whatever the answer to these questions, our lack of involvement in this area is resulting in the ongoing absence from our churches of people with disabilities and their families. When we don’t actively reach out to hidden and forgotten people as Jesus commanded us to do, we are responsible for limiting their access to the gospel. For people with disabilities this is a significant issue, because there is such minimal gospel ministry happening in this area.

What might disability ministry involve?

a. Raising awareness in the church

An excellent awareness raising tool is the six week bible study series Hearts in Motion, which explores a biblical perspective on disability. Perhaps the small groups of your church could work through this material.

Your church might decide to run a Disability Awareness Sunday, perhaps coinciding with Carers week (October) or the International Day for People with Disabilities (December 3rd). CBM has a wealth of resources to equip churches to run such an event.

b. Starting small

Disability ministry starts best when it starts small. When one church member or family living with disability is helped to greater participation and belonging, disability ministry in your church has begun. What can you do to facilitate greater inclusion and shared ministry?

An informal study of churches with vibrant disability ministries in America has revealed that everything grows from this compassionate response to the needs of one. The opposite has also been observed – where churches lack this kind of compassionate attention to the needs of the individual, no amount of accessible renovation of the building brings people with disabilities to the church.

c. A ministry that always combines word and compassionate action

Developed disability ministries may include:

  • providing respite opportunities for parents who are full-time carers;
  • providing ‘buddies’ and assistance for children with disabilities to attend the kids programs on Sunday mornings, or youth group and young adults activities;
  • providing support groups and fellowship opportunities for the whole family;
  • providing support and activities for siblings who often receive less attention because of the demands of the disability on the parents;
  • working on the accessibility of church programs;
  • ensuring the same opportunities for people with disabilities to minister in the church according to their gifts and interests.

So who is there in your church that you know but don’t know, who may be saying, “We are always on the fringe of the church, not a true part of the body”? What can you do today and tomorrow to help relieve a burden and enable a person or a whole family to take their place in ministry and service beside you?

d .Engaging with people and families with disabilities in the community

In the community the church may be involved in:

  • teaching religious education in the local special development schools;
  • reaching out to isolated people living in group homes who lack family support or community connection;
  • outreach and evangelistic events that are inclusive of everybody.

CBM Australia has employed me to help churches begin or develop Christian ministry to and with people with disabilities, through supplying resources, training and support. Contact me on FREE Call 1800 678 069 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Lindsey Gale is Disability Access Officer for CBM Australia and a member of EFAC. She is married to Phil Gale, vicar of the Anglican parish of Wandin, Seville and Mount Evelyn in Melbourne’s outer east.


[1] ABS – 6.8% of people with moderate to profound disability attend church regularly.

[2] This is an estimate based on US figures where less than 10% of churches have intentional disability ministry – Joni and Friends, 2007.

[3] In particular Luke 14:21, 23 – “Go out quickly to the streets and alleys… bring in the lame and the blind… and make them come in, so that my house will be full.”

[4] Stephanie Hubarch, 2006, Same Lake, Different Boat, P&R Publishing.

[5] J I Packer, 1973, Knowing God, Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity – see the chapter ‘These Inward Trials’; quoted in J. Eareckson Tada and Steve Miller, 2006, Through the Roof – Assisting Churches in Developing an Effective Disability Ministry and Outreach, Joni and Friends International Disability Centre, California.

[9] Lausanne Occasional Paper 35B, 2004 – Hidden and Forgotten People – Ministry Among People with Disabilities.