The Difference Between Inclusion and Belonging

We often hear the words ‘inclusion’ and ‘belonging’ when talking about welcoming more people with disabilities into our churches and ministries. But the difference between these two is not always clear. As it’s December, let me use a Christmas example to try and explain. 

Most of us will have different Christmas traditions, such as a certain time to open presents, reading the Christmas story or dressing up in our best and going to a Christmas service. Whatever our unique Christmas traditions are, one tradition that many of us have in common is gathering with close friends and family. You might have an aunt who always brings the pavlova, someone else their ‘famous’ glazed ham and that one person who will always laugh at the bad Christmas-cracker jokes. 

When close friends and whānau gather, there is likely to be a number of inside jokes. If someone is not able to make it, their presence is deeply felt and their typical contribution is missed (especially if they bought the pav!). This is belonging. 

If someone new came along one year, they would most likely be welcomed and invited to join in with the fun and games. They may contribute to the conversations or bring a yummy dish to share. By the end of the day, you may even look back and think that was fun having them come. 

But they wouldn’t get the inside jokes or understand the specific nuances of your whānau’s unique traditions. If they did not come again next year, there might be a moment when their absence is noticed, but it won’t be with the same deep longing that grandma’s absence would bring. Their contribution will not likely be missed either. Your Christmas celebrations will continue as they have every other year. This is inclusion. 

You see, someone can be present, made to feel welcomed and included in the activities, but until they are truly apart of the whānau, where their absence and contribution are missed, they will only ever be included.  

God offers all of us a part to play in His family (Romans 12: 3-13). We as the church and wider Christian community need to honour God’s desire and actively extend this invitation to everyone in our church. Once people are able to join in on the inside jokes and contribute to the Christian community, then will a sense of belonging will be possible. 

By Siobhán Jansen 

Training and Seminar Coordinator 

Stop, Wait, Go – but have we forgotten anyone?

We’ve all done it, or had it done to us, at some stage. Many parents have accidentally forgotten their child somewhere (home, school, shops). Many of us have accidentally forgotten to invite a friend or family member to a party. It’s not that we do it intentionally, nor does it represent a lack of love towards or value of that person. It’s often simply that we’ve got caught up in the busyness, stress or excitement to get to where we’re going. Our focus was on the end goal rather than what was happening around us. 

Right now, we are in a midst of stress and anxiety about how our churches can meet under the new Covid-19 Protection Framework (aka the traffic light system). We are preoccupied in the busyness of trying to work out what it means for our church, what it could look like, and “will it happen before Christmas”?  

Are we running the risk of accidentally forgetting someone?

Maybe, like a child accidentally forgotten at the supermarket, you usually know they are there and are a valued member of the church family. Maybe like the youth group leader inviting the youth to an event, you thought someone else had invited them. Or maybe you aren’t aware that they’re even there. But I can assure you, they are there and are of great risk of getting left behind as our churches process their options moving forwards. 

People with a disability make up to nearly a quarter of New Zealand, Aotearoa’s population and yet regularly get forgotten. In our work we are aware that many people with disabilities are not included within their local church. This is often due to the barriers that they face. Some barriers can be physical: lack of transport, steps, narrow corridors and doorways, only one ‘wheelchair gap/seat’ in the pews, etc. But many barriers often go unnoticed, are unintentional and are found much closer to home: the church and its members attitudes and the deeply held traditions of how things are done. 

But God has called us to welcome people with disabilities. In fact, God has called us to actively “go out… and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full” (Luke 14:23). And when they do come, they are not meant to be mere spectators of the church and Christian life. Nor are they to be passive, perpetual receivers of service from others.  

Below is a list of six key areas to consider in deciding how we can support and encourage people with disabilities to be a part of our churches, how we can create a genuine sense of belonging and considerations with the new Protection Framework. 

Compassion

“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other… And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” (Colossians 3:12-14)

Compassion needs to be a constant mindset. Just as we choose what clothes to wear in the morning, so too do we need to actively choose to have compassion. Equally, compassion does not stop at kind words and thoughts, it needs to extend to actions, sometimes sacrificially so. Within our churches, this may mean creating a roster to look after a child with down syndrome in creche so the parents can focus on the sermon. It may mean offering transport to people in rest or group homes to and from church.  

When considering the requirements of the protection framework for our churches, it’s going to be important to be aware of how else the framework might affect people with disabilities. For example, people living in group or nursing homes will likely only be allowed to attend vaccine certificate events. 

Paul seems to understand that being brothers and sisters in Christ does not mean that we will always get along, or even like each other, which is why he specifically instructs us to “bear with each other”. It can be hard work, it could also be awkward, but we are not to use this as an excuse to ignore someone. In the next chapter Paul charges us to “be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (ch 4 vs 5-6).  

With regards to including and making people with disabilities feel welcomed, this means approaching and talking with a people with a disability (and not just their carer), showing genuine interest in what they are saying. It could mean that we have to exercise patience as others speak slower or differently than us, or talk about odd topics, or make strange noises or movements. Maybe it means learning to embrace those who make vocal noises through the singing or sermon. Perhaps it means sitting next to, and showing kindness to, someone who we do not feel comfortable to sit beside because of their differences such as non-verbal, they may dribble and/or they dance in the isles during worship. As we continue to meet through online platforms such as Zoom, showing compassion and grace to someone who does this, may look like not always muting them, not kicking them off the meeting and ensuring that they receive and have access to the technology to join the meetings. 

Coming out of lockdowns and into the protection framework, we have become use to avoiding people and socially distancing. For some this is a point of strong anxiety and distress and will need love, kindness and prayer as they work through it. Additionally, we need to be conscious that some people are not as aware of personal space. Either way, people need to treat each other with compassion and grace. At the same time, we need to be aware of and respect our own and others anxiety and concerns. 

Jesus showed great compassion to others. Two ways he showed practical compassion was when he fed the five thousand and when he took the time to listen to people. Although Jesus could perceive people’s hearts and minds (often noted during his interactions with the Pharisees), he still asked the people who approached him what it was that they wanted (eg. Mark 10:51). We need to follow his example and don’t assume but with open hearts and minds ask people what supports they need.  

Many people with disabilities are among the most vulnerable to Covid-19, both in becoming infected as well as to the increased risk to their health once they have it. For example, people who use wheelchairs often experience people coming in close to talk and sometimes end up getting the other person’s spit on their face. For people who can walk, they can easily move away to create the usual personal space that we all like and appreciate. Simply remembering to create space, and also to stand in front so they don’t have to bend their neck so far in order to engage with whomever they’re talking with. For both reasons, it’s about respect and safety. 

Having a compromised immune system is not the only reason someone may be wearing a mask, there are other conditions (some obvious, some not) that may mean that a person is wearing (or not wearing) a mask. We may not know the reason, but we do need to respect it. If people are required to wear face masks for an event take the time to prepare a compassionate way for those greeting and welcoming people to ask about mask-wearing if someone isn’t wearing one. 

Equally, some people with disabilities may have a medical reason as to why they are unable to get a vaccination. Under the new framework, senior staff may need to know if they have an exemption, but that does not mean that the entire congregation needs to know their vaccine status. Nor should this mean that they are excluded from the church. They may not be able to join physically, but maybe there is another way that they can still be included and assured that they are loved and valued. This could be as simple as a phone call once a week to see how they are doing and sending sermon notes, etc. If someone isn’t able to be vaccinated and your church chooses to run vaccine certificate services, you could consider still live-streaming the service. Perhaps there are a few people who would be willing to hold a small gathering in their home for those who aren’t vaccinated or perhaps someone would be able to visit the person who isn’t able to attend. 

Though everyone is figuring out what this new framework will mean for them, individuals, families and carers of people with a disability have another layer to sort out. Being there for them, offering a listening ear or providing them with meals could be the physical act of compassion and demonstration of love that they need to feel supported and included. 

 

Language:

“… the tongue of the wise brings healing” (Proverbs 12:18b)

These wise words from King Solomon, more describing emotional, rather than physical healing, are as true as ever in today’s world. The language (verbal and body language) that we use when talking or referring to people with disabilities can also bring emotional healing to them, as well as to us as our attitudes are shaped to be more Christ-like. For example, unless the person themselves has said otherwise1 it is important to use person-first language: someone with down syndrome or tetraplegia, not the down syndrome person or the tetraplegic. Using this language demonstrates that the person is seen and valued as a unique individual above their medical label, just as God sees them: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). 

Our language that we use in our talks, policies and online, such as church websites, social media and other online platforms, can also have a negative or positive impact on people with disabilities. Is it welcoming? Are they inclusive or could they be perceived as exclusive? Do they discuss options? These are all places where our language and wording we choose could help facilitate a sense of inclusion and belonging, even if people are not able to physically attend gatherings. A good way to double check this is by asking a member in the congregation to read over what you have before publishing it.  

    [1] individuals may have alternative preferences, such as some people with autism see their condition as a part        of  their identity (eg. Autistic)

 

Proactive

“Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3:18)

Inclusion cannot stop at words and good intentions. We cannot wait until a person with a disability enters our church doors before we start thinking about inclusion. Just as our forefathers built churches that could fit more people than they had, we too need to widen our doors, isles, minds and hearts in preparation and anticipation for people with disabilities entering them. 

Likewise, proactive inclusion efforts are not only for the first couple of weeks of a person’s attendance, we need to continually strive to foster a sense of belonging, weeks, months and years after their first week. This will look different for each individual. Some might need regular support and encouragement to engage with others (or other congregation members need to be constantly challenged and encouraged to engage with them). As with any newcomer, actively invite them to attend a bible study or homegroup. It is important to remember that a person can be physically present but still feel excluded/unwelcomed, even after years of attending the same church.  

The thing to remember is that most disabilities are not temporary nor the experience stagnant. Many health conditions can worsen over time. New and different needs can arise. Proactive support also means regularly checking in with people to see if their needs have changed. Don’t wait for a person or family to reach out and ask for support, seek opportunities, offer specific support (would you like meals this week? Can we look after your child for a day so you can spend time with their sibling or your spouse?). People with disabilities and their carers are constantly needing to reach out and advocate for support for funding and medical support, let’s not make them have to do that within their own church family too. 

“Then he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest’.” (Luke 9:48) 

Again, whilst discussing what the Covid-19 Protection Framework will look like for our churches, we need to be actively seeking out the opinions of church members affected by disability, not waiting for them to approach us. Ask them about their thoughts, concerns and ideas for still staying connected during this time. 

 

Community

“From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Ephesians 4:16). 

As previously mentioned, having a disability does not equate to only ever having to be served. God calls on His church to be interdependent and He has given everyone gifts in order to do so (Romans 12: 3-13). We know God has “created [our] inmost being; [and] knit [us] together in [our] mother’s womb”, including “the mute, the deaf, the seeing, or the blind” (Exodus 4:11), therefore we can be assured that every person that is a part of His body has a part to play, a job to do. It is our role as the church to mentor, guide and support fellow believers in discovering and using our God given gifts, “to equip His people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Ephesians 4:12). To be clear, this even includes a person who may have a severe intellectual disability, is non-verbal and relies on others for all their physical needs. God offers us all a part to play. 

As the body of Christ, as a community, we need to be putting the needs of others above our own (Romans 12:10). The Covid-19 Protection Framework presents limitations and restrictions on what and how we can do things, however we must not let it create barriers between us. As we manoeuvre through the tensions brought upon by the current situation and grapple with differing opinions and convictions, we need to continue to strive to “live in harmony with one another” (Romans 12:16a). Immanuel Koks, lecturer and disability advisor, shares these thoughts:

“Since true freedom is to be drawn into communion with Father, Son, and Spirit, and through that union, into communities of church and beyond, one last comment is in order. As opposed to the individualism at the core of libertarian freedom, Christian freedom is communal.⁠2 According to Nickson, Bonhoeffer argued that since God freely gave himself to us in Christ, those in the church can find freedom to give of themselves to each other. In this self-giving to those in the church, we find the freedom to be ourselves.⁠3 However, that when people in the church reject God’s freedom and act sinfully, the cost to the community can be painful and high. Christian freedom therefore arises when freed persons live according to biblical ethics, not only for themselves, but for the flourishing of those with whom we share in community.”

     [2] (Bauckham, 2002, #283307)

     [3] (Nickson, 2002, #241035@86-9)

 

Creativity

“Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on” (Mark 2: 4)

At Elevate’s National Camp online this year, Pastor Geoff Wiklund spoke about how “faith finds a way” drawing upon the passage of the four friends who lowered their paralysed friend through the roof to get to Jesus. This passage, a favourite in Sunday schools everywhere, demonstrates that creativity is a key component in bringing people to Jesus. There is no one way to do it. Today’s technology allows people to access their church from within their homes, we can send texts, emails, or make video calls to various members. More and more churches are live streaming their services. And let’s not forget ‘old school’ methods as well – a card in the mail is always a sign that someone is thinking of you. And for many who are unable to go to events due to restrictions a person visiting them means even more than it has previously. 

Throughout the bible there are stories of people who were in situations that they did not want to be in, and yet they were there for a reason and God used them in miraculous ways: Daniel in the lions den (Daniel 6); Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the furnace (Daniel 3); Esther; Ruth; the first Christian fleeing prosecution in Jerusalem (Acts 8:1-4), to name a few. God used each of these bad situations for the advancement of His kingdom. So, we must trust that the same God can also use this time of crisis and change to advance His kingdom and reach even more people with the gospel. “And who knows but that you have come to your …position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14). 

 

Role model

“Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them… [by] being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:2-3) 

Sustainable change only happens when leaders show the way. For those of us who are leaders, God has put us in a position of great responsibility and influence. Just as sheep are guided by their shepherd, our congregations will be guided by our actions and our words. We have the privilege of showing our congregations how to be proactive in having compassion and genuinely welcome and include people with disabilities within our church. 

 

When we consider and implement these six key areas, it will actually create a sense of belonging for everyone, thus reflecting God’s kingdom on earth: “…set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity… Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress… Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:12-16). 

Finally, here are some questions for your church to ask:

  • What are we currently doing that is making our church more accessible? Can we continue to do this? Eg. Church online.  
  • Are there people in our church who won’t be able to attend once the protection framework comes into effect? What can we do as a church to still include them in church community?  
  • Are there people in our congregation who live in a rest home or group home? Can they access online content? Perhaps a phone call to the staff to ask if they would be able to connect them to the online service? If they can’t access online, what other ways can the church work to keep the person connected? 
  • And most importantly, have we talked to people affected by disability in our church recently to ask how we can best support them? 

 

People with disabilities are already excluded and isolated from many things and places, let us make sure, following God’s heart, that we don’t make them feel excluded from our churches. 

All is not lost. We still have time to turn the car around and collect our temporarily forgotten, but always treasured, child or extend a warm invitation to the party. In fact, we could use this time of change as an opportunity to spread the gospel even further! 

“Rise up; this matter is in your hands. We will support you, so take courage and do it” (Ezra 10:4). 

By Siobhán Jansen 

We want to support you. If you would like any further information or support, please contact us.

 

References:

Bauckham, Richard. God and the Crisis of Freedom. Westminster John Knox Press, 2002.

Koks, S.J. Immanuel. “Participation in the Trinity’s Mission of Hope: A Disability Perspective.,” Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Otago,

Nickson, Ann L. Bonhoeffer on Freedom. Ashgate Pub Limited, 2002.