In July 2021, the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) convened a Steering Committee to develop a Fourth Enabling Masterplan in order to guide Singapore’s efforts to transform itself “into a more caring and inclusive society, where persons with disabilities can fulfil their potential to be integral and contributing members of society” (MSF press release). Hearing this, thoughtful Christians might also reflect upon how churches in Singapore are progressing in their inclusion of persons with disabilities: Are our churches places of welcome for persons with disabilities? Are they communities where people with disabilities flourish spiritually and relationally?
Moreover, beyond a descriptive analysis of inclusion in Singaporean churches, another question that thoughtful Christians might wish to consider is why churches should include people with disabilities. After all, such a “why” question is even more fundamental in nature, since the way we answer it will shape how churches go about including people with disabilities. Therefore, in this article, I would like to propose seven reasons why churches in Singapore should include people with disabilities. These seven reasons can be divided into two sets. The first set (comprising the first three reasons) concerns relevance—how a church can meaningfully engage with the hurting and broken world that the Missio Dei is directed towards. The second (comprising the last four reasons) concerns faithfulness—how churches can live as communities obedient to God’s design for the Church as revealed in Scripture.
1. Disability is Common in Singapore
One local estimate suggests that one in fourteen people in Singapore has a disability. That is about one person in every small group in church! Such a figure poses a key question to Christians: Is this what we see at our own local church or small group? If that is not the case, then it suggests to us two implications. First, it might be that we are not as inclusive as we think we are. It is a humbling call for us to grow in our mindsets and our competencies regarding inclusion. Second, there is tremendous potential for churches to grow in their outreach to persons with disabilities. This is an opportunity not to be wasted.
2. Disability is Increasing in Singapore
The key driver of such increase is Singapore’s ageing population. According to the Third Enabling Masterplan, percentage-wise, there are four times as many people with disabilities aged 50 and above compared to those 18 to 49 years old. Moreover, when a population ages, the social challenge is compounded since there will be less familial support for elderly persons with disabilities. In addition, disabilities that are more challenging to understand and support—such as autism and dementia—are also increasing in Singapore. Therefore, disability is not an issue that will disappear if churches bury their heads in the sand. Rather, disability will become a more salient issue for churches over time. Inclusion needs to start now.
3. Disability is a Universal Stage of Life
Every person will become disabled if they live long enough. Singapore has one of the highest life expectancies in the world, and so Singaporeans should plan ahead with the expectation that they will spend a significant portion of their lives with a disability. Thus, Christians should ask ourselves some hard questions: Will my church be prepared for me when I grow old? Will there be a place for me in this community? Or from a more positive and other-centred perspective, we should also ask ourselves: How can we honour the disabled elderly in our midst since Scripture calls us to “stand up before the grey head and honour the face of an old man” (Lev 19:32)?
4. People with Disabilities are Included in the Great Commission
In general, churches are aware that the Great Commission calls us to “go therefore and make disciples of all people groups (ethnē)” (Matt 28:19). However, a self-searching question that we should pose to ourselves is: Have we consciously or unconsciously limited ourselves to only some groups, especially by favouring the able-bodied while ignoring those with disabilities? Moreover, not only is the Great Commission universal (and therefore includes people with disabilities), but there also is ample evidence in Scripture that God desires for His people to focus particularly on marginalised groups, such as people with disabilities. For example, in the Parable of the Great Banquet (Luke 14:12-24), Jesus instructs the Pharisees that they should “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind” (Luke 14:13) to their banquets (cf. also Matt 25:40). To exclude people with disabilities is therefore to ignore God’s command.
5. Including People with Disabilities Demonstrates the Gospel
The gospel is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes (Rom 1:16). One way such power is revealed to a watching world is through how the Church lives out that very gospel. That is, the life of the gospel community bears witness to gospel’s power. If so, then the inclusion of people with disabilities in churches is essential to faithful gospel witness. As missiologist Leslie Newbigin reminds us:
… when the witness of the handicapped is an integral part of the witness of the whole Church … this witness is true to the Gospel. … [For] with this witness as part of its total message … the Church’s message measure[s] up to the heights and depths of the human situation. (Partners in Life: The Handicapped and the Church, 24)
In other words, Newbigin is saying this: When the Church includes people with disabilities, it convincingly demonstrates to the world that the gospel can truly enter into the most profound pain and difficulty faced by mankind. The gospel that we declare with our mouths is thus demonstrated in our communities.
6. People with Disabilities are Indispensable to the Church
People with disabilities should not be included in churches out of pity. Rather, Christians must recognise that God has planned for these brothers and sisters to be indispensable members of the Church. For example, speaking of the Church metaphorically as a body, Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 12 that “the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable” (v.22; italics added), and that “God has so composed the body, giving greater honour to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another” (v.24b-25). These verses remind us that while people with disabilities might be perceived as weaker, they are nonetheless vital since the different strengths of the members of the church allow mutual care to be practised. In other words, any so-called weakness is not a hindrance to church life; rather, such weaknesses allow Christians to exercise care for one other just as God has designed.
7. People with Disabilities are Fellow Disciples and Disciplemakers
In another reflection on the Church as a body, Paul writes in Ephesians 4 that “the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (vv. 15-16, italics added). In this observation, Paul concludes that the body only grows when “every joint” and “each part” is contributing. This certainly includes people with disabilities; they too are spirit-empowered disciples and disciplemakers. If so, then the questions that we must ask ourselves are these: Will we let them join us in disciplemaking? And will we invest time to fan their gifts into flame? In fact, to marginalise our brothers and sisters with disabilities in the work of disciplemaking would be tantamount to loping off a part of Christ’s body! Thus, paradoxically, the church that excludes people with disabilities is the one that is truly “disabled”.
In conclusion, we see that these seven reasons show us that the inclusion of people with disabilities is no social fad. Rather, inclusion is a key facet of relevant and faithful churches that convincingly live out the gospel of Jesus Christ in an increasingly diverse world. Indeed, the presence of people with disabilities in our communities poses a missional and ecclesiological challenge to churches—are we ready to accept such a challenge? In this vein, I end with some thought-provoking words from a young Christian lady (a special education teacher) whom we interviewed some years back:
It is important to realise that all of us have a duty to people with special needs because they are members of the body of Christ. We cannot outsource their care to others. … [So] the real question we have to ask ourselves is not about how we are to include people with special needs, but rather about what the Church is, and what the purpose of our existence is. What are we here to do every Sunday? What are we doing to be connected to this community of God? (Call Me By Name, 159)
Mr Leow Wen Pin is the President of the Koinonia Inclusion Network, a parachurch organisation that helps churches include and disciple persons with disability. He is the editor of Enabling Hearts: A Primer for Disability-Inclusive Churches.