When you pastor a small church, one of the things you often deal with it is what I call the “Only If Syndrome.” Only If Syndrome believes the church must be large enough and have the right amount of people before it can make a difference in the lives of others. This perspective harms a church’s mission and negates the ability of people to serve God through their various gifts.
Only If Syndrome prevents a church from embracing its purpose of making disciples and being a transformative witness of Jesus Christ in a broken and hurting world. This belief prevents the church from being a welcoming and inclusive place for people with various disabilities. Only If Syndrome would have the small church believe it does not have the right people, knowledge, facility, or resources to be a welcoming place for those with physical and invisible disabilities.
I believe the small church is best positioned to be an agent of God’s inclusive welcome and embrace of people with various physical and invisible disabilities. The things that the small church often believes hold itself back are what God can use to build a bridge of connection and welcome into the disability community.
The small church can make deep and personal relationships with families affected by various disabilities. One of the gifts of the small church is the people and how they rally around each other. As a pastor, I have been blessed by the deeper relationships and connections with people in smaller churches. You get to know them, their families, and their stories of a personal nature.
Those connections can be a point of grace for families with various disabilities. Because the small church is small in number, the small church may not be an overwhelming experience for someone to enter, especially those with anxiety, autism, ADHD, or other invisible disabilities. Small crowds can limit the feelings of being overwhelmed by a large group of unknown people.
Because of the small church’s gift of personal connections, there is an opportunity for the church to be present with the families. This act of connection can come in the form of learning about the needs of various disabilities. It can come in being a source of encouragement and understanding. It can also come out in being a place of acceptance in a world that typically ignores people with various disabilities.
The small church also has the gift of empty spaces that it can use to provide welcome and connection. Almost every church I have served has rooms it never uses and rooms that sit empty except for one hour or two a week. This creates a physical overhead issue that can create a financial burden for a church. They can also be a remembrance, especially for a church that has declined in years, of past ministries that are no longer active. What if instead of seeing these rooms as a burden, they become a place of possibility to think outside the box?
An empty room could provide space for a sensory room for families and individuals who need a calming moment if worship gets overwhelming. An empty room, as well, could be used to partner with support groups and other organizations that provide care and comfort to people with various disabilities.
Empty rooms provide possibilities for a church to think outside the box. They do not need to be a limiting factor for a small church. They can be a gateway to connection and inclusion.
The small church does not have to do it all to make a difference. It needs to do what it does best and use its available resources to be a witness of acceptance for others. The small church can be a place of acceptance and grace for families within its communities who are looking for a place to worship where they will be loved, welcomed, and cared for in meaningful and appropriate ways.
When the small church sees this possibility, it will no longer live with “only if,” but will embrace the hope of welcoming and accepting families and individuals with various disabilities.