We believe that the gospel of Jesus is both in itself a message of universal access, and that the Great Commission is a call to make that gospel universally accessible. Since we’ve recognized that those of us in gospel ministry are, in many ways, designers, it seems worthwhile to check out something that’s been helpful in other areas of life for designing for universal access, for “designing with all people (particularly those with disabilities) in mind”: the “Principles of Universal Design.” How do they relate to the gospel? And can they be adapted for the sort of “designing” we do as pastors and church planters and disciplemakers in community?
The first principle of universal design is “Equitable Use.” The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.
Possibly the best illustration of this would be doors (like at supermarkets) that are equipped with motion-sensors so that they open, without further effort or action, for all shoppers. Do shoppers without disabilities still enjoy this feature? Absolutely (as this young fellow in this video illustrates)!
The point of this principle is that we should design environments that will “provide social justice by being equitable and usable by people of all abilities so that they can enjoy their right to use.”
Is this something the church ought to consider? You betcha! Right off, we could comment that there is no person on this earth who has “more of a right” to access the gospel than anyone else. The Gospel was intended for everyone, it applies to everyone and the church has been commissioned to take this gospel to everywhere, to everyone. Everybody has equal need of its message, and its message is designed (by God) to be accessible to all who have need of it (which is everybody).
So any environment, fellowship, community that purports to present (or, more seriously, embody) the gospel, would most certainly be, at the very least, inconsistent if it provided access to some, but not others, or provided easy access to some and made access very difficult for others.
God is “no respecter of persons.” His communication and message to any human being is not affected by their status. And one of the best parts of the “good” news is that God will accept all who come to Him in faith. Back in the Old Testament times, God made it very clear that Torah was equally applicable to the native-born Hebrew or to the “resident alien.”
And, of course, we are described as “one body having many members.” Since all members of the church are members of that “one body” it certainly doesn’t seem that there’s any reason NOT to assume that we should seek to present the gospel to everyone…
So how is this principle of Equitable Use applied in real-life and does it have any relevance to “doing church”?
In terms of physical access, “Provide the same means of use for all users: identical whenever possible; equivalent when not.” A building’s design should render it equally usable by all who need to use it. It would be great if the means by which people access or use the building were the same – a single means of entry to the building that works well for everyone. If that’s not possible, the various means of access should be “equivalent” (for example, in terms of their privacy, security, safety and convenience). You don’t want to make a “nice” entrance for some and a “crummy” entrance for others.
Jesus tells everyone, “I am the way…” Millions of people… all entering through the same “way.” So it certainly seems that the Gospel is “universal design compliant” on that score. There are no “different doorways” or pathways… not even for Jews and Gentiles. Coming to grips with this led to some very significant “design decisions,” documented in detail in the book of Acts. Paul summarizes this saying that “you who were far away and you who were near… both have access to the Father by One Spirit.” (Eph 2:17-18). We (all!) “enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way…. (Heb 10:19-20)
Specifically regarding disability, it is clear from Scripture that there is no “handicapped access” to the Kingdom… People with disabilities “enter by the same door” as everyone else.
So, looking at your “design domain”: Physically, is everyone able to access the benefits of community by the same, or at least equivalent, means? And, thinking deeper, how does your church present the Gospel of the Kingdom? How is “access to the Kingdom” opened? Is it presented in such a way that it presents one way that is open to all, so that we all enter together?
Here’s another guideline from this principle: Universally designed spaces don’t employ means of access that isolate or stigmatize any group of users or privilege one group over another.
There apparently were issues with this early on in Christian history. James addresses “partiality” in chapter 2 of his epistle by describing a situation of unequal access… There was “privileged access” to the gathering… and there was something else (not so nice) for “the rest”… His critique was not just functional, but moral and spiritual: “But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. ” (2:9) The church in Corinth also was taken to task by the apostle Paul for their unequal access to the benefits of the communion supper (1Co 11:17-34).
In Luke 14:23, Jesus speaks of “compelling” the disabled to come to the banquet; He’s certainly not talking about abducting people off the street and forcing them at gunpoint to attend someone else’s party… What is in view is extending such an appealing welcome to people with disabilities that they are practically compelled to respond, they can scarcely refuse. Surely, that begins with providing “equitable use” of the access to and benefits of Christian fellowship.
So as you “design” access to the community of Jesus-followers – through evangelistic outreaches, through church gatherings or activities, in programs of spiritual formation – consider the principle of “equitable use.” And make every effort to include people with disabilities in that process ahead of time… invite people with disabilities to speak freely into the process of laying these important groundworks in your ministry. It will be better for everybody… and reflect to the community the divine wisdom underlying the church, bringing glory to the Lord!