Our human differences in worship

April 10th, 2022

Christian worship requires an assembly of people who worship God together. Yet not every worshipper has the same access to the spaces, times, and forms of prayer and praise that constitute public worship. Embedded in every liturgical element—prayers, songs, sermons, Communion, practices of gathering and sending—are assumptions about the bodies and abilities of each person who has gathered. These assumptions often do not take into account the full spectrum of what it means to be human nor all of the ways that those who worship experience and encounter God. Instead they assume and privilege particular kinds of bodies and abilities.[1]

Disability Studies is an academic discipline that questions how we come to understand what it means to be “normal” and how societies enforce particular expectations for “normalcy.”[2] Disability Studies privileges and prioritizes human differences over human sameness or similarities, challenging the idea that there is a normal human body. Every person moves through and navigates the world differently, but social, cultural, and political worlds are designed to accommodate, support, and sustain some bodies more than others. Disability Studies critiques a medical model of disability that interprets disability as a matter of individual responsibility and as a tragic or pitiable condition to be prevented, healed, or overcome. Rather it focuses attention on the social and political structures that need to be transformed to support disabled lives as well as on the knowledge, wisdom, and experience of disabled people and communities. In a world in which disability is a common experience, human societies need the wisdom and witness of disabled communities to navigate human embodiment and “imagined futures.”[3]

To begin with human differences and to center disability experience in worship challenges beliefs about human ability that have profoundly shaped Christian theology and worship. In The Disabled God, theologian Nancy Eiesland identifies some important ways that Christian churches have failed or harmed people with disabilities. These failures occur through inadequate theologies of disability. First, in the concept of sin-disability conflation, disability is associated directly or indirectly with sin in the world.[4] In some Christian communities it is assumed that a person is born with or experiences a disability because of a particular sin that she or he or that person’s family has committed. Other Christians assume that disability exists because the world is sinful, evil, or fallen. In the future that God promises, when evil and sin are no longer present, there will no longer be any disability or disabled people; the church pursues a vision of the world without disabilities. In yet another example, Christians imagine sin in human life by using disability metaphorically, evoking blindness, deafness, or other disabilities to name human wrongdoing, failure, or complicity. Thus, in both implicit and explicit ways disability becomes associated with sin, evil, or tragedy.

Second, in the practice of identifying disability with “virtuous suffering,” disabled people are encouraged to understand their disabilities and the unjust social barriers they encounter as a form of “divine testing.”[5] Prayers for the healing of disabilities frequently evoke the power of God in ways that approach disability as inspiration for abled Christians. Disabled people are viewed as those with special needs or gifts rather than as ordinary Christians or what Eiesland calls “historical actors and theological subjects.”[6]

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Third, in the practice of segregationist charity, churches seek to help people with disabilities or create special programs for them but do not want to change theologies, symbols, or practices regarding disability and access in order to acknowledge and affirm the role that people with disabilities have within the life and work of the church.[7] Such communities prefer not to address the harmful understandings of disability that pervade sermons, hymns, and prayers nor the aesthetics and preferences that bolster ableism in worship. Again disabled people are perceived as in need of the church’s help rather than as Christian subjects who have contributions to make to Christian worship. 

To identify harmful theologies of disability and to imagine spaces where all of us who gather for worship have access to God and to one another is vital work for the people of God. This work will involve conversion to new ways of naming and transforming ableism in worship and beyond. Planning worship with the assumption of one kind of body-mind is easier and more familiar than to anticipate that God has created and loves many different ways of being an embodied creature in the world. Yet if worship is “humanity at full stretch,” our common prayer requires that we bring all of what it means to be human to God. For in worship we offer to God the fullness of the humanity that God has both created and saved, the fullness of the humanity that God entered into through the incarnation of Jesus Christ.[8] We also rehearse a vision of the beloved community where worshipping God is a foretaste of the kind of spaces where all creatures of God flourish together with and before God. In order to rehearse this vision Christians must actively name and address the barriers that prevent disabled Christians from participation in worship and from leadership in the church. 

Those of us who plan worship assume particular kinds of human bodies and abilities. Develop regular practices of interrogating these assumptions: what are people expected to be able to do to participate in communal worship of God and why? Seek common practices for worship that are accessible to more people. At the same time, encourage multiple forms of participation rather than make one practice normative and some people’s participation an exception to the norm. Make provisions for multi-modal practices in ways that are not tokenistic so that all forms of participation are supported and encouraged and so that Christian unity is not conflated with uniformity in worship. Learn from disability communities about best practices for access.


This article is excerpted from A Worship Workbook: A Practical Guide for Extraordinary Liturgy by Khalia Williams and Gerald Liu (Abingdon Press, 2021).


[1] For a fuller exploration of this argument, see Rebecca F . Spurrier, The Disabled Church: Human Difference and the Art of Communal Worship (New York: Fordham University Press, 2019) .

[2] See Lennard J . Davis, “Introduction: Disability, Normality, and Power,” in The Disability Studies Reader, 5th ed . (New York: Routledge, 2016), 1–17 .

[3] Alison Kafer, Feminist, Queer, Crip (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), 1–24. Kafer’s chapter also includes a discussion on disability studies and the medical model of disability.

[4] Nancy L . Eiesland, The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994), 70–72.

[5] Eiesland, The Disabled God, 72–73.

[6] Eiesland, The Disabled God, 67.

[7] Eiesland, The Disabled God, 73–75, 90–94.

[8] Don E . Saliers, Worship as Theology: Foretaste of Glory Divine (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994), 26–30, 199.

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