“. . . so that at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE WILL BOW, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Philippians 2:10 (New International Version)
Have you ever considered how worship involves our whole self—body, mind and spirit? God is revealed through the Word and His people respond with prayers, praises, offerings, and proclamations. Many of our responses involve physical action—kneeling, lifting of voices and hands in praise, bringing our offering, extending greetings to others. What if, because of a disability, you aren’t able to physically respond in worship?
Six years ago I met a young man named Paul at a Joni and Friends Family Retreat. Because of a birth defect Paul had physical limitations that made it difficult for him to breathe and he used a wheelchair. Paul loved to worship the Lord and lead others in worship. During a time of worship Paul asked his STM (short term missionary) if she would kneel before the Lord on his behalf because he was unable to get out of his wheelchair to do so. Wow…I was learning a lot about worship from this young man. I am physically able to kneel before the Lord and yet I often do not. Paul was kneeling before the Lord in his spirit.
A few days ago I joined hundreds of friends and Paul’s family in a memorial service for Paul. The service was truly a witness of how God’s grace was so visibly displayed in Paul’s life. The service brought to my mind the importance of the words we use in worship. There is a difference between saying, “Please stand,” and “Please rise in body or in spirit.” Paul was unable to rise in body, but his mind and spirit rose as he lifted his voice to sing his favorite hymns and songs of praise.
Paul’s story brings up a number of questions. How can we plan for worship so that all may be engaged in the rhythm of revelation and response between God and His people? What language do we use? How can we create space and encourage differing ways of responding to God? Perhaps it is not only a question of accessibility but of universal design? My heart longs to be part of the body of Christ where people of all ages, abilities, tongues and tribes worship our Lord, for as Paul taught me, there will come a time that “at the name of Jesus every knee will bow.”
I hope you will want to join in the conversation with many others who are considering these questions. A great place to start is by reading Barbara Newman’s new book, Accessible Gospel, Inclusive Worship. There are many more resources on inclusive worship available through the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship . Look for a new publication in 2016 on the topic of inclusive worship as part of Joni and Friends’ Irresistible Church series.
Karen Roberts, DWS, is the Academic Studies and Church Relations Manager for Joni and Friends Chicago. Click to read Karen’s full bio.