Editor’s Note: While Barbara Newman’s work is focused on the deliberate inclusion of people with various needs based on ability, the principle of deliberate inclusion can be applied more broadly to cover any time when one group of people might otherwise feel excluded based on how the activities of the church are conducted.
First Church is eager to start their new church ministry year. They’ve hung a sign out in front of their building for all to see: EVERYONE WELCOME. They sincerely believe that’s true. But is it? Let’s see what’s happening this Sunday at First . . .
The worship leader steps up to the microphone. “Everybody stand up and let’s join our voices…”
The elders prepare the elements for the Lord’s Supper. Juice cups and bread cubes are stacked and ready for later in the service.
The custodian refills the woman’s restroom with soap. He found a scented lilac soap “sure to please the females in the congregation”.
The office staff is pleased to prepare the order of worship and important announcements for the bulletin this week. There was so much to pack in given the recent hurricane that they changed to a smaller font. It really saved on paper!
The Sunday school teacher is ready for action. She prepared her lesson, gathered the supplies, and now she waits for her children to arrive.
The Youth Group leader is ready to rock and roll…literally. The sound is turned up to super blaster levels, sure to appeal to all those who enter.
The Adult Small Group is also ready to meet after church. A few weeks ago they announced an interesting book study. Those who want to join were asked to read a chapter and answer a few questions on paper before the discussion today.
At first glance, this may seem just great! A lot is going on at First Church; surely newcomers will feel welcome and excited to attend. BUT…
Jody is a wheelchair user who cringes at the words of the worship leader. The service has just started, and already she is excluded from the conversation with God. She longs to hear the words “Please rise in body or in spirit.” THAT she could do!
Carlos is eager to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. He checked the bulletin and listened carefully, but it appears there is not a gluten free option for the bread. Sadly, he passes the elements to the next person, unable to partake because of his severe gluten allergy.
Felicia takes one whiff of the lilac lotion in the restroom and heads for her car, nearly vomiting on the way. Ever since starting chemotherapy, she has become so sensitive to smells. She cannot bear this onslaught to her sensory system.
Ron totally misses the information about how to give support to those living in places impacted by the hurricane. The information in the bulletin was printed so small, and Ron’s eyes depend on large print in order to read the words. Plus, this bulletin is not posted on the church’s website, a key way he often uses to catch up on written material.
The Sluiters are taken aback when they dropped Megan off for Sunday school. The teacher looked prepared for everything except welcoming their daughter with Down syndrome. “We don’t have anything for your daughter here” were the last words the Sluiters heard before heading for their car.
Jamie wanted to be part of youth group, but the noise was just too much. He thought about taking his noise cancelling headphones along, but he didn’t want to seem out of place. Didn’t they know that some kids have ears that simply cannot handle that decibel level?
Martin has only been in the US for a year. He would love the fellowship of an adult small group, but English is his second language. He wishes that First Church offered an option that did not require so much reading and writing…how he longs for the chance to build relationships!
Everyone welcome? From the perspective of Jody, Carlos, Felicia, Ron, The Sluiters, Megan, Jamie, and Martin, First Church may not be a welcoming place. So each of them will continue their search for a congregation where they not only feel welcome, but find a place of belonging.
When they discover the truth about each of the above situations, First Church has a choice. They could alter the sign to read “SOME PEOPLE WELCOME” or they could look at a few ways to better convey the welcome they had hoped to offer to each one God brings to their congregation. Here are three building blocks for First Church that may also help your church along this same road.
As a congregation, are you aware that approximately twenty percent of the population in the US has some type of designated disability? Do the math. We are not talking about a couple of people. The number includes infants with Spina Bifida, Toddlers with Down syndrome, elementary aged children with AD/HD or a Learning Disability, Youth Group members with Autism Spectrum Disorder, adults with Bipolar Disorder, and Seniors with limited vision, hearing, or mobility. This is a huge group of people. In addition, with soccer injuries, medical situations, refugee support, and individual preferences, learning to become more welcoming with persons of varied abilities and disabilities will likely impact most members of your congregation.
Expect persons of varied abilities. Understand that each individual is gifted by God to enhance and grow the congregation. Each person has gifts to share. Adjust your eyes to see those gifts and welcome the chance to learn from each one God brings to your community. It is not only the 10 people described above who lose out at “First Church” each day. In God’s economy, every person in the congregation feels that loss. Martin would have brought a whole new dimension to the adult small group. Megan would have grown and impacted her peers in Sunday school.
We have so many groups with missing pieces, and we don’t tend to recognize it unless we really try.
Look around your congregation or small group and ask “Who is missing?” Research your involvement and how you can better extend a welcome to all who come to your community. If the leaders at First had referenced the role-based tips found at the CLC Network website, each of those situations could have been avoided. The metaphorical welcome mat would have been polished and ready for the day.
Check out your area of leadership and be ready to join the welcome crew for ALL online.
Architects provide a great example for why this issue is urgent. They don’t wait until someone needs an elevator to put one inside a building. Put an elevator in the building expecting that someone will use the building who needs it.
As we build our worship services, educational programs, and fellowship opportunities, expect persons of varied abilities to attend. Don’t wait for an individual to show up before making some changes and additions. Have a gluten-free bread option for the Lord’s Supper. Offer large print bulletins each week. Train children and youth volunteers to expect children with varied abilities. Give them tools and resources for doing that well. Pay attention to volume levels and smells, knowing that many people require moderation to participate. Learn about language. Speak words that include and honor one another.
Stock up on common supplies or services. A hearing loop can make a big difference to persons attending a worship service. A child with attention concerns may be delighted if you stock fidget pencils or varied seating options. A youth group member may appreciate a virtual tour of the overnight camp so that his anxiety may lessen.
Every church community should offer an adult small group option that is designed to welcome adults of varied abilities. The Together curriculum is set up by the concept of universal design. Learn with one another and utilize the many built in options so that all can participate.
While Universal Design will go a long way toward making your church a welcoming place, it’s important to have a process in place to respond to the unique gifts and needs of certain individuals. It might be important, for example, to get to know someone who communicates with pictures instead of words. How might we use this form of communication to allow this individual to better participate in the conversation with God in worship? Would it be helpful to gather a group of 8-10 peers who would also learn this picture language so that conversation can happen at church? As a congregation, posting more pictures in power points, bulletins, and banners might be a way to impact a larger group of people as well as this individual. Be ready to get to know specific individuals, and put together a church plan that allows each person to be included.
That’s what First Church did. They have backed up their welcome sign with strategies that widen the welcome and allow persons of varied abilities to worship and learn together.
Who is missing in your congregation?
Author Bio: For over 30 years, Barbara Newman has endeavored to create communities of inclusion through CLC Network (Christian Learning Center Network). Administrating her own Special Education classroom at Zeeland Christian School allows her to stay on top of best practices, which she shares as a consultant, speaker, and trainer at schools and churches nationwide. She also shares her wisdom and experience in her books and practical resources, including Autism and Your Church, Helping Kids Include Kids with Disabilities, The G.L.U.E. Manual, the Inclusion Awareness Kit, Nuts & Bolts of Inclusive Education, and her latest title, Accessible Gospel, Inclusive Worship.