Supporting churches to include people with Autism and Learning Disabilties

A new way of doing Christmas.

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What does Christmas mean to you? Do you go through the motions, the story so familiar that it washes over you? Do you get annoyed with the commercialisation of Christmas and want to hide away until it is all over? Alternatively do you greet it with great enthusiasm, planning parties and gifts and family celebrations and fit in a few moments remembering the baby Jesus, if you can find the time?

I hate the fact that soon the shops will be full of Christmas gifts, decorations, cards and food. I will get mad that I don’t see anything about Jesus and stressed that there is so much to do, routines go out of the window and people get so obsessed with the commercialised festival (and that is just in schools!) that Christmas becomes an empty, hollow, lonely time of year.

Carol Service word cloud

At Good News Group (for adults with learning disabilities) we decided a couple of years ago to make Christmas an outreach opportunity. We wanted to give our members the practice of sharing their faith with others. We keep telling them that they could, so we took on the challenge to make it possible.

We started with looking at what the group liked to do. Those who could loved reading the Bible passages. They all liked the puppets and most loved being involved in drama. They liked holding things, speaking and singing and signing. They liked making comments, praying, being involved and contributing in whatever way they were able.

We formed a plan. One of the things we find is very important when trying to make sure that we include as many people as possible is to have a clear structure that takes into account the shorter attention spans of many of our group. I call it ‘chunking’. If we break down our material into small, manageable chunks, we can build up a clear message that can be understood. Repetition becomes part of this structure and a clear, one-sentence point that we can focus on.

We always keep in mind our group are adults and to use children’s materials is not appropriate. However, it is not wrong to borrow a structure that may have worked well with children because the chunking idea is often used there too.

We have used an idea that takes the letters of Christmas to tell the story of Jesus from the beginning of the Bible to the end of time. We included creation, the Prophets telling of Jesus’ birth and death long before his actual birth, his birth, his death and resurrection and promise to come again. Every part was illustrated on the big screen behind us to aid understanding for those who were more visual learners.

Another tip we have found useful is to split into much smaller groups and each group to have their own section to present. This way people were not over-whelmed with everything that was going on and just needed to know when their letter was in the word Christmas. We found this worked brilliantly. When we did present our service, everyone listened and enjoyed all the other presentations and only had their own bit to remember.

The most fun part was finding something that everyone could do. Our members were given a choice of reading, acting, signing, holding something or interacting with puppets. One lady asked to write and say the closing prayer and others gave their preferences or we made suggestions that we thought they might like. We also gave everyone the option NOT to join in and just watch. One person decided to help out on the sound desk as his contribution.

merry-christmas_wide_t

So, we had a service! Now we had to get inviting people! This was an outreach opportunity for our members to invite their friends, house mates, carers, families and neighbours to see them share their faith through the Christmas story. We prayed, made invitations and sent them out, not knowing who would turn up.

The first Christmas we did this many people came. Mainly carers, house-mates and family. Some of our wider church family came to support us too. And at least two new people were added to our group. They have been coming ever since.

Last year many more people came. One member inviting the other NINE people from his house and their four carers. They have been coming to Good News Group ever since too.

This year we are planning to do it all again….

Where does this support inclusion? Well I believe any church can and should include people with additional needs in their services. Doing our own service and inviting the wider church gave them inclusion ideas and gave us the confidence to get involved in other whole church services such as harvest and Easter. We are part of a big church that has four different services on a Sunday and many more in the week so to open up our service showed WE were being inclusive of the others too.

If you want to develop a service that is more inclusive I would recommend a good plan that involves people with additional needs using their gifts and skills to present the good news to others. It doesn’t cost a to learn some basic signing (we use Makaton) and songs are much more accessible and engaged in by everyone when they are signed. Some of our group loved teaching a song’s signs to the wider church at a whole church Easter service. As I have said before in previous posts, choose words readings that do not use complicated, jargon words (we use an easy English version for Bible readings – www.biblegateway.com) and chunk the teaching so that people can follow it and learn a simple one-sentence point for either each chunk or the whole sermon! (That’s how we plan our weekly teaching sessions – 1 point each time and we have covered a lot of the old and new testaments over the years). Finally – see something, hear something and do something. That is why we always put pictures that illustrate our talk / story on the big screen (and do not use pictures that are cartoony or childish) and get people involved in holding things (especially if sensory ie. They can be smelt, touched, heard, moved, tasted etc) and doing quite simple drama (don’t worry about being too scripted, be brave and improvise a little!). And if courage and finances allow (great puppets from One Way Uk are about £20-£40 but other sources are available) use puppets because everyone listens to them!

If anyone is interested – I would be happy to send you a script of our Christmas outreach service – just leave a comment and I’ll get in touch.

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