Supporting churches to include people with Autism and Learning Disabilties

High Expectations

inclusive church
“Disabled people are not incomplete examples of so called “normal” humanity but complete persons before God. Their impairments and disabilities are part of their human identity…God has called each of us into being. None of us is a surprise or an accident or a mistake and certainly not an embarrassment to God. He has called us into being and each one of us has a vocation.”
Bob Brooke p28 in “Enabling Church” by Gordon Temple and Lin Ball (2012)

What do you really think of people with disabilities? Are they people we care for or minister to? Are they numbered amongst your friends or in your family? Do you see having to make accommodations for them as a chore? Are they a part of the church that can’t serve but need people to serve them? Are they receivers rather than givers?

The language we use about people with learning and other disabilities in society and in our churches reflects and informs our attitudes. Currently there is a new Children and Families Act going through parliament which sets out a new SEN code of practice. It is all about meeting the needs and providing the services children with SEN and disabilities need from others. The media has been full of negative reports concerning the assessment of people’s disabilities for benefits and whether they deserve housing benefit if they have a room in their house that is necessary or not. Attitudes, comments and beliefs that inform people’s view of people with disabilities are becoming more negative…so much that I wonder what happened to all the positives of the 2012 paralympics.

The Bible states:
“For it was you who formed my inward parts;
You knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
That I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
When I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes looked upon my unformed body.
In your book was written
all the days that were formed for me,
When none of them as yet existed.”
Psalm 139 verses 13-16

“But we have this treasure in jars of clay, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”
2 Corinthians verses 4-7

An inclusive church is one that sees each person as having equal worth and as having something to contribute. The trouble is that we often deliver a ‘one-size-fits-all package that means that some people are excluded. We use complicated language, we ask people to stand to sing, we ask people to serve and then expect them to do it in a way that lives up to someone else’s strict expectations. This leaves many people feeling a failure in the church, not just those with disabilities. Only this week I was speaking to a friend who is a new Christian. She has joined a good church but already finds the language and expectations confusing. How can we talk about a God of grace when they are trying to fit people into a mould she doesn’t understand, or feel that she can never fit into?

We are trying to address this at our Good News Group. First we have to establish a right attitude…God loves us all equally. We are all his children and all have a purpose in his plans. We can all receive and serve.

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In reality it means flexibility….In how we do things and expect things to be done and in how we teach the Bible.
In how we do things we have to look for ways the people with disabilities can use their interests, gifts and willingness to serve the group and the wider church. Therefore we started asking for volunteers to do many of the weekly ‘jobs’ that enable us to function. It has been very successful in that the team feel less pressured and have more time to build relationships with the group, some things are done slower or differently but they get done with a sense of achievement we can all appreciate. The members of the group are active and not passive and are learning new skills. There is a greater sense of ‘oneness’ in the group rather than ‘us and them’ and it is beginning to feel more like the kind of ‘real’ church we see the Bible asking us to be. We are looking to find ways in which the members can be involved in contributing to the leadership of the group. We already seek their views and take on their ideas but how about seeking to find those with leadership potential and giving them a place and voice on the leadership team?

In teaching the Bible the early leaders made a declaration not to treat these people like children but to aim to give them access to the Bible as adults. This is what I first admired about the group when I joined. The challenges have been that those preaching have had to learn new ways of communicating and making that teaching accessible. We have had to learn about our members and how they learn. We watch their responses and reflect on what works well and what doesn’t. We bought a symbol package, learned Makaton and puppeteering, and found sources of good pictures that weren’t childish. We learned to explain complicated and academic words clearly and step by step. We learned how to address challenging concepts such as sin, salvation and reconciliation. We explore the old and new testaments and don’t rule any part of the Bible out because it is unpalatable. We have learned to see Jesus in the whole Bible and help our members see Him too.
I have been delighted and amazed at the response to our Bible teaching but I know we cannot rest…

Where we in our group have high expectations of what our members can do and can access in terms of understanding the Bible, we know this is a small and insignificant part of the whole church in this country. I long to take what we have learned and talk and equip other churches to see how people with disabilities can make the body of Christ whole. So many churches are lacking because they don’t have people with disabilities or if they do, don’t know how to really include them. Those of us who do must speak up more and reach out. We should be sharing and challenging and equipping others to be inclusive church. I long to see a shift and change that moves us away from rituals and specific ways of doing things and instead be real families that love and serve Christ Jesus our Lord.

Thanks to those who are already doing this – I know some of you and you inspire and encourage us all at GNG and me personally. Here’s a great resource to start you off:
http://www.livability.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Life-to-the-Full-Church-resource-booklet1.pdf

Please do comment –  I love it when you do  🙂

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Comments on: "High Expectations" (6)

  1. Michael Rowe said:

    Even if we do not start with disabilities, most of us will collect them on our way through life. There will always be things that are beyond our physical or mental capabilities but there will also be other things that we can acheive if we think of alternative ways of doing whatever it is. But, beyond this, we often need the help of others. Sometimes it is by provision or adaptation (good lighting, ramps, wide doorways, appropriate parking, good sound system) but more often help comes by others not putting obstacles in the way in the first place. These are not always physical but attitudinal “Oh, he/she will never be able do that”. Everybody loses if those with disabilities are not allowed to contribute of their abilities.

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  2. homewardboundragamuffin said:

    Hi, there are several things that interest me in this post… I have just started facilitating a little kind of small group at a residential home. It’s pretty informal. We’re only able to meet monthly. Today we had 3 people come, another time we might get a full room depending on who’s around and if they feel like it 🙂 One of the reasons the group started was to provide a space where we could seek and worship God together in friendship…whereas their experience of church groups visiting was often quite patronising and sunday school-like… Still, I noticed that some of the language our ‘leaders’ were using in discussion today like ‘marriage of the bride’ or talking about the story of Esther and how the people were at risk of being ‘annihilated’ might not be connecting with our member’s understanding… It’s hard to get the balance between being willing to tackle anything in the bible and the complicated experiences of living…and using simple accessible language. Any tips on this gratefully received!

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    • I think the first step is to identify the language that may cause difficulty or misunderstanding – it is what we do as we plan. (and it is what you have done – well done!) Then we try to break it down by discussing what we actually think it means – you’d be surprised at how that sometimes shows that we don’t really understand it either! We then have to think carefully about if it actually NEEDS to be in what we say and if so, THEN, we see how we can use much simpler language. An illistration may be found that helps. We recently expalined what ‘persecuted’ meant in our group using this structure. Hope that helps – feel free to ask for further clarification! Lynn x

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  3. A great post which challenges us all to rethink how inclusive we really are – whatever we say or believe. Thanks for sharing 🙂

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