Well, first of all, we don’t call them sermons, but I thought that might get your attention. At the Good News Group we teach and communicate the Gospel and the Bible in ways that our congregation can understand. We’ve learned over 10 years of trial and error, what works and what doesn’t and would like to share some of what we have learned with you.
There are certain things to keep in mind
- The range of cognitive ability can be as wide in a group of people with learning disabilities than in any regular Sunday congregation. We must not assume people who can’t read or write or speak or hear or see, are intellectually impaired. However, it is right to spend time with them, get to know what they know and how they learn.
- Often the problem in understanding is our laziness in using ‘spiritual language’ that is only ever used in churches and which people generally are not sure what it really means. Even people who have been in church all their lives might not understand terms such as “the redeeming nature of Christ”.
- We talk far too much. We use long sentences and say in hundreds of words what can be said in two sentences. We waffle and digress just to use up the time. I’m a teacher, I’ve done this all my life and listened to enough preachers to know this is true. We just have to admit it!
- The range within the spiritual lives and spiritual maturity of people with learning disabilities can be huge too. There will be people who haven’t made that decision to follow Jesus to those who have a deep and long standing faith that has brought them through many challenges. We should know more about each persons individual faith through getting to know them.
- The Bible is for all. It is our job to make all of it accessible.
So in writing a service for people with learning disabilities such as those we have at the Good News Group these issues need to be thought through first. I would use the same principles in a whole church service too. We plan a half term of teaching from the Bible so that each session links to the others and we have an overall theme. We choose from the old and new testaments and link everything to the gospel of Jesus our Saviour.
- Once you have chosen your Bible section, then brainstorm the applications that you might be teaching from this. Then reduce that to one overall theme, in one or two sentences. For example, in our series on Judges, our theme was “The people can’t keep God’s law. They need a rescuer.” This works if you are doing a series of talks or a one off talk.
- When writing what you are going to say here are some good strategies that usually help a lot. Keep sentences short. Explain difficult words simply. Ask questions (not just rhetorical ones, in fact NEVER ask rhetorical questions) and wait for replies. (I love doing a talk with the interaction we get from the congregation!)
- Think about communication. How many different ways can you include to help people access your talk. Signing or a loop system for deaf people is obvious. But pictures or visual objects can help those who find processing verbal langauge really difficult. These can be a power point of key pictures to sequence the story, or objects lthat tie the story to real life examples.
- Drama and puppets can help. Drama involves people in acting out the story, is visual and makes people feel part of the story. Puppets can be characters from the story or be people trying to figure out what it means. They can say things you dare not! That can be really useful.
- Pace the talk slower but not too slow. Have pauses (while you smile and give eye contact, or let people pass round an object). Use tone of voice and expression but never ‘baby’ adults with learning difficulties. Be aware that some people may not give eye contact to you but that doesn’t mean they aren’t listening. Having a refrain – such a a key word and a response can help the listeners key in to and concentrate on what you are saying.
- Give chances for people with learning disabilities to contribute to the talk. This can be by reading a Bible verse, acting something out or telling part of their own testimony or training them up to write and deliver talks themselves.
- Start with the familiar so that the listeners know that the Bible is relevant to them. You may use a story of your own, a testimony from one of your group or a general experience they would all be familiar with. Don’t shy away from real life. People with disabilities watch the news, have benefit problems and suffer discrimination, perhaps more than most people.
- Sensory engagement can be really helpful for those who have learning difficulties, who are blind, deaf, autistic, have Down’s Syndrome or who have physical disabilities. This involves punctuating your talk with a sensory experience that relates to the point of the story. For examples you could read my posts on writing sensory Bible stories for adults, for teens, for children.
- End with the key point you identified at the beginning. It’s good if they can take home a visual picture, illustrated Bible memory verse or other reminder so that they can reflect on the teaching in their own time.
- Try to give those who want to know more a link to materials they can access on the subject. Prospects produce some Personal Bible study materials we like to recommend and online sources such as Torch Teust podcasts can be accessed by many people with learning disabilities. Check them out yourself before recommending though.
This isn’t a complete guide to writing Bible teaching talks for adults with learning disabilities but it is sharing what we have learned has worked over the years. I will share more as this next year progresses but in he mean time, if any of you find this helpful, please feel free to share it and please let me know how you approach teaching the Bible too. Do you think these principles would help children’s talks too?