By learning disability, we mean those for whom disability is a natural condition, rather than mental illness treatable though drugs, therapy or time.
A monthly congregation in High Wycombe
The church of St Birinus and St John is surrounded by three residential care homes for adults with learning disabilities. When a few of the residents started attending Sunday morning worship, church members began to explore the idea of holding a regular service where those with disabilities would feel less inhibited and other residents from nearby care homes could also be invited.
The first service was held in January 2006 and has met monthly on a Monday evening ever since. Worship is interactive, noisy, creative and, most importantly, a huge amount of fun. The team that lead Rainbow Worship describe it as immensely refreshing and highly rewarding. Over time, Rainbow Worship has developed a congregational life of its own. Those who participate increasingly see it as their main place of church belonging and, as a large group, they have been able to organise outings and events to raise funds as well as to have a good time.
The Focus Service in South Sheffield
This began in 2000 as an informal ecumenical project. Initiated by David Middleton out of his work with Compassionate Response, Focus offered a regular worship service for those with learning disabilities in the area. The skills and experience of David, Keith Blinston and others in the leadership team enabled the development of worship and teaching based on cognitive behaviour therapy.
The Focus Service meets fortnightly on a Sunday evening. Their time of worship includes candle-lighting, songs with musical instruments, prayer and interactive drama. This is followed by a light supper. On a Monday night, a small group meets for Bible study. The team uses the alternate Sunday evenings for planning. A key dynamic in the life of this church is that the leadership team contains two members with disabilities who take an active part by helping to plan worship.
A congregation in a Cambridgeshire town
A new congregation planted into a Cambridgeshire town attracted two women with learning disabilities. Around two years into the plant, members began to leave. As the church collapsed, the number of learning disabled people showing an interest increased and begain meeting once a month. The church now meets three Sundays a month, with a monthly prayer meeting and monthly meetings in six residential care homes.
Integration into existing church
For some adults with learning disabilities, being a member of an existing church is entirely possible and is extremely precious for the way it models the integration of those with learning disabilities into the wider community.
A dedicated congregation within an existing church or across a number of churches
In addition to participation in Sunday services, many churches have established congregations or small groups that enable people with particular needs to explore spirituality further. Rainbow Worship (above) is an example of this. Two national organisations, Prospects and Faith and Light, advocate this approach as a way of addressing specific needs while keeping a wider local connection.
Planting a church
A small number of churches have been planted specifically for those with learning disabilities. This approach has the advantage of creating a church community in which disability is normal rather than unusual, enabling issues particular to the culture of disability to remain at the heart of church life. The Focus Service (above) is an example of this.
Things to bear in mind
Claire Dalpra, assistant researcher at the Church Army's Sheffield Centre for over ten years, has the following to say:
Teamwork is crucial
To sustain fresh expressions of this kind, you need regular committed team members who can share the many tasks involved in planning and facilitating worship, as well as in maintaining links with families and residential homes.
Having someone on the team with links into disability culture or experience of working with this kind of group will give you a head start. The more profound the disabilities in a group, the greater the need for team members with professional expertise.
Help is there
Important sources of support, advice and ideas already exist to help new ventures of this type.
Ensure times of meeting fit with local patterns
Choosing the appropriate time, day and frequency of meeting will be necessary for setting up patterns that are sustainable long-term for the team. However, it is also important to be aware of staff shift changes and meal times in local residential homes.
This kind of mission context contains a secondary group to build relationships with
As well as those with learning disabilities, families, friends and carers may appreciate care and encouragement in their supporting roles and a chance to explore spirituality also. It may be too difficult to do both in one group, so a parallel gathering may be needed.
Worship is only part of the story
Building connections into residential homes is important at the start and throughout the life of this kind of fresh expression. Developing trusted relationships with managers, social workers, carers and parents is crucial. Very few people go into homes, so regular visits offer precious opportunities to prevent such communities becoming isolated. In addition, some residents are unable to leave homes.
Discipleship will feel very slow
Spiritual growth will be difficult to detect and will look markedly different for each person. Commitment to working with the group long-term is very important, therefore. Keeping a journal is one way of helping the team notice the seemingly small yet significant changes in people's lives.
They're not children
Resist the temptation to compare ministry among adults with learning disabilities to children's work. To do so is patronising and fails to acknowledge the many years of life experience individuals bring with them.
Adults and children pose different challenges
Don't underestimate the challenges of integrating children with learning disabilities into church for adults with learning disabilities. Children may find such an environment frightening for its size and noise. Helpers may feel their attention is unhelpfully focused on policing behaviour rather than encouraging spiritual exploration. Adults will have less freedom to learn to monitor better their own behaviour through trial and error if children are present. A number of churches who have tried to include children with learning disabilities have found that integration contains too many challenges.
Transport need not be your responsibility
Contexts vary, but some residential homes are sufficiently staffed to transport residents to community events as part of their overall care. This can free the team to concentrate on set-up, ensuring everything is in place to welcome members and to start on time.
A pattern for church life
Edward Kerr, 2009
The Church and the Deaf Community: A Liberation Perspective from a Linguistic-Cultural Minority
Bob Shrine, Grove Books, 2011, 978-185174796-2
True Beauty: finding grace in disabilities
Mark Bredin, Grove Books, 2007, 978-185174663-7
Encounters on the Edge 44: Hidden Treasures - Churches for adults with a learning disability
Claire Dalpra, Church Army, 2009
Evangelism and Learning Disability: Learning from the Faith and Light Communities
Alan Lowe, Grove Books, 1998, 978-185174373-5
Am I Beautiful... or What?!: Outreach and Ministry to People with Learning Difficulties
David Potter, Scripture Union, 1998, 978-185999202-9
Community and Growth: Our Pilgrimage Together
Jean Vanier, Paulist Press, 1979, 978-080912294-3
Building a Church for Strangers: Theology, Church and Learning Disabilities
John Swinton, Contact Pastoral Trust, 1999, 978-095224856-9
Critical Reflections on Stanley Hauerwas' Theology of Disability: Disabling Society, Enabling Theology
John Swinton (ed), Routledge, 2005, 978-078902722-1
Open Praise Project
Easy read Bible stories and resource packs, with images above the words to aid understanding, designed for people with learning discabilities.
- Faith and Light
- Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities
- The Makaton Charity