I’m no “designer,” I’m just a regular person in ministry… Universal Design and the Church: 1

Every now and then one has an opportunity to reflect and draw together threads from life’s experiences and relationships. Our Porch is a great place for that. And when we find some “common threads” and start weaving them together, we are amazed at how well a bigger picture comes into focus. We praise God for an incredibly fruitful year with the SERVEurope Catalyst Team – growth in numbers, maturity, connectedness and visibility in the Roma Christian movement, great strides in advocating and equipping disability ministry in Ukraine and elsewhere, and continual outreach to those around us, near and far, that have yet to experience life in the Kingdom… and we can’t help asking the next question: “What does all this mean? For us, for the Church? What do we learn from this?”2017-11 IMG_9637 mpr bend creek sunset (Large)

As we watch the creek flow by, key themes emerge in our minds that tie together what we sense the Lord is telling the Church. And, to be clear, we do NOT draw a significant distinction between the “Big C” church – the Church Universal – and the local congregation to which you may belong… Because a – every – local church is an organic, local manifestation of a global, transcultural, diverse unity. Whether or not it grasps that or steps into it.

2014-10 DSC01512photo 4 gypsy caravan romania roma trip
Roma caravan. October 2014. Romania

We’re amazed at how much of what we’re learning could be grasped from any one of a number of areas in which we serve in Europe: disability, Roma, immigration, HIV/AIDS. There truly are some significant spiritual dynamics that seem at play throughout. Rather than focus on analyzing the “problems” involved, can we take a bit of time to reflect on what the Church can or should be doing in a positive sense? Let’s consider – in light of what and who we are called to be – what we can do and how we can be doing it.

I recently presented a seminar on Universal Design and the church at the Beyond Suffering conference in Ukraine. We believe that the thinking behind universal design can challenge the church (both Big and little “c”) to embrace God-given opportunities to proclaim and live out the Gospel of the Kingdom today.

UD stairsSo let’s start with disability. Many people think of disability only as an issue of functional limitation or loss at the level of the individual. But, when you think about it, that’s not really accurate. Impairment and limitation are indeed an inescapably personal experience… but the “disability” occurs when a person (or persons) with particular limitations or impairment interacts with an environment or activity that is created and controlled, and that could be made accessible, but is not. Those who create and perpetuate social environments could include people with a greater variety of ages and abilities, for example, by making reasonable accommodations for people who could not otherwise participate. However, we could also apply the principle of universal design – we could be considering a wider range of human variation as we create media, spaces, and programs. When it is in our power to apply universal design or to make reasonable accommodations and we fail to do so, we are committing disability discrimination.

UD fail

As James wrote, “So then, if you know the good you ought to do and don’t do it, you sin” (James 4:17). That’s the element that makes it personally serious for us – this is an issue of our own holiness! Also, there is the intriguing suggestion that disability is, to at least a certain extent, as much a result of bad design, or a failure of imagination and/or diligence, as it is about an individual’s physical or intellectual “condition.”

small-group-clipartI want to specifically address those of you who are involved in church or mission – whether as a leader or as a regular participant (although the conversation is still relevant to any socially-located reader 😊). Do you appreciate how much, how often, you actually function as a “designer”? Do you plan regular (or irregular) meetings or gatherings? What happens in them? From where you meet, to how you gather, to what you do when you do so, if you are NOT following a strict set of instructions (like when you assemble that table from IKEA), then you are designing the environment, the space, the program, the interaction.

What sort of “program” if any will you use, what sort of “materials” will be made available (and in what format)? How do people access the meeting space? How is that space set up? What is demanded of those who attend in order to fully participate? How much of the presentation is narrative, personal, interactive and how much is conceptual and objective? How is “the Gospel” understood and presented?

OXO Good grips
Can you tell which one was designed for “most people” and which was designed for EVERYONE? Can you guess which one “most people” prefer to use?

All of the above questions describe the “design process” that EVERY gospel minister engages in, whether or not it’s done well or consciously. However, the thing about design is that not all design IS “universal” (otherwise universal design wouldn’t be a “thing,” right?

So how DO we “design” our churches, our meetings, our outreaches?

(This post is the first in a series which continues here.)

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