“Flexible Use” and the Church – Universal Design and Christian ministry

The gospel of Jesus is itself a message of universal access. The Great Commission is a call to make that gospel universally accessible. We in gospel ministry are “designers” of spaces, environments, interactions that proclaim and enact that gospel. The Principles of Universal Design” that have proven helpful in other areas of life to make buildings and environments more accessible through “designing with all people (particularly those with disabilities) in mind. Can we in ministry learn something from these principles? How do these principles relate to the gospel? Can they be adapted for the sort of “designing” that we as pastors and church planters and disciplemakers do in community?


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The second principle of Universal Design is Flexibility in Use. This means that the things we design can accommodate a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.

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In everyday life we see examples of this in the large-grip scissors that you can use with either hand. While mainly intended to “accommodate” left-handed persons, it’s better for everyone: they make it easy to switch hands during highly repetitive tasks. You’ll see this in playground spaces where there’s equipment, benches, and chairs of different heights and sizes, not all “standard-issue.”

Designing this way sends the message “Be included”… to everybody. Different people can access and participate in different ways. They might doing the same thing, but not the same way. Ideally, what we design would have the built-in flexibility to be usable even when accessed or employed in an unconventional or unanticipated manner.

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My sense is that this principle taps into an aspect of what God designed the church to be: as Scot McKnight calls it, “A Fellowship of Differents.” There is an incredible diversity among the members of the body: different levels of “honor,” gifting, strength (and weakness!): but it is one body.

This rejection of uniformity in the context of a deeper unity extends to even the intellectual realm. Paul describes an important characteristic of Christian community as being the ability to tolerate, to not pass judgment on differences in theology or practice that were rightfully “disputable” (Rom 14:1, 10, 13.). Absolute uniformity of thought is NOT required – there are indeed multiple handles to grasp hold of this faith-in-Jesus-community. Everyone does NOT have to think about everything the same way in order to belong.

UD2 graphicJesus tells a parable about an employer who hired field workers at different times throughout the work day and paid them all the same when quitting time came. In the story, some thought that it “wasn’t fair” that some worked all day for their pay while others got the same reward for far less work. That’s the voice of privilege speaking, not justice. The Employer was providing “access” in a way that worked differently for some than others… but made the arrangement he desired available to all who engaged it.

One of the biggest breaking stories in the unfolding of the early church took place at the “Jerusalem Council,” recorded in the book of Acts, where it was decided that Gentiles did NOT need to “become Jewish” and live under the law in order to be accepted in Christ. In essence, this set in place the perpetual universal accesability of the church: there was a flexibility in terms of how to access reconciliation to God through Christ. It was not that the Gospel would be “accommodated” to “non-standard” users, but that everyone was seen as able, through faith, to enter, regardless of their position before the law or any other ‘standard.’

UD2 tubWorship in a “universally accessible” would, therefore, probably not highlight everybody doing the same thing in the same way at the same time. But when we embrace and take stock of the differences within our unity, we could design our spaces, our interactions, to facilitate people doing the same things differently at the same time.

It was a very helpful step to come up with a pair of scissors that would work whether one was left-handed or right-handed. What breakthroughs could we experience when we make the church “work” regardless of how one is physically or intellectually gifted or challenged? Universally accessible worship or bible study or outreach would not be thrown off-track when some people engage or respond in ways that “normal” folks might perceive as “unconventional or unanticipated”… because universal design takes that into account ahead of time.

It’s not about one size fitting all, or one set ‘pace’ or rubric.

SUIT YOURSELF SAUL'S armor

So consider your ministry’s “design”: can it be realized in more than one way? Can it adapt and keep functioning when someone wants to (or has to) “use it differently” because of differing abilities? Your regular worship gathering is one place this will be put to the test. Are you ready to welcome families with autistic children to participate? One of the biggest barriers reported by parents is the expectation that they have to do everything “just the same” as the “normal” folks or they won’t be welcomed or appreciated. That is the exact opposite of universal design. Remember when little David struggled trying to put on Saul’s armor to head into battle? He gave it up… that armor was certainly not constructed according to universal design principles.

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Consider the example of how the authority of Scripture “works” in church. It can (simultaneously!) open the heart of the spiritually dead to faith, it can impart first lessons in the way of the cross for the new believer, and it can impart deep truths to the seeking disciple. It can comfort and challenge, preach, teach and/or edify depending not upon the presentation, but upon “the need of the moment” of the individual participant. And it’s the same Word!

Do you want your fellowship to be one that tells your community “you are included”? Then universal design thinking can help. Employing this principle directs us to be sensitive to the individual preferences and abilities of those we’re called to serve – not the “standard profile” of the ones we feel we serve best. It encourages us to consider everybody, and to provide a balanced variety developmentally appropriate physical and social activities throughout the environment, which are dynamic and accommodate individuals’ diverse abilities. People are given freedom in how to engage, in a way that suits who they are, at their own pace, at a level of “accuracy” that’s appropriate for them.disability circle

So as you “design” access to the community of Jesus-followers – through evangelistic outreaches, through church gatherings or activities, or in programs of spiritual formation, consider the element of “flexibility in use.” And make every effort to include people with disabilities in that process ahead of time… invite people with disabilities to speak freely into the process of laying these important groundworks in your ministry. It will be better for everybody… and reflect to the community the divine wisdom underlying the church, bringing glory to the Lord!

Here’s a video of a great example of someone who designed an amusement park that’s “not a park for disabled kids, but a park for everyone.” Let’s dream about a church for everyone!


This post continues a series which begins here.

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