The gospel of Jesus is itself a message of universal access. The Great Commission is a call to make that gospel universally accessible. Whether consciously or not, we in gospel ministry “design” spaces, environments, interactions that proclaim and enact that gospel. The Principles of Universal Design have proven helpful in making buildings and environments more accessible by “designing with all people (particularly those with disabilities) in mind.” What can we learn from them? How do these principles relate to the gospel? Can they help us with the sort of “designing” that we as pastors and church planters and disciplemakers do in community?
The third principle of universal design is: Simple and intuitive use. This means that use of the “design” is easy to understand. That’s simple enough to understand, isn’t it? The trick is, we’re talking universal design, so it needs to be easy not just for me and folks like me, but easy for all who want to participate, regardless of the their experience, knowledge, language skills, or education level… and regardless of their current ability to “concentrate.”
Parks and public spaces in many cities now have public emergency stations that use recognized “emergency colors” and are simply designed so that even a distracted or confused foreigner passing by would know how to summon help. Certainly we want to design our buildings (or more conceptually, the form and flow of our gatherings) so that even “out-of-the-loop” “outsiders” could figure things out… This would seem to be a no-brainer in terms of conducting broad evangelism, wouldn’t it?
However, pressing a little more deeply, this raises another question: Is it possible that we have “overcomplicated” the Gospel in the way we have “adapted it” and “designed” our interactions with it to suit “the norm”? For generations we thought that a big barrier to acceptance of the Christian faith in our societies had to do with its “intellectual respectability”… so much apologetic work has gone into articulating that element of our faith.
A (presumably unintended) side-effect of this is that it makes it even harder for us to see how people with intellectual disability interact with the gospel. We often talk about the “basics” of the gospel of salvation as being “non-negotiables.” That’s fine. But, functionally, there are a host of other “deal-breakers” (in our theology, our understanding and presentation of the gospel, the way we “do church”) that have nothing to do with the way of the Cross or the meaning and intent of Scripture. But let’s not forget that the life-giving water of the gospel is offered to “whosoever will” (Rev. 22:17).
Trying to think of examples? You have to read. (“I won’t repeat the announcements, you can read them for yourself in the bulletin/on the screen.”) You have to be silent and passive for long periods of time. (At least during the sermon, but often for other parts of corporate gatherings as well.)
How can we take some steps forward here? First, we can do everything possible to eliminate unnecessary complexity. We can start with the environments and spaces in which we meet, but it has to go further. A full embrace of this principle calls us to renounce any privileging of intellectual ability as it relates to coming to Christ and walking in Him. For an intelligent, highly educated and cerebral person like me, that’s an ongoing struggle… and a beautiful part of what sanctification has to look like in my own life.
Whether it’s upon walking into the building physically or being led into a celebration of the presence of God and the sharing of his word, next steps should either be intuitive, or else explained as they go, so that church isn’t filled with two sorts of folks: those insiders who are “in the know” and the others wondering “What do I do now? What’s this all about?” Because the latter won’t stick around for long.
At a basic level, our churches and meetings should be ready willing and able to accommodate a wide range of literacy and language skills.
And when it comes to presenting “information” we don’t want the things that are most important to be hidden like Easter eggs for the most astute to find. If it’s most important, it needs to be the most visible and the most obvious.
How easy is it for someone (particularly who might differ from your current “norm”) to enter and “use”/”access” your church or group, without prompting or discussion that they would experience as condescending? What assumptions are being made about the ability levels (physical, intellectual, financial, etc.) of attenders? About their attention span?
The easier it is for someone to join in, regardless of their previous skills, experiences or learning, apart from their ability to concentrate for long periods of time; the more “universally accessible” your church will be.
Taking this principle into account might help us, as Neil Cole has suggested, to “lower the bar of how church is done and raise the bar of what it means to be a disciple.” If Church is simple enough that everyone can do it (my emphasis) and is made up of people who take up their cross and follow Jesus at any cost, the result will be church that empowers the common Christian to do the uncommon works of God. This provides yet another example of how universal design, despite being prompted by the need to include those who’ve been excluded (like people with disabilities), really can help us to build a church that is “better for everybody.”