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 fourth principle of Universal Design is Perceptible Information | The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, “regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.”
The goal here is fostering the independence of every member of the body… everyone to whom you’re reaching out, with whom you’re connecting. If one of the overarching goals of building the local body is the healthy interdependence of the members of the body, we have to realize that this can’t be accomplished when or if some members of the community are unable to access key information on their own.
In this community setting, “information” can be a variety of things. One of the first things that comes to mind is the “newsy” sort of information. Who’s meeting when and where… the stuff that many churches call “the announcements.” Do you hear (or say) “All the information you need is in your bulletin. On the website. Check it out. “I’m sure you all can read…” This is a hugely significant piece for how meetings are instructed. With all the historical emphasis that we have placed on “not losing the proclamation of the message” as social ministries are engaged, we seldom think about how the way we present information (from the order of service to the location of the toilets to the “Gospel message”) in a way that is “obvious” to the “norm” but inaccessible to others.
However, even more critical information is involved in ways we often don’t consider – particularly in light of how it is communicated to those whose capacities differ from what we see as “the norm.” The content of the sermon – which is so important that it typically takes up the lion’s share of time spent together. Plan ahead to communicate that universally. Don’t wait for a Deaf person to ask you before you consider equipping someone to sign ASL or figuring out closed captioning. Because that’s never going to happen. You can say “We welcome everybody” but if someone’s lack of an ability that YOU have makes it impossible for them to receive and process critical information, they will never feel welcome enough to ask you to accommodate them. But why should they ask? Universal Design indicates that you will be a better, more attractive church for everyone when you think ahead and consider “perceptibility of information” before hand.
When we think of the church as community, it’s clear that there is information about what is expected of “citizens” of the community, what the values and mores of the community are. And not all information is articulated and spoken with one voice while all other voices are quite and listening. Have you considered how you communicate information about the community and its practices and beliefs? Of course, most critical is the understanding of the Way of faith on which the church walks, and the information about God, the human condition, repentance and redemption that constitute the foundation of the Christian community.
There are many ways of accessing information, of communicating that upon which community is built. When the people with whom we hang out are pretty much the same as we are, we will be able to assume (quite accurately) that if we “get it,” everyone else will (or should). But if you wish to experience the fullness of what God has in mind for his people, others will need to be included, for which that assumption won’t apply. What comes “naturally” to you, may not to “them.” And unless you want to permanently establish disjunctions in the body, you will need to think of how everyone can experience, process and respond to all this information together, in unity (though not in uniformity).
So, particularly when you’re at the point of “thinking about design” – in launching a new outreach, planting a church, or trying some new things, think about what’s important to know and perceive, and about how that can be clear to everyone. Consider things like how the “essential” information is picked out amidst the buzz of community life. Consider different ways of presenting key “texts” (for example, we’ve seen “storying” used to great success to facilitate even an advanced degree of “biblical literacy” among people who cannot read). Consider what information is “critical” – whether part of your church’s preaching, teaching, or discipleship as well as the practical stuff about “what you need to know to do church with us.”
The “design” of meetings, spaces, and environments that can facilitate this “perceiptibility of information” might seem to be demanding – it at least demands that you think creatively about how to use different modes of delivery – pictorial and tactile as well as verbal. You will want to think about the flurry of “information” that envelopes every group situation – and how, frankly, not all of it is extremely relevant, while some of it is essential. You’ll want to be sure that the information that is essential gets communicated and reinforced in multiple ways, so that it is grasped as essential. Why would you want to do this? First, because you need the people that currently cannot access this information. But the payoff of universal design is that, when successfully implemented, it makes things better for everybody. The clarity of purpose, the color and diversity of the way that the heart and soul of the community get articulated and passed along will enliven and inspire everyone in the community.
This post continues a series which begins here.