Learning from the Greenbelt communion service - how to turn your service into a truly...

Mat Ray is Head of Church Partnerships at Livability and shares his learning from Greenbelt 2017.

I came back from Greenbelt, the annual festival of arts, faith and activism, a week ago. But rather than my normal post-festival blues, I’m still full of joy. There was something special about this year’s event, and not just the fantastic sunny weather.

Nearly a year ago, Livability met with Greenbelt and asked a question – ‘What if we could put on the most accessible church service ever?’ So, together with friends and partners around the country, we designed a church service that reflects our heart for inclusion. And on the Sunday, the festival exceeded our expectations.

Over 6,000 gathered in and around Greenbelt’s big top. Together we sang using Makaton signs, shared the peace in British Sign Language, used our senses in prayer, and told each other a Bible story using symbol flash cards. The service also made use of technology to enable people’s inclusion and participation. The Bible reading was loud and clear, via a live telephone link-in, read by Tanya Marlow who lives on the South Coast, and whose health needs prevent her from leaving her home much of the time. The sermon came from 14 year-old Becky Tyler, who used a speech generating device called a Tobii Dynavox, to share a powerful message about her faith and life experience. In Becky’s own words, her Tobii Dynavox makes her sound ‘like Stephen Hawking, but much nicer!

Almost every time I talk to churches about including disabled people, I get one of two responses – either ‘We don’t have the money’ or ‘I don’t really know what that would look like’. So here are four simple and cheap actions, taken from the Greenbelt service.

  1. Use signs.
    Tens of thousands of people use signs rather than spoken English. British Sign Language is used by the Deaf community, and Makaton is a set of symbols more often used by people with learning disabilities. Hiring or training a translator might be expensive, but every church can learn to use some signs. Learn to sign The Peace to each other. Livability has a range of simple songs with Makaton symbols – why not learn one together?
  2. Use senses.
    At various moments in the prayers, we were encouraged to touch the earth, touch our faces and reach out to our neighbours. For some people who struggle to listen to long spoken prayers, using touch or other senses, can help with concentration and understanding.
  3. Use symbols.
    The Bible is a unique gift, and with the new Accessible NIV, it is more easily understandable than ever. But many people cannot read, or find books challenging. Why not experiment with symbols? Instead of one Bible reading from the front, give out packs of symbol flash cards and allow people to tell the story in their own words. Symbols can be downloaded from the internet, or simply be pictures cut from magazines.
  4. Use simple technology.
    Every church has members who would love to attend services but are prevented by ill health. Experiment with using mobile phones – could someone at home read the Bible or lead the prayers over the telephone?

We are passionate about inspiring local churches to be places of welcome for everyone, particularly people who are isolated. If you would like to know more about turning your Sunday service into a truly inclusive gathering, we would love to help.