Universal Design for Worship

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How can we design a worship service and space so that as many people as possible can participate fully? That is the question that worship planners must address to fully embrace the biblical value of hospitality.

The question was addressed at a recent seminar hosted by the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship and CLC Network in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Universal design recognizes that not all worshipers can stand, for example, so an inclusive invitation would be, “Please rise in body or in spirit.” For people who cannot read, some churches put a small icon (such as a line drawing of a person praying) on the printed liturgy alongside “Congregational Prayer.”

Seminar leaders emphasized that worship design must not only be universal but also responsive, recognizing that certain individuals may need particular accommodations to participate fully. A member with a social anxiety disorder, for example, may not be able to sit with the rest of the congregation in the sanctuary, so church leaders need to help her do that comfortably.

In her presentation, “Pink and Green Puzzle Pieces,” Barbara Newman, director of church services for CLC Network, emphasized that every individual, whether or not he or she has disabilities, has both strengths (green) and challenges (pink). Wise church leaders find ways to engage everyone in the life of the congregation because each one’s strengths contribute to the health of the church, and one person’s challenges can be met by the strengths of others.

After attending the seminar, Coni Huisman, a member of Church of the Servant Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, said she hopes to encourage the worship team and elders of her church to talk with congregants about how they can eliminate barriers to worship. “The challenges of some worshipers may be obvious to us, but do we know the challenges people face which are not so readily visible, or not visible at all?”

The Calvin Institute of Christian Worship plans to incorporate universal design in all future work. Kristen Verhulst, associate to the director and program manager, said, “Universal design for worship is a theme or grounding vision for all our work. It will be a significant theme at the January 2017 Symposium on Worship.” The institute is organizing book groups on the topic and inviting grant applications for churches to explore universal design in their context.

About the Author

Mark Stephenson is the director of Disability Concerns.