The room is alive with the chatter of people catching up on the week’s news.
Val is enjoying a Lord’s Prayer craft activity and Keith is talking to friends who’ve been attending the church ever since he invited them to the Christmas carol service. Eileen’s uncle has just died, and she’s discussing grief and faith with the vicar.
In a few minutes, a service including singing, Bible teaching, group prayer and discussion will begin. But what makes this midweek meeting different from many across the UK is that most people here have some kind of learning disability.
The Good News Group was set up nine years ago at St Andrew’s Church in Leyland, Lancashire. For one of the current leaders, it was literally an answer to prayer. Teacher Lynn McCann had just started working at a special needs school when her family felt called to start worshipping at St Andrews.
‘I was working with severely disabled children with communication difficulties. I knew God cared about them, but I wanted to know how to tell them about Jesus – how do they understand him?’ McCann recalls.
‘The second time that we attended St Andrew’s, somebody stood up and talked about launching the Good News Group. I’d been praying so hard about what to do, and it seemed God was saying, “Here, let me show you”.’ I understand about God, that he’s alive and he takes you as you are
IT DOESN’T MATTER WHO YOU ARE
When Premier Christianity visited the midweek service there were 60 people gathered – adults with learning disabilities, their carers and the church team. For the first half hour the members play games and enjoy craft activities – dominoes, jigsaws and colouring-in. It’s a chance for leaders and volunteers to talk to members about previous teaching and ask about issues for prayer. Then the group shares a light meal together before moving into the main church building.
Colin, a regular member, explained that coming to the Good News Group has helped him come to terms with his disability. ‘I had learning difficulties at school, with my reading and writing,’ he says. ‘I went to a normal school. I used to be ashamed of having a learning problem. But now I don’t, because of this group.
‘What I’ve learned about God here and the people here means that I’m not ashamed to say that I have a disability any more.
I understand about God, that he’s alive and he takes you as you are; it doesn’t matter who you are.’
BREAKING DOWN BARRIERS
‘Every town has a community of people with learning disabilities living among them,’ McCann says. But for many, ‘regular church’ proves challenging. Eileen, another member, says, ‘I don’t feel comfortable in church on my own. I can’t find things in the Bible in time before they start to read it and sometimes the sermon is too long. They speak too quickly for me. The Good News Group is the best thing for us. I love standing at the front and reading the Bible to everyone there.’
McCann’s real passion is to break down the communication barrier. ‘It’s not just about removing the physical barriers – creating accessible doors or toilets,’ she says. ‘People walk into church and they’re given something to read – but if you can’t read, you can’t access it. Church notices, the Bible – there’s a lot of reading involved and complex language used. Sermons can be very academic.’
On the night that Premier Christianity visited the Good News Group, members were learning about the Last Supper. The service is simple – but this is not children’s ministry. McCann and other leaders have collated their own teaching material over the past decade and are hoping to make it available to the wider Church.
The aim is not to patronise the members; the team tackles issues that wouldn’t be suitable for children. ‘Those preaching have had to find new ways of communicating and making their teaching accessible. We have had to discover how our members learn. We watch their responses and reflect on what works and what doesn’t. We bought a symbol package, learned Makaton [simplified sign language] and puppeteering, and found sources for images that weren’t childish,’ McCann says.
The leaders have learnt to explain complicated and academic words step by step, addressing concepts such as sin, salvation and reconciliation. ‘We don’t rule any part of the Bible out because it is unpalatable.
‘One of the privileges of running this ministry is seeing someone move forward,’ McCann continues. ‘One of our members, Karen, was shy and quiet when she first came. It took her two years to become confident enough to go to the front and read, but what a day that was!’
The service is simple – but this isn’t children’s ministry
THE SPIRIT AT WORK
The question of how much the more profoundly disabled members understand is one that the group leaders leave with God. ‘Do we ever truly know that about anyone – whatever their learning abilities or disabilities are?’ says Rev David Gibb, vicar of St Andrew’s. ‘When Jesus talks to Nicodemus and calls him Israel’s teacher – which might have equated to being a Regius professor – he asks: “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you don’t understand these things?”’
Occasionally, the leaders are given a glimpse into how the Holy Spirit is working.
‘One of our members, Gail, doesn’t speak, but she likes to join in. She enjoys the music and makes lots of loud vocalisations. We have come to accept that our members will shout out and join in the service unexpectedly, which is wonderful.
‘Gail’s carers told me tonight that at home she prays. She puts her hands together and then they say “amen” with her,’ says McCann.
‘Our passion is to make Jesus known to people with learning disabilities and see them grow in their faith. We want to see them discover and use their gifts to enrich the Church. It isn’t easy; we have all been challenged about how we communicate – but how can we exclude members of the Body of Christ just because they can’t understand a 30-minute sermon?
‘If you want to begin a similar ministry, start by praying and start small. God can equip a willing heart.’
The Good News Group is affiliated to Prospects – a Christian voluntary organisation that values and supports people with learning disabilities.
Lynn McCann blogs at includedbygrace.wordpress.com