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Day-long Conference on Universal Design for Worship

Some 150 people came to Calvin in September 2016 to learn more about universal design principles for worship: how to include people of all abilities in worship.

When the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and CLC Network (also known as the Christian Learning Center) partnered to create a day-long event on inclusive worship, worship for people of all abilities, they weren’t sure what to expect.

In many churches the idea of universal design for worship, planning worship from the start (instead of retrofitting it) to be accommodating to persons with a wide range of abilities and disabilities, is not yet a high priority.

But, based on the attendance at the event, planning worship well from the start for all of a church’s members seems to be an idea that is gaining in popularity.

Almost 150 people signed up for the event, people representing a wide range of both denominations and locations as well as roles in their congregations. And they spent a full day learning more about a variety of underlying principles that ground a good approach to universal design for worship.

Things we're good at; things we struggle with

Keynote speaker Barbara J. Newman laid out several important philosophies in the first talk of the day, following a time of song and praise led by singer/songwriter Ken Medema who since birth has been unable to see with his eyes. Newman, who works for CLC Network as director of church services, began her morning talk by reminding those in attendance that everyone, not just individuals with a diagnosed disability, is a mix of strength and weakness.

Using pink and green puzzle pieces, Newman visually demonstrated her belief that God knits people together with “both things we are good at and enjoy, the green, and things we struggle at, the pink.” All people, disability or not, have gifts to offer church communities and just as the pieces of the puzzle fit together, so too, she said, do the members of the church, the body of Christ, come together.

How does this play out in real life she asked, before giving several concrete and applicable examples. The child with autism spectrum disorder, she said, who is new to a Sunday School class might be welcomed by a teacher who asks the parents “what’s wrong with her?” Or, Newman countered, the question might be “what does she love to do?”

“It makes all the difference,” Newman said, “what questions we ask. I’m welcoming a child not a disability to my Sunday School class.”

Indeed language is important, Newman noted. “Please rise in body or in spirit” might be a better phrase, she said, then “please stand if you are able.” Sometimes people are able to stand, but they’re sore. They have a bad back or bad hips and standing for too long hurts. But they feel obligated. “Please rise in body or in spirit” can give people welcomed permission to stay seated.

Other elements of universal design are equally aimed at making all feel part of the worship: gluten free elements for communion, large print options for the liturgy and songs, perhaps a fragrance-free sanctuary.

"We are so grateful for the tireless advocacy of many leaders in organizations whose mission focuses on the full inclusion of persons with disabilities in church ministry," commented Worship Institute director John D. Witvliet. "We are eager to invite, challenge, and equip every pastor, every worship leader, and every worship-related course, conference, and resource to affirm this vision and take the next tangible steps in a journey toward full inclusion."

Lots of time for conversation

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After Newman’s talk, at the tables in the Prince Conference Center’s Great Hall, attendees got to follow up on her suggestions and ask each other lots of questions. Each plenary session included or was followed by smaller, workshop-style times where attendees could respond to set questions, bounce ideas off each other and carry on the conversations begun in the plenary.

Following lunch, attendees were invited to consider how universal design elements were used to create an inclusive worship environment in the premiere of “Worship as One: Disability in Community.” Following the video, Newman brought together some of the themes of the morning and expanded on them.

She noted that while universal design principles will provide many of the needed supports to include persons with a variety of abilities in a congregation, there will be some individuals who will need additional supports. Responsive design is a process that then provides options for including specific persons with an identified disability into full participation in worship, the congregation and its activities.

It’s important to begin by identifying individuals who may need special support, she said. “Start with who you know within the congregation,” she said. “Talk to the individual themselves as well as families (or caregivers) who may be involved. Get to know the individual and their puzzle piece. What are their green areas? What are their pink areas?”

“Elena may have a gift for dance and movement but not communicate with words,” she said. “Part of her church action plan may be to wave a worship streamer during the service. If the congregation isn’t aware that Elena will now be offering her praise to God with a worship streamer, they may be distracted and alarmed. However, if the congregation has been equipped with this knowledge (with her parent’s permission)—and even invited to participate—they will be more empowered to respond to Elena’s thanks offering.”

The day concluded with participants discussing the spiritual and relational capacities needed for this type of work.
New CICW associate Reggie Smith, a long-time church pastor, stressed the need for love, kindness and self-control, recalling a former congregant, Pete, who was deaf and always sat in the back of church because the drums were too loud.

“Pete wouldn't give up on me,” he remembered. “He's taught me more about kindness…Individuals [with a disability] have the ability to expand our world larger, and we are better for it. If we are willing to be led, to come along for that adventure."

Learn More

  • Read a Q&A with Barbara Newman on visual hospitality in worship.
  • Watch a plenary address on universal design in worship by Barbara Newman from the 2016 Worship Symposium.
  • Read a Q&A with David Myers on hearing loss, worship and the LOOP system.
  • CLC Network walks alongside faith communities through observations and consultations, workshops and trainings, and church site studies.
  • If your group would like to study Barbara J. Newman’s book, “Accessible Gospel, Inclusive Worship”, the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship would like to support you with copies of the book. Contact Kristen Verhulst at
  • Vital Worship Grants from CICW are also available for congregations that want to connect public worship to intergenerational faith formation and Christian discipleship. Grant applications are due January 10.