Barbara J. Newman on Adult Inclusive Small Group Bible Studies

TOGETHER is a new Bible study curriculum designed to include, appeal to, and challenge adults of varying abilities. It aims to build community in ways that may enrich congregational worship.

Barbara J. Newman is the director of church services and a teacher consultant for CLC Network in Wyoming, Michigan. Her books, presentations, and blog posts inspire people to try practical ways to be more inclusive in worship and education. In this edited conversation, Newman talks about TOGETHER, a digital Bible study curriculum she helped write for adult inclusive small groups.

How would you describe the TOGETHER Bible study curriculum?

It’s a brand-new, technology-rich set of Bible studies developed by Friendship Ministries. This is a completely new idea in that it’s meant for use in adult inclusive small groups. These groups can include people of varying abilities; yet, these Bible studies are accessible and meaningful for people of all abilities.Most units have five to eight sessions. Unit titles include Choose Courage, Jesus Face to Face, Unwrapping Your Gifts, Living with Pain, Mary: Giving Birth to Good News (single session), and a forthcoming unit on prayer, which includes learning from the Vertical Habits project.

Compared to printed small group materials, what makes TOGETHER’s new digital format more accessible to people with a wide range of abilities?

Traditional print curriculum works best with people who can easily read, write, speak, and understand scripture. But many adults struggle with one or more of those skills, whether because of cognitive abilities, visual challenges, education levels, stroke, or dementia. Technology is often the great equalizer in groups with varying abilities.

Can you say more about how technology is a great equalizer?

TOGETHER has so many visuals, which is huge for people who learn better by seeing or who can’t read well. It can be downloaded onto personal devices, so people with vision challenges can adjust the font size. The units include multiple formats. For the Bible study and response steps, you can use a brief video that includes pauses and suggested questions to discuss with a partner. Or, for those same steps, you can use drama pictures and scripts. Group members decide among themselves who will read parts and who will hold up pictures at the appropriate times. Some units include links to YouTube videos.

The digital format is an economic equalizer because it costs less than buying printed materials for everyone. It’s a talent equalizer because, with all the choices and interactive portions built in, you don’t need a captivating facilitator to have a successful lesson.

Each session is available in two tracks, for Friendship groups or for adult inclusive small groups. What’s the difference? 

Friendship Ministries, founded in the 1980s, is an international, interdenominational ministry to support faith formation and congregation inclusion for people who have intellectual disabilities. Each friend is paired with a mentor. Groups of friends and mentors study the Bible and build individual and community relationships. Friendship participants don’t necessarily attend Sunday worship at the church where their group meets. TOGETHER’s Friendship track offers song suggestions and cues to help participants notice themes.

The adult inclusive small group track introduces a new way to nurture congregation inclusion. It makes room within a congregation’s adult education program for people who have intellectual or other disabilities. Compared to the Friendship track, the adult inclusive track often includes different ways to respond to the Bible story. We also include an online guide for how to adapt materials for a member in your group, whether that person has differences in vision, hearing, sensory processing, social skills, or other needs.

What are the components of a typical session?

There are five steps:

  • Gathering and Theme. People sing, share snacks, and watch a short video about the lesson theme.
  • Exploring God’s Word. Each Bible study has video and drama options.
  • Responding to the Story. This section might include video, pictures, drama, or an activity, such as a trust walk where you get blindfolded and someone guides you past mousetraps.
  • Taking It Home. Participants use a printable magazine to journal in and to exchange prayer needs with a partner.
  • The session ends with prayer and ways to personalize the learning.

What’s an example of how a step would differ between the Friendship and adult inclusive tracks?

One Choose Courage sample session focuses on Joshua 3:1-17, when the Israelites crossed the Jordan River into Canaan. God promised the priests carrying the ark that the flooded river would part after they stepped into it.

The closing for the Friendship option uses a paper frame for participants to mount on a bathroom mirror. They fill in their names to remember that God promises to do amazing things and remain with them. The closing for the adult inclusive small group offers ways to quote the day’s scripture and personalize it in prayer, e.g.  “I am with you, (insert the names of each person in your group), as I was with Moses.”

This curriculum looks less intellectually rigorous than programs such as Bible Study Fellowship. If you only have time for one type of Bible study, why choose TOGETHER?

Faith grows in new directions when you study the Bible in ways that break down barriers among God’s people. You get the chance to experience being part of God’s true community, including all members, not only those who can read or express themselves with words. In writing these lessons, we worked hard to create a variety of levels of questions and understanding. TOGETHER can help you understand scripture through the eyes and ears of someone in your group—in ways you might never have imagined. I will never forget when my friend with autism spectrum disorder said, “My body has autism, but my spirit does not.” What an interesting addition to your adult small group this young woman would make!

I have been in several types of Bible studies over the years, and all were interesting. Yet creating multimedia lessons made me notice things I hadn’t considered before. While studying Joshua 3:1-17, I noticed that the Bible says the Jordan River was at flood stage when God told the priests to step into it. So we paired the Bible text with video and pictures of a whitewater river. The visuals gave me greater insight into what it means to take a “new step of faith.” It made me remember that the Israelites had spent 40 years in a desert, without life vests or swimming lessons.

We really believe that God will honor communities that are learning together by getting to know each member and feeding each person present.

Where have you tested TOGETHER?

As of August 2017, we had 24 groups in Canada and 67 groups in the U.S. that agreed to field test the first unit, Choose Courage. Some groups were Catholic, others Protestant. They gave us feedback and helped us groom the materials. More of them were traditional Friendship groups than adult inclusive small groups. But we know for sure that groups had people of varied abilities interacting with the format and materials. People told us that the digital format requires less prep time than print curriculum. They liked the use of technology, thorough curriculum, appealing videos, opportunities for discussion and personal testimony, and options to reach all kinds of learners.

We’d still like more feedback from adult inclusive small groups, so this fall we are testing it in 10 more places, including a group that will meet in a nursing home and include individuals with dementia. Since TOGETHER uses visuals so heavily and has participation options for persons with little or no speech [such as thumbs up or thumbs down], I’m excited to discover how well it will work for stroke survivors.

What unexpected insights have the pilot groups yielded?

When people hear that Friendship Ministries developed TOGETHER, they assume that it’s only for groups of people who all have intellectual disabilities. And, while the curriculum includes a track for those groups, we are very eager for churches to try the adult inclusive small groups in an adult education setting. This material is intended to be meaningful for all adults. We are blessed that some people and churches are beginning to sense the possibilities.

One adult inclusive small group in our pilot program included a person who became more engaged than usual, because of all the visuals built into the curriculum. The group had been talking about a sad story, so Kim scrolled back to the picture of that prayer and asked everyone to pray about the sad situation. She was actively “owning” her part in the small group. In another group, one member said, “I may not be able to read or write, but I understand what’s going on.”

What sorts of changes in Sunday worship leadership or participation do you hope will result from relationships built in TOGETHER groups?

I hope churches will use the gifts of a wider range of people. Once a set of people get to know Matilda, they’ll know not only which “accommodations” will help her but also how to use her gifts in that setting.  Once you bond with someone in a small group, it’s easier to “think along with” that person on how to better access worship services. Being in community creates relationships that pull down awkward barriers of fear or discomfort.

Two members of an adult inclusive small group were sitting near each other in worship while the congregation sang “This Little Light of Mine.” The member with an intellectual disability started to do some motions, and the other member turned to her and joined her in doing motions. She later noted that she would never have done that if the two hadn’t become friends in their small group. TOGETHER taught them how to worship with each other in a new way.

I hope that pastors and worship leaders will join a TOGETHER group and experience biblical learning in formats that are more accessible to a variety of adults. This may help as they prepare messages, liturgies, and other worship service elements.

LEARN MORE

Purchase TOGETHER Bible study curriculum.

Use tips from Barbara Newman’s article “Ten Ways to be More Inclusive and Welcoming in Worship and Church Life.”

Read the book Including People with Disabilities in Faith Communities by Erik Carter, who will present at the 2018 Calvin Symposium on Worship.

Adapt the TOGETHER Bible study sessions to the needs of your group.

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