Sermon Series and Study Guide on Belonging for All Abilities
Your church can use new resources, such as a sermon series and study guide, to help your congregation move from including people with disabilities to becoming a place of belonging for all abilities. Then you can pass on what you've learned to other congregations.
After hearing Erik W. Carter talk about the ten dimensions of belonging, Karen Roberts thought about how many biblical passages support God's desire to include people of all abilities in worship. Roberts is pastor of disability at First Presbyterian Church in Aurora (metro Chicago), Illinois. With peers in All Belong's Circle of Congregations and the First Pres preaching staff, Roberts developed a seven-week sermon series on belonging. (All Belong is a nonprofit catalyzer for inclusive Christ-centered communities.)
"The aspect of belonging is universal to the Christian experience, similar to the question of why God allows suffering. Sermons about belonging and suffering speak to families that live with disability—but everyone can relate. It's an example of universal design learning," Roberts says. She's also writing a study guide to use with the sermon series.
Explore the ten dimensions of belonging
Roberts explains that she used to see disability ministry as outreach to individuals and families impacted by disability (inclusion). Now she believes the Holy Spirit is leading congregations and ministries to focus on ministry among and with people of varied abilities (belonging). That's why she was so taken with an April 2020 Circle of Congregations online conversation with Erik W. Carter. He is a professor of special education at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee; a member of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center; and an All Belong board member.
Carter asked individuals and families impacted by disability to describe what belonging to a faith community would look like. This research revealed that people with disabilities and their families identified ten dimensions of belonging in community: being present, invited, welcomed, known, accepted, supported, cared for, befriended, needed, and loved.
- Watch or listen to Erik W. Carter's 2019 January Series speech "Incomplete without You: The Church and People with Disabilities" and 2018 Calvin Symposium on Worship presentation "From Barriers to Belonging."
- Download Carter's two-page handout to assess whether or how well people with disabilities and their families experience belonging in your community.
- Download this pdf of Carter's symposium presentation to find statistics and questions to spark discussion about belonging in your community.
Use this sermon outline template to preach about belonging
First Pres Aurora planned a seven-week sermon series called "The Family Table: The Place We all Belong." The sermon series took place in winter 2021 and can be used or adapted elsewhere. "Our written sermons aren't part of the posted resources because we believe pastors will want to do their own research on the suggested passages and preach from their context. We designed our series so that each sermon will be useful as a stand-alone option. For some churches, these ideas may be new," Robert says.
- Visit the All Belong website to see the sermon series overview and find relevant books and disability ministry resources. The overview webpage links to individual webpages for each week. You can also download a pdf of the entire sermon series, including all the links.
- Each weekly page, such as week three, which deals with the belonging dimensions of being known and accepted, includes a sermon title, scripture focus, key idea, brief notes, and call to action.
- Watch all seven worship services in First Pres Aurora's "The Family Table: The Place We All Belong."
Choose worship elements for your context
Weekly pages suggest worship elements, such as songs, stories, participatory readings, creative prayer ideas, and examples of how First Pres Aurora explored the dimensions of belonging. Senior pastor Jeff Moore's heirloom family dining room table stood on the church platform during the series. The first Sunday focused on the first dimension of belonging, being present. Near the end of the service, a family set the dining table with the Moore family's dishware and table linens (1:01:39 in week one). Meanwhile, the congregation sang "There Is One Body" by Steve Williamson, cathedral dean of Church of the Resurrection in Aurora, Illinois.
"On other Sundays, we learned as a congregation how to use American Sign Language to sign words of slow songs that are easy to learn, such as 'Be Glorified' by Bob Kilpatrick," Roberts says.
Circle of Congregations peers suggested sharing stories of belonging through videos. First Pres compiled this video in which a Friendship Bible Club member describes friendship as "I have friends that are like my jelly to my peanut butter. We've been smooshed together like a sandwich." The Family Table services also included stories from books and videos, such as this brief clip about a group home coming to church (stop at 0:50) and this Rain for Roots musical retelling of the Luke 14 wedding banquet parable.
The sermon series works well for virtual and in-person worship
"Our sermon series took place when we were meeting only online, so we know the series works in that format. Public health directives limited who could be on the platform when we livestreamed worship. Only the preaching pastor and a small worship and tech team were present in the sanctuary. We created three videos so we could include people of varied abilities presenting scripture, such as Psalm 139, or reflecting on a dimension of belonging.
"As churches return to in-person format, this series provides a wonderful opportunity for people of all abilities to lead worship together. It starts with really knowing the individual. Participation flows from each individual's gifting, ability, and enjoyment. When we did our 'All Belong worship' service just before the pandemic lockdown, we included songs led by our regular choir combined with vocalists from Friendship Bible Club. We can ask people who love to read to read Scripture in worship. Those who play the autoharp for Friendship Bible Club can also do so in our Sunday services," Roberts says.
Use this study guide in other church settings
Roberts is writing a study guide to correlate with the seven-week sermon series. The guide is designed for small groups of varied abilities and ages. Each lesson is interactive and includes multisensory ways for children, youth, adults, and intergenerational groups to engage and respond. Lessons include links to short videos along with options to use the guide without videos.
Roberts says she's grateful for the opportunity to learn from and pray with her Circle of Congregations peers in disability ministry. "These thought partners have given me study guide lesson ideas, such as ways for children to experience in small ways how to walk in the shoes of someone who lives with disability. They reminded me that responses that are less word-focused help more people participate. This might be giving a thumbs up or thumbs down, adding movement to worship songs about the discussion topics, or creating a poster together. During songs, people can wave praise streamers with colors representing Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (gold, red, and white).
Small groups could use the guide to prepare for an upcoming sermon or as a follow up to a sermon. Even in churches that don't do the sermon series, small groups can use the study guide to explore the theme of belonging. Roberts expects that the study guide will be available in September 2021 at All Belong's sermon series landing page.
Share your experiences
As of June 2021, The Family Table sermon series had only been preached at Roberts' church. "My hope is that through this series other congregations will grow in their awareness and understanding of what it means for the Church to be the place we all belong. God created each person to be in relationship with him and then with one another. The desire for belonging is universal. Our welcome to others begins with God’s welcome to us. I hope that the sermon series may help break down barriers to belonging through the Word, through stories of belonging, and through worshipping as one body, made up of many parts, all gathered at The Family Table," she says.
Would you like to join pilot churches from Circle of Congregations in leading your congregation, youth group, small group, or study by using the sermon series outline or study guide? If so, then please contact All Belong. "We’d love to hear how you uniquely adapted the series and how it impacted your community. Our prayer is that it is a resource that God will use to impact many congregations!" Roberts says.
Read other helpful resources
Consider adding books on varied abilities to your church library. Highlight books and other resources in sermons, staff meetings, and small groups. Share them in church newsletters and on social media.
- Check out titles recommended in "Disability within Faith Communities" and "Disability and Inclusion: an Annotated Bibliography."
- Download "Welcoming People with Developmental Disabilities and Their Families: A Practical Guide for Congregations," an 18-page booklet by Erik W. Carter and other experts.
- Erik W. Carter recommends this free online congregational reflection tool (seven pages) to see who's missing and why in various aspects of church worship and congregational life.
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