Resourcing Church: Diversity and Accessibility

Over our first year, Churspacious has gradually grown into a space where text-and-image-based communication is the norm. This is, perhaps, not unusual for a social-media-based church. However, it’s also notable that text-and-image-based content gets significantly more interaction than videos and zoom events. We are planning to continue to provide some video and zoom based content and events for those who find these helpful. However, I think that it is interesting to reflect on what our members think about accessibility, and on how other churches might become more accessible to those with differing learning and communication styles and needs.

In January, Churspacious member Matt posted this quote and image:

“I really believe that when we cater to the needs of neurodiverse people, then the needs everybody else has been suppressing are met. Nobody likes fluorescent lighting or itchy clothes, right? But neurotypical people put up with them because it’s polite whereas an autistic person might scream and refuse to tolerate it.” ~ Madeline Ryan, interviewed for The Independent, 12.01.21  

This post, and the conversation that followed, made me wonder what might make churches and community spaces more accessible for Churspacious members, so I set up a poll, asking How can the communities that you are a part of become more accessible for you? (Whoever you are!) Some of the top answers included:

  1. Rules being clearer and people saying what they actually mean.
  2. Quiet spaces.
  3. Understanding the need to fidget and move.
  4. People giving me more time to think.

From this list, it is clear that traditional churches, and even zoom or video-based churches, are not always very accessible spaces for Churspacious members. Church conversations can be full of hidden messages and unknown traditions, history, and politics. Churches can be noisy, busy spaces. Churches, regardless of their members best intentions, can be spaces where it feels wrong to fidget or move around, where there is an unspoken expectation that people will sit still, in one, often physically uncomfortable place, for around an hour. Church services, in normal times, often include physical contact, including handshakes and public eating. The social rules in churches are often hidden norms, rather than clear guidelines. As well as these difficulties, churches generally cater to those whose learning style relies on listening – with most of the teaching done in a ten-to-twenty-minute sermon. There is little provision for those whose learning style is visual, tactile, or conversational or for those who simply need a little more time to think.

I think that these difficulties require two strands of response. 1. The provision of text-and-image-based churches, like Churspacious. 2. A change in the practices of building-based churches. Let’s explore some changes in practice that might be helpful for building-based churches, bearing in mind that some of these will not be possible until Covid-related restrictions are lifted.

  1. Behaviour Agreements

One of the reasons that Churspacious is a safe and accessible space, in which we can support and challenge each-other, is that we have agreed to behave in particular ways towards each-other. It is normal for Facebook groups to have ‘rules’, for the protection of their members and the facilitation of the group. These are our current ‘rules’:

  1. Do disagree well. Discuss, don’t argue.
  2. Don’t expect others to change their opinion. Do share your opinions, but don’t expect others to change theirs.
  3. Do love each-other. Don’t post hate.
  4. Do tell the truth. Don’t claim opinion as fact.
  5. Do critique injustice. Don’t punch down.
  6. Do share but don’t cross-post or advertise.
  7. Do respect. Don’t assume.

Some of those rules are kept more rigorously than others. But them being there, and being enforced, is essential to our life together. I think that sometimes churches assume that because members are Christians they/we know how to behave well. That isn’t always true. Perhaps it would be helpful for churches to consider coming up with some basic rules or principles of behaviour that members agree to. This would help everyone to feel safe and to be able to engage fully.

  • Quiet Spaces

For some people church can be quite noisy. Certain parts of services, for example hymns of ‘the peace’ can trigger sensory differences and be really difficult/inaccessible. Sometimes church can feel very emotional. For these, and other, reasons, it may be helpful for churches to provide quiet spaces, and to make it clear that it is ok to leave the service and use these spaces. These spaces should be comfortable, quiet, and visually uncluttered. Whilst elders/welcomers should check that anyone leaving the service is ok and doesn’t require assistance, they should then give them space, and not overwhelm them with conversation of questions.

  • Built in Movement and Tactile Resources

Whilst many churches are happy for congregation members to move around, most people still feel that they are expected to sit still in church. It may be helpful for churches to build in movement and tactile resources to worship. One easy example is to provide tables, with activities that are appropriate for adults, not just children, as well as rows of chairs and pews.

  • People giving me more time to think.

It is hard to build in time to think during a traditional church service, although times of silence may help. However, church leaders could help worshippers to spend more time thinking about the service during the week by providing print outs or blogs of sermons, prayers etc, by using social media to pose questions about the topic of the service, and by providing opportunities to talk about the service throughout the week. This is one area where social media and text-and-image-based content is particularly helpful, as responses are not in real time.

  • Attending to diverse learning styles

Not everybody learns well by listening. Personally, I have an auditory processing difficulty. Amongst other effects – such as being unable to hear in a crowded space and unable to take phone-calls – one effect of this difficulty is that I cannot listen to a long chunk of talking. Gradually, after a few minutes, I lose the ability to process what is being said. Back when I was a member of traditional church, I used to record the sermon and listen back to it in bits. For me, shorter periods of listening are preferrable. Churches with a large percentage of elderly members may wish to note that auditory processing difficulties are common in people who have had a stroke, who have experienced acquired hearing loss, or who have dementia. Some sources suggest that some amount of auditory processing difficulty is an inherent part of aging.

As well as auditory processing difficulties, and other elements of neurodiversity, churches should attend to differing learning styles. There are seven learning styles:

  • Visual/spatial: Using pictures, images, video and spatial understanding.
  • Aural/auditory-musical: Using sound and music.
  • Verbal/linguistic: Using words.
  • Physical/Kinaesthetic: Using one’s body, hands, and touch.
  • Logical/mathematical: Using logic, reasoning and systems.
  • Social/interpersonal: Learning in groups or with other people.
  • Solitary/intrapersonal: You prefer to work alone and use self-study.

Some people learn best through one or two of these learning styles, whereas others learn best when taught using a broad mix of styles. I would suggest that traditional church services largely teach in an aural style. It may be helpful to audit services to consider how to attend to a variety of learning styles. We try to do this regularly as part of our content and event planning.

How might your church become more accessible to all people, whatever their neurotype or learning style? Can we help? Get in touch. Churspacious is running some workshops in Summer 2021 to help our team and members, and other church leaders and facilitators, to consider accessibility and social media. All are welcome.

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