At a time when the world has been celebrating the achievements of the Paralympians, there is a perfect way for churches to celebrate the diversity of their own community and extend a welcome to people with disabilities who live within their reach.
Here’s a big idea that is immediately appealing and which originated with the most creative evangelist ever – Jesus himself.
‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’
In Luke 14 we read that though the guests of a big party make their excuses, the Master remains determined that his ‘house will be full’. He tells his servants to go out into the community and bring in disabled and disadvantaged people. The house is filled with those who rarely got invited to any parties!
Many churches are already blessed to have people with a range of disabilities within their congregations, of course. But the Luke 14 Banquet is about:
· reaching out into the community and inviting people to a celebratory event;
· hosting a party that expresses generous hospitality to those not already in the church congregation;
· specifically inviting people who are too often overlooked when we plan our church activities.
Hosting a Luke 14 Banquet reflects Jesus’ heart to include everyone – a key value that his Church should be demonstrating.
It might be new to you, but the Luke 14 Banquet is far from an original idea; many churches across the United States include this as a regular feature of their church calendar.
The Paralympics has set the backdrop, then, for this exceptional opportunity for churches to reach out to people with disabilities in their localities. These can include:
· blind and partially sighted people,
· people who are Deaf or have hearing loss
· wheelchair users and others with mobility challenges,
· people with autism, learning disabilities or mental health issues,
· people with dementia,
· others who find themselves marginalised within our society.
What better way to demonstrate the inclusive love of Jesus Christ than this!
Inviting people to a Luke 14 Banquet means the opportunity to reach out to disabled people and so:
· serving them at a meal which celebrates the unity we can find in the diversity of humanity;
· showing them respect and love;
· affirming the dignity of all people as made in God’s image;
· demonstrating that the Gospel is hope for all;
· showing that their local church has an open door and welcomes them in the name of Jesus, the Saviour of all.
What an opportunity to come together, as people of differing abilities, all on equal terms!
The size and scope of the event can be adapted to your resources. Be sure to model the message by ensuring that your Luke 14 Banquet is really accessible and inclusive.
Here’s a checklist of some things to consider as you are starting to plan:
· reserved parking or a drop-off point
· ‘step-free’ access giving level/ramped entry to a building
· space for wheelchairs
· accessible toilets
· a loop system and, if required, sign language interpreters and/or speech-to-text (captioning)
· straightforward, jargon-free language to meet all levels of ability
· written information, including that on the screen, in large print (font size 18 point) and other alternative formats eg. audio, electronic, Braille. Torch Trust offers help in producing accessible formats (contact email@example.com)
· clear/pictorial signs for people with learning disabilities
· a quiet space available during the main meeting for those who may need time out (appropriate particularly for people on the autistic spectrum)
· good, even, glare- and flicker-free lighting to benefit people with sight loss or autism
· seating (some with arms) near the entrance/exit
· commitment to speak directly to disabled people, assuming nothing and asking them how they are best supported and included
· commentary/audio description for purely visual content to those unable to see the screen/stage
· a ‘can-do’ culture with an inclusive ethos, valuing all and addressing each person’s needs on an individual basis
If your church doesn’t have accessible facilities, all is not lost. Consider what other venue is available locally. Resources, training and support for churches to implement guidelines such as those here can be provided by organisations who are part of the Christian disability network: Churches for All (www.churchesforall.org.uk).
Here are some ideas to get you started in planning your event:
· Draw up a guest list Identify people with disabilities in your community with whom you don’t yet have contact. Some may be known personally to church members. Is there a local club for blind people? Or other disability groups already meeting locally?
Get in touch with sheltered housing or residential homes for people with learning disabilities, and local day centres. What about contacting your local social services department? Or using the internet to identify local groups?
Some churches have disability groups meeting in their premises but have little personal contact with them. So here’s an opportunity to make the link.
· Think about transport for guests This may well be a significant issue, involving a team of volunteer drivers or making use of charity-run local minibuses or accessible taxis.
· Draw together a group to do the catering Many churches already have a small group who organise catering for events, so get them mobilised. Remember to ensure catering is done to appropriate hygiene standards. Depending on your resources, your banquet table can be modest (afternoon tea and cakes/ pizza and fruit juice/ a picnic in the church grounds/ a barbecue) or more elaborate (a three-course candlelit meal with all the trimmings including an after-dinner speaker).
Do remember to have some gluten free and vegetarian food available for anyone who comes with a food allergy or intolerance.
Be as generous as you can – you are expressing the Christian virtue of hospitality.
· Recruit a big team of welcomers and befrienders Some people will come with their carers – but the carers too need welcoming. So you may need as much as a 1:1 ratio of welcomers and befrienders to guests. See how many people will commit to being befrienders and then set the size of the guest list.
If your church isn’t that big, think about working with other churches.
· Be creative in designing a programme Can you invite a Christian experiencing disability to give a short talk? Could the young people of the church put on some musical or creative items?
Think about who among those invited could contribute from their own gifting.
If the guest list is of mainly elderly people, a community singsong often goes down well.
What about a sports-related quiz in teams? Or hiring a big screen? Maybe your church or a neighbouring church has this equipment. You could screen some of the Paralympic events or show DVD interviews with Paralympians (see below for information on such a DVD).
Think about what talent your church has and put it to work. Although enthusiasm is as important as skill, make sure that what is presented is of the highest quality possible – which will underline to your guests that you have put care into giving them something special.
· Give the invitations This is always much better done by personal visit or face-to-face contact. Though time-consuming, this will guarantee a warmer response.
· Consider follow-up Having contacted so many people for this event, how will you be in touch with them again?
Undefeated is a DVD produced by the Baptist Missionary Society (BMS) that includes compelling interviews with Paralympians who are Christians. A subtitled version is included.
Consider giving guests a ‘goodie bag’ to take home. This may need to be personalised to take into account different disabilities and personalities. It could include information about the church, or your current church magazine.
If you can afford it, you could give those for whom it would be appropriate a copy of the Good News Bible produced by Bible Society or an evangelistic booklet.
For the Future
If this works well you may want to make it a regular feature in your church life – maybe for one disabled group or another. Several Churches for All partners support national networks of local church disability-focussed groups. For more information visit www.churchesforall.org.uk
For support, training and more ideas
Churches for All (CfA) is an umbrella grouping of various Christian organisations working with a range of disabilities (churchesforall.org.uk). On the website you can find links to the leading national Christian organisations working with disabled people and access their resources.
The newly-published resource book Enabling Church is highly recommended for any church group wanting to engage with disabled people in the community in meaningful ways. It includes many real and insightful experiences of people with various disabilities as well as discussion starters and group activities. Enabling Church by Gordon Temple with Lin Ball is available from SPCK at £7.99 (on Amazon) and from Torch Trust in braille, audio and giant print.