Universal Design in Worship

At a Church Near You . . .

Lisa, overflowing with energy and excitement greets a visiting couple. “It’s so good to have you here today. I’m on the worship planning committee and we have so many special portions to our service this morning. While this will be a surprise to the congregation, we asked the brass ensemble to join the opening song, but they are in the balcony so it will be an unexpected delight for all. We also get to celebrate the Lord’s Supper together. This is a great day for you to be part of our community.”

Lisa’s attention moves from the visiting couple to scan the gathering congregation as she thinks to herself:

“Oh, look! There’s Justin. He’s had trouble with his knee and now has a wheelchair. How I miss his tenor voice in our choir. Too bad he can’t get up on the stage with that wheelchair. Hopefully he will heal up quickly so he can sing again. I’m just so glad he could be here today.

“And of course Ruth is in her normal row. Ruth has been here so many years. She used to hold my babies in the nursery. I would pick them up and they would smell like her perfume. I adore that smell—it comes with so many memories.

“Glad to see Megan. She looks a bit pale this morning. She’s had chemotherapy for the past three weeks and it’s starting to impact her. I’m glad she’s feeling well enough to come.

“Uh oh! JJ is standing by the door rocking back and forth. That is typically not a good sign! JJ has autism. While I don’t know a lot about JJ, I do know that on the days he starts rocking, his family usually doesn’t get to stay very long in the worship service.

“And there’s the Wilson family. Whenever we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, they simply don’t participate. I’m confused by that and wonder what might be going on in their family. I’m sure the pastors know and are following up with them.

“Ah, another visitor. It’s good to have visitors here during the Christmas season. He seems to be checking something on his smartphone; I hope he wraps up soon so he doesn’t miss out on our service. I always wonder how visitors find us. After all, we don’t have a very good website. I think mostly we list our address and phone number. But we have a plan about that. We’ve decided to stop printing the order of worship since so few people use them and use the money we save from that for improving the website.

“I better get a seat so I can experience the shock and awe of that brass ensemble during the first song.”

What would it look like if churches considered universal design as we planned our worship times together? Can we plan expecting persons of varied abilities and disabilities to be part of the conversation with God?

Additional Perspectives

While we’ve just had a tour of the congregation from Lisa’s perspective, let’s consider the perspective of the people themselves.

First there is Justin, who unexpectedly finds himself in a wheelchair. He wishes he could sing with the choir. After all, he has an injured knee, not an injured voice. But the stage isn’t accessible to his wheelchair. And the second blow came when the worship leader started the service by saying “Please stand. . . . ” He feels left out.

Ruth is unaware that the chemotherapy Megan is experiencing has made her particularly sensitive to smells. In fact, Megan gets a whiff of Ruth’s perfume from several rows away and runs to the door with her mouth and nose covered, hoping to get to the restroom in time.

If JJ could verbalize, he would explain that he is waiting by the door for an order of worship. He doesn’t know the church has decided to stop printing them. He usually takes a pencil and checks off each item like a “to do” list. It gives him a sense of calm to see what is going to happen. Once his parents get him seated, however, it’s clear that the unexpected noise of the brass ensemble is causing him great pain as he covers his ears and screams far louder than the ensemble can play. His family is in hot pursuit as he runs out; another Sunday they cannot join with the community.

The Lord’s Supper will be served by dipping a portion of bread into the cup. The Wilsons stay seated as there is no gluten-free option, and they will get very ill if they partake today.

The visitor, the one who tends to be anxious in new situations, did not stay. He walks in and it is all so new. He quickly looked at the church’s website on his phone, hoping for some sort of FAQ list or video tour of the church. Finding nothing, his anxiety increases and he goes home, which feels like a much safer place on a Sunday morning.

This Congregation and Universal Design for Worship

This worship service could be completely different if Lisa and others in this church understood more about universal design for worship. The term universal design is known in the architecture world. Architects design buildings to function for people with varied abilities. There are elevators, Braille on the walls, accessible parking and building features, and an understanding of the variety of individuals who will use that space. But universal design in worship goes beyond the physical aspects of the building.

What would it look like if churches considered universal design as we planned our worship times together? Can we plan expecting persons of varied abilities and disabilities to be part of the conversation with God? How might Lisa’s congregation benefit from some design changes? How might those changes make room for more people to join the worshiping community?

Justin could have participated if the stage had a ramp and if the worship leader had said, “Please rise in body or in spirit” as the service started. Or maybe the choir could sing from an accessible area for the weeks Justin is in a wheelchair.

Megan and others with fragrance allergies would have benefited from a designated fragrance-free area in the worship center.

JJ and his family would benefit from having a defined process of support to include him in a worship setting. Having an order of worship and turning unexpected noise into “expected” noise would have made a huge difference for all.

The Wilsons simply needed a gluten-free choice of communion elements.

And the visitor might have stayed if there were more information about the church available online. Face it, just like looking up a hotel before arriving, people often need to know what to expect when first visiting a church.

Universal Design for Worship and YOUR congregation

As you plan services this Advent season and each week, how can you create a sense of belonging in worship for people of varied abilities and needs? Some will need supports and options for a lifetime, and others will only temporarily need these options.

Enjoy this opportunity to practice what God’s Word suggests in Philippians 2:3-4: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”

Universal Design Resources

  1. Consider watching this presentation on universal design for worship (vimeo.com/164747908) with your worship planning team.
  2. Three additional resources include these articles from CLC Network that describe strategies for families and congregations during the Christmas season and beyond:
  3. Consider using this inclusive adult Bible study from Friendship Ministries www.togethersmallgroups.org. This is a one- or two-session study focused on Christmas, built using principles of universal design and has links you can plant within your worship service.

Barbara J. Newman was a church and school consultant for CLC Network, program affiliate of CICW, author of several books (Accessible Gospel, Inclusive Worship; Nuts and Bolts of Christian Education; Autism and Your Church; and others) and a frequent national speaker at educational conferences and churches. In addition to writing and speaking, Barb enjoyed working in her classroom at Zeeland Christian School in Michigan. Barb passed away in 2020. 

Reformed Worship 121 © September 2016 Worship Ministries of the Christian Reformed Church. Used by permission.