Reviewer Tracey Lehman attends Columbus (Ohio) Mennonite Church, where she serves as congregational disabilities advocate. Newman considers this a freeing question because, rather than being pressured to “save” people, we are instead called to set up environments where each person is encouraged to learn, participate and grow.
Newman’s process begins with the most important task—getting to know the individual. Throughout the book, Newman encourages her readers to generate ideas and plans that reflect what they know about the individual.
One chapter of the book is devoted to explaining in detail a form that churches can use to create an individualized portrait of each person. The remainder of the book presents ideas, examples and methods for including those with disabilities.
Newman’s vocation as a special educator is evident in her writing style. She presents the information in a clear and logical manner, avoids extraneous material, and uses descriptive and complete headings in her table of contents. She includes practical ideas within each chapter, personal stories, and thoughts on why it is so important to make churches inclusive. She discusses this inclusivity within the framework of two main ideas: puzzle pieces and Vertical Habits.
The book focuses on the idea that each person is a combination of strengths and weaknesses. Newman uses the metaphor of green and pink puzzle pieces. Each piece, or person, is half-green and half-pink. The green represents strengths and gifts, and the pink represents weaknesses and struggles. She notes that God does not make pieces that are all one color. 1 Corinthians 12 reminds us that every part of the body is critical, and we must be careful not to assume that some parts are weaker than others.
The puzzle piece and the importance of seeking the green in each piece are integral to Newman’s message. A puzzle-piece perspective can change our attitudes and encourage us to minister with people with disabilities rather than to simply minister to them.
The last half of Newman’s book examines the Vertical Habits, a project developed within the network of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. It was conceived as a way for new believers to understand why we do what we do in worship. Human relationships are viewed as horizontal, and a relationship with God is regarded as vertical. Newman’s role in the project was to consider how Vertical Habits might impact the life of a person with a disability. She concluded that the habits provide simplicity, repetition, different sensory approaches, and inclusivity as they open doors to inclusive worship opportunities.
The Vertical Habits are Praise, Confession, Lament, Illumination, Petition, Gratitude, Service, and Blessing. Newman looks at each habit, gives it a simpler name, and suggests ways in which the habit can be taught and practiced in contexts of church, school, small groups and individually. Each chapter includes personal stories and an idea bank. She offers practical tools and ideas and encourages the reader to adapt her ideas and be creative.
For example, in describing Habit 4, “I’m Listening (Illumination),” Newman writes that the opportunity for each person to truly listen to God can often depend on the mode of presentation. She uses the example of Lynnae, who had autism. Lynnae wanted to forgive someone and the pastor wasn’t sure how to pray with her. Lynnae was a visual learner, so they gave Lynnae a sticky note with the person’s name on it. Lynnae prayed with the pastor, then carried the note to put on the cross in the sanctuary. It became Lynnae’s visual reminder each week that she had taken her problem to Jesus.
Newman’s idea bank for “I’m Listening” suggests many possible ways to help people hear and understand information:
- Swing a sword while talking about the sword of the Spirit
- Write names on hats and wear them while talking about prophets, priests and kings
- Add a drama or take-home piece to the service
- Boil down the message to one main point and display it during the talk
- Use pictures and visuals
- Develop simple pencil-and-paper activities to go with the message
- Provide a mentor to sit with someone and whisper simplified versions of the message
- Teach the congregation to sign “I’m listening” and have them sign this at key points in the service
- If needed, provide an alternate curriculum for the person during a portion of the service.
Newman concludes her book by reminding us, “any good plan has two parts.” While it is important to create a plan for the individual, we also need a plan for the “others.” Peers of a child with a disability can be educated on the child’s “puzzle piece.” Leaders and volunteers can be trained with various resources. They may meet and brainstorm about what is working and possible solutions. And an entire congregation may be enlightened and equipped with information it needs to include a person with disabilities.
Accessible Gospel, Inclusive Worship is worth the investment. It is full of ideas and encouragement for churches that are intent on inclusion. The authors are experienced in finding ways to be inclusive. One meaningful example of a multi-sensory activity is communion. Newman notes that all of the senses are engaged during the breaking of the bread. I would add that we must be careful to make sure everyone can participate in the group experience.
Although the author might have included more ideas and appendices, Newman is clear that readers should use her book as a starting point for generating their own ideas and strategies for the individuals in their churches. The book ends with a sweet and sincere Final Prayer for the Readers. Newman and Grit ask us not to trust in Barbara and Betty, but to look to God for wisdom, direction and strength.
Purchase from the publisher.