Book Review: Accessible Gospel, Inclusive Worship

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In all of her speaking and writing, Barbara Newman’s deep respect for people and her joy in the spiritual gifts that God gives to each individual shine through. For example, instead of just saying, “People with disabilities have gifts too,” Accessible Gospel, Inclusive Worship tells many stories of people with disabilities exercising their giftedness. In one especially poignant story, she describes an interaction she had with her friend Jonathan, who has Down syndrome. She arrived at church one Sunday feeling exhausted, but she had to be “on” for her part in the worship service. No one noticed her weariness except Jonathan who said to her, “Mrs. B., you look sad today. I will pray for you.” She comments, “God used [Jonathan’s] words and presence in my life to heal my hectic and broken insides on that day.” (p. 57)

Newman’s book can be divided into three basic parts: 1) a brief articulation of the biblical basis of both spiritual formation and of inclusion of people with disabilities in the body of Christ, 2) tools for getting to know the individual with disabilities one seeks to nurture, and 3) eight “vertical habits” one can teach to foster engagement with God and with his people. 

Biblical basis: In the section on Biblical roots of her book, she highlights Scripture passages that articulate the inclusion of every member of Christ’s body and the gifts each offers to the life of the church. 

Ministering to the Individual: To assist readers in teaching most effectively, she lists a number of diagnostic questions such as “How does the individual get information out? Does the individual have sensory sensitivities?  What movements can the person do?” Bringing home her point that every person has been gifted by God to serve the body, Newman gives special attention to the question, “What can the person do?”, by saying that this is the “right question.” The reader can assume that the wrong question would be, “What is the person unable to do?” 

Vertical Habits: With the groundwork laid for understanding the individual learner, Newman describes eight “vertical habits,” or aspects of worship rooted in church tradition and articulated for a modern audience by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. For example, praise is “Love you;” confession is “I’m sorry;” and lament is “Why?” Drawing on over two decades of experience as a special educator in a Christian School, Newman tells an illustrative story or two then provides an “Idea Bank” of five, ten, or 15 specific ways to help students put the habit into practice. 

The book includes a number of appendices which add more ideas to the bank such as worksheets for the vertical habits and a web addresses to find more resources. Another appendix, her “Substitution Guide,” is priceless for any teacher/youth leader seeking to accommodate a student with special needs. For example, for a student who finds it challenging to listen, among her ideas she suggests, “Provide as many visuals as possible. Add signs and gestures to your presentation. Give directions only one at a time.” 

In Accessible Gospel, Inclusive Worship, Barbara Newman opens with this question: “How can we set up an environment where persons with disabilities can connect with the gospel message and grow in relationship with Jesus Christ?” (p. 3) With the use of the phrase “persons with disabilities,” Newman implies that she is going to cover faith nurture for people of all ages living with every imaginable disability, which could include a boy with autism, a woman with a traumatic brain injury, a veteran who lost both legs in battle and lives with post-traumatic stress disorder, and an old saint who has lost most of her memories to dementia. In fact, Newman’s focus is much narrower, with children and youth with intellectual and developmental disabilities at the center of her attention. I don’t intend this observation to criticize what Newman writes, but to note that her opening question implies a much broader perspective than her book addresses. 

The book is brief and to the point, which will work well for children and youth volunteers who are scrambling each week to prepare for the next session with their students. I wish, however, she had added a few more paragraphs to her opening section on biblical perspective. Her emphasis on the individual misses an important biblical point. Churches must create an environment that will accommodate people with disabilities, and not just respond to the individuals already present among them. In the words of Certified Rehabilitation Counselor, Dr. John Frank, “When we encompass a greater range of human variation, not only with acts of charity [focused on the individual], but also with enlarging our understanding of whom we can accommodate in our buildings and communications, we can begin to preach the gospel to all people!” 

Newman weaves practical advice with poignant stories that illustrate both loving inclusion and painful exclusion of children and youth with disabilities in church life. Anyone involved in church education with involves children or youth will find Accessible Gospel, Inclusive Worship an excellent resource. 

Barbara J. Newman with contributions by Betty Grit, Accessible Gospel, Inclusive Worship (Wyoming, Michigan: CLC Network, 2014) is available from CLC Network for only $10 USD.

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