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22 February 2013

A joyful noise

A joyful noise

A traditional Sunday service is not for everyone, including those with learning difficulties, writes Katie Love. Doing something different helps many meet God in unexpected ways. 

Is Church the only way of expressing a person's faith? Many Christians find comfort in the structure of a church service: they know what to expect, enjoy the opportunity to meet with God, to sing, learn and meet with friends over a cup of tea and a biscuit.  

But what if you don't enjoy, or fit into a church structure? Does this restrict you from being able to be a Christian?

There are those who find sitting silently for 30-45 minutes (depending on the enthusiasm of your preacher) simply impossible. There are those who find following along with hymns or new songs difficult. There are those who find Bible stories difficult to process or identify with.

Maybe all of churchgoers would find themselves agreeing with one or more of these statements at some point. Who said that worship had to be in tune? That prayer has to be silent? That sitting and listening to a speaker was the best way to learn? I'm not saying that this is wrong - more an alternative should be available for those who cannot access the mainstream style, or who fancy making an occasional change to the routine.  

This is what lay behind the Open Praise Project, a small project set up in Brighton in 2010. Inspired by time at L'Arche Kent and Greenbelt Festival, the Open Praise Project aims to make the church experience more accessible.  

Aimed at people with learning disabilities, but open to everyone, the Open Praise Project runs a monthly group at Holland Road Baptist Church. We meet at the centre of the church space, where Sunday services take place, as we believe that God delights in our worship just as much as he does on a regular Sunday.

Our aim is to make a joyful noise, and inform those with learning disabilities about Christianity in a way that they can both understand and engage with.  

Our sessions involve all of the 'usual' things that you would expect from church: there is singing (of sorts) praying (of sorts) and learning of the Bible, all through sensory, creative and active ways. We bring bubbles, tambourines, giant sized Bible stories and flapjacks and spend time together in God's house, sharing and growing together.  

The best thing about this fellowship is that those who come as volunteers quickly realise that the session is as appropriate for them as it would be for anybody else. The release of one's inhibitions through activities such as the funky chicken (it takes some explaining) allow you to leave your 'worldy' self and take a step towards learning and thinking about God in a simpler way, childlike almost. 'Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven' (Matthew 18:3).  

There are fantastic groups who demonstrate this ethos, such as L'arche, Prospects and Messy Church to name but a few. But this style of worship doesn't have to be a sideline to the mainstream Christian service, it can be a key part of it.

Imagine your Sunday morning service pausing for a few moments to do a Mexican wave. Think of the symbolism, the wave, pouring over everybody, like the Holy Spirit filling the room. Awesome.  

My point is that my idea of God is one who loves and wants to connect with everybody, of any ability, regardless of whether they know all the lyrics to 'Jerusalem', and it would be great to see more examples of accepting, and involving that in the core of church life.

Katie Love has worked in social care and the charity sector for over 10 years, including time at L'Arche Kent, a Christian charity for people with learning disabilities. She now works for a Brighton charity as a project manager focusing on promoting choice and control for disabled people. She set up the Open Praise project in 2010, has written and published three Open Praise Project resource books.

This article first appeared on The Baptist Times website on 19 February 2013.