Rows of pews in a church. Text over the top: How can we make churches more inclusive spaces? Light in Grey Places

How can we make churches more inclusive spaces

OK, so I was having a Twitter conversation and was asked about practical examples to make churches more inclusive. I started writing. This list isn’t exhaustive, but this is what I’d say off the top of my head.

The way I see church is like a long, long banqueting table. It has many dishes. Each person will find something there that doesn’t work for them – maybe it’s gluten, lactose, refined sugar, or maybe it’s texture, consistency, taste – but everyone will find something that they can enjoy too.

That’s the dream anyway.

But what if there aren’t enough cooks? Or there isn’t the budget? Or the expertise? What do we do? How do we make church more inclusive for those with particular needs?

Signal your intentions

Advertise what you do have to offer and highlight what’s particular about each offering.

  • Sunday morning worship with a crèche
  • Mid-week café meetings to talk about anything and everything
  • Evening Bible studies and quiet reflection
  • Stretching small groups with no-judgement, Chatham House rules

Signal your willingness to help people overcome barriers. “If you want to come but need a lift, just ask X.” Could people have the option of dialling in to the Bible study if they need to be at home? Or at least being sent the notes afterwards? Are you planning to read through a book as a group – if so, have you at least mentioned the possibility of offering access to an audio book version for those who don’t feel confident reading?

Even if these are offers of help that aren’t needed or aren’t accepted, the very fact that you are voicing inclusive possibilities sends its own message about what’s important to you. It means that when you put up signs saying “Are we missing a space?” people believe you’d actually be willing to listen.

Nothing changes without that being there first.

Show your attitude first, your constraints second

It often takes a lot for someone to raise their voice. So, when they do – listen to them. Supposing they say the sound system was too loud. Don’t make your first response “Oh, but it’s old and difficult to work” or “Oh, but the people who work on the sound are hard-pressed to be on the rota anyway” or “Oh but the speaker today just has a loud voice”. Don’t give them that; honestly defensiveness is just the worst thing to give.

Instead ask questions.

“OK, I’m sorry – is it always like this? How bad was it? Was it too loud throughout all the service? Do you have this problem in other spaces? How is it handled there?”

Once you’ve been through that, then have the “Well, it’s difficult because…” statement, but follow them up with “Would it make a difference if…?”

If people voice their desire to feel included and are met with defensiveness, then they feel dismissed and alienated. But if they feel heard, valued and not blamed for their circumstances, then if you actually cannot meet their need then they’re far less likely to get angry. And maybe what you have to offer just won’t cut it – so maybe refer them to a different space.

Or suggest to them that maybe you’d like space for what they need to be in that church – but they would need to be the ones to build it. Meanwhile you’d provide the structural and organisation support to help them make it happen.

And bear in mind that people will share their risk-free questions before they share their personal ones. How you react to “Did you see there’s going to be a female Dr Who?” will influence their willingness to say “I’d love to hear more about women in the Bible” or “I’d like it if we could have more conversations about the needs of women suffering from domestic violence.”

Don’t try this alone

It’s not about any one person knowing everything; it’s about working as a team where different people have different areas of specialist knowledge. Invite them to comment on proposals, ideas and decisions – again, give them avenues of influence.

So maybe have that discussion group on domestic violence; maybe have it co-led between one person who’s a subject matter expert and another who’s got good chairing skills.

People who are bridges between different kinds of people enjoy being bridges. And when they act as bridges, they often empower other people to be bridges themselves. This is how it’s meant to work.

Meanwhile, if you can’t be a bridge, be a signpost. Be aware of what other churches are offering and don’t be afraid to refer people on. If people hear “We can’t help you, but we recognise this is important to you and we know somewhere else that might” then they feel helped. If they hear “We don’t want to hear about how you need to be helped because we’re so bogged down with our own problems” then it’s a completely different experience.

Watch your language

If you want to speak/preach on a particular topic, don’t speculate about how you talk about it, research.

So, for example, you want to preach about mental health. Great. But then watch for negativity; don’t refer to people as making “failed attempts at suicide”, rather talk about someone “trying to take their own life.” Watch that you put people first; don’t talk about “depressed people” but rather “people with depression”. This makes a difference. (I got this from this Robert Vore’s blog post 4 Language Changes to Make Your Church More Mental Health Friendly.)

Even simple things like inviting people to stand “as they are able” makes a difference.

Similarly, when you present a point ask yourself whether you are following stereotypes. Are you saying “all people” when you mean “some people”. Are you saying “we always…” when you mean “we often…” or “we may…” or even “I sometimes…”. Do you centre your perspective in your discussions? In the title of this post, I deliberately “minorities” in quote marks – because the people I’m referring to are only minorities when the frame of reference is centred somewhere else.

Make allowances for the possibility that what is very commonplace for you is utterly alien for someone else.

Make allowances for the possibility that there’s someone in the congregation who’s world is crashing down around them and they can’t bear to say.

Acknowledge suffering.

Acknowledge incompleteness.

Don’t offer simple neat answers.

Focus on hope, not sin. Acknowledge sin, but worship Christ. Look forward. Look up.

Sorry if I’m getting a bit abstract here, I just hear examples of ‘good teaching’ from ‘prominent Christians’ that I think would be utterly oppressive and exclusionary to someone going through a hard time. We’ve got to stop doing that.

Inclusion will never start without acknowledgement of suffering.

Jesus identifies with all of us because he identifies with our suffering. To me, it feels like the church forgets this too often.

Acknowledge that everyone’s suffering will be different. We don’t need to make comparisons; we don’t need to say “I know how you feel”. (Actually it’s rarely helpful to say that.)

Meanwhile if people are having disagreements then focus on the facts. It’s one thing to say, “Mrs X asked for the second time now that we don’t use lilies in the church because they aggravate her allergies.” It’s another to say, “Mrs X was whining about the flowers again.” Maybe when Mrs X lodged she was being burdensome and moaning. Maybe she was angry and complaining about the bats in the roof and the ridiculous font that’s been in the church for the last two hundred years. Doesn’t matter. Just focus on the relevant facts. Relay them without judgement and without implicit judgement in the words and phrases you use.

This is simple but powerful stuff.

Demonstrate targeted valuing appreciation

OK, so maybe you’ve got people who are body-conscious in the congregation – people who see themselves as overweight, underweight, trans. Include them by demonstrating appreciation of how they choose to present themselves. So, don’t say “Oh you’re looking great” or “I love your makeup” or “I really like your hair.” Rather, say “What a lovely bright colour you chose to wear today” or “What an intricate way you chose to do your hair today” or “What a stylish choice of handbag.”

I grant you, these are examples more gendered towards women (still – complimenting a man on his choice of tie can work well too), but the point here is that by affirming their choices you’re affirming their self-expression and autonomy. This can be much more powerful (and much less weird and threatening) than complimenting them directly on their beauty.

What this can also do – and this is another really important principle – is affirm the action a person takes, rather than the result. There’s another blog post that goes into this principle in more detail called Praise she can’t deny. In it the author says:

No evaluation. No comparing. No good, better, or best. Just straight up description of what stood out to you.

And the thing about doing this is that when you demonstrate positive appreciation in your everyday language, you demonstrate that you value people. When you demonstrate that you value someone, they’re more likely to approach you and/or be honest with you.

And work with you.

But in particular if you’re working with someone who is self-conscious about their appearance, and you demonstrate you value their presentation of themselves (in an authentic, no-strings, not-trying-to-hit-on-you, non-patronising kind of way), then you send the message that you can look at them and see positive things. This is a powerful means of inclusion.

And if you get it wrong and come over as condescending or weird, just apologise and let it go.

Be willing to take risks

You won’t get it perfect every time, but you often learn by trying.

Have a period where you try – maybe once a month, or for a selection of your services – having services with:

  • fewer hymns but more spaces for listening to music or reflection; or
  • reflections on art or visual stimuli;
  • no sermon;
  • themed content;
  • guest speakers;
  • spaces for ‘this time tomorrow’ interviews with people in the congregation.

Get feedback on them. Think about whether you continue or change what you’re doing. Offer avenues of influence for people, and spaces for both formal and informal discussion.

Depending on which particular groups you’re trying particularly to cater for, different things will work in different ways. Don’t try to do everything, just focus on education and knowledge about who is already in the periphery of your congregation and how you could particularly cater to them.

In other words, if you can’t cater for autistic people in general, cater for the one or two you know want to be there. You’ll learn in the process and as the peripheries become more integrated, your learning and sphere of influence will expand.

Don’t criticise, question and learn

Appreciate that some things might need to be said to someone, but when you say them, that person may be mortified or embarrassed.

So, someone stands up and tells a story about an old woman and calls the old woman a ‘he’. Don’t say, “You told the story wrong.” Say, “Did you mean to call the old woman a ‘he’? It confused me a bit whilst I was listening.”

And when you hear the response, “Oh did I? In my mother-tongue the ‘he’ and the ‘she’ are the same,” then don’t leave it at that – ask more about their language. Make it a good thing. Understand them better. Don’t leave it at “You spoke English incorrectly and now you’ll know for next time.” That centres you. Make it instead “Wow, aren’t languages different? Now I know something about your language that I didn’t know before!” That centres the other person. It is also kinder.

In other words, when you have a ‘minority’ person taking on a position, show that they are valued in their own right and full identity not just in respect of the ways in which they resemble the incumbent majority.

Make considered, targeted invitations with offers of support

So you need people to take up the positions of responsibility and leadership?

Offer shadowing.

Pray for people.

Pray with people.

Think about how you split up the church’s responsibilities – maybe the person who maintains the building doesn’t need to be responsible for the tech in the building. Or maybe the person who does the on-the-ground pottering around doesn’t need to be the person carrying the risk decisions or overall responsibility. Or maybe you’ve just got to make a conscious decision that some things can’t be addressed for a certain period of time.

Think about how you conduct your communications and meetings – are people put off because they wouldn’t be able to make them? Can they be done at different times? How much do you actually speak face to face with people and how much do you rely on email? In my experience conversations are invaluable for getting a really good feel for what is happening. It’s so often the case that a throwaway remark shows you something you hadn’t realised and actually need to follow up on. You don’t get that via email.

Meanwhile, the more you take somebody who’s shaky on their feet and empower them, the more they are able to stand in their own strength. Invite them to try. Put a timeframe on that. Don’t make them feel like they’re getting sucked in with no way out.

Concluding thoughts

This is more a brain dump than anything else, so it’s not very structured. I’ve tried to think about ethnicity, age, gender, disability. Yes, there are more strands than this.

I think the principle underlying much of this is demonstrating a posture of openness first and foremost. Without that, everyone shuts down, goes quiet and walks away. And nothing changes.

Meanwhile, I think it’s important that there is worship offered that caters for those who aren’t word-oriented, or aren’t musically literate; it also needs to cater for those who have sensory impairment or are prone sensory overload.

A church that wants to be relevant has to be one that is prepared to talk about difficult issues, but refrains from making sweeping statements or speculating on matters that they haven’t studied. It is not the job of any one person to do this.

I also think it’s important not to get bitter over difficulties. If we’re over-tired, maybe we should just let some things go and focus on doing less better. With a good proportion of that spent on the things we really love doing and are here for. We don’t need to be defensive about that. Meanwhile people might come and try and dump their aggravations and angers on us; we don’t need to carry those but we do need to have awareness of the context they came from. And no, that’s not asking too much.

Then we just need to see where we are at and keep taking steps forward.

Recently I heard someone say “Never over-estimate what you can do in the short term. Never under-estimate what God can do in the long term.”

Small steps. In the right direction. With your ears open to the Holy Spirit and your eyes on the path.

(And a good wedge of cheese to share with the pilgrims with you.)

What do you think? Are these examples specific enough? Do they give you ideas? How would you make church more inclusive?

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