Focus Service: Sheffield Church is a church for people with learning difficulties and everyone else who enjoys an interactive experience of God. David Middleton, church leader and special needs Minister for the Baptist Union, tells their story.
I did not start out, eight years ago, with the intention of setting up a church for people with learning disabilities. When I started this ministry in 2000 it was, nevertheless, a sign of me finally giving up on the 'normal' church, in the sense of believing it could change and accommodate what it does to be truly accessible to people with comprehension difficulties.
'Normal' church services, sermons, and teaching, are very mentally abstract and idea based, which can mean they are very inaccessible to people with learning disabilities. But this was to be a different thing entirely. This was to be a permanent, ongoing, regular worship service geared around the thinking needs of people with learning disabilities.
In the beginning, I began to train a team of inter-denominational lay church volunteers in the rudiments of how learning disabled people think and reason. At first we didn’t know if anyone would respond to our adverts and actually turn up! Early days were precarious and one Sunday evening our fears were realized when no one turned up. We started with the intention of providing something extra for people's pre-existing church attendance elsewhere in the morning. But from the beginning everybody coming through the door was totally unchurched: they didn’t go anywhere else. So it was logical after a number of years for our members to say that this was their church, and to make that a concrete reality.
So in early 2004 we became an official church with an ordained minister: a leadership team which included learning disabled members, regular church meetings and voting learning disabled church members. All this was held together by a comprehensive written constitution and governing document. Keith Blinston, a Church Army evangelist, is our assistant minister.
Little about our church is conventional. The sermon monologue has been removed and replaced with interactive drama and participation at every level of the service, both in teaching and in application drama scenarios. Much of conventional church order has also been replaced. In fact, convention and behavioral norms and niceties are not our strong points. We are a reactive, spontaneous, flexible, passionate, surprising, noisy, interruptive and somewhat chaotic church service. But it works!
We understand we might be the only official church for people with learning disabled in the UK. What we want to be is very much 'long term' and still here in five, ten, fifteen years time. God willing we will.