A pattern for church life (Edward Kerr)

Edward and Marilyn KerrEdward Kerr explores a pattern for church life.

Most cannot read. Many cannot sing. Some cannot move. Some cannot speak. Some cannot see.

All have fun, are involved and respond. All worship. All watch. Some wave flags. Some wander around.

Some try to sing. Some make strange noises. Some are silent, apparently passive. Some behaviour and contributions are "inappropriate" as labels go. Our expectancy is high; our expectations low.

We run a church that predominantly focuses on the needs of people with a learning disability, their carers and friends.

I wonder what the 'normal' church could learn from our community. If a mumbled, disjointed, semi-incoherent prayer is deemed to be acceptable for our folk, why can it not be acceptable in other churches? Why do we place expectations on mainstream church attendees to conform to a set of unwritten and sometimes unattainable behavioural guidelines?

If the use of straightforward language is acceptable in our setting, why do we often move to the opposite extreme in other settings? If it is acceptable to have low expectations but high expectancy with our folk, is it not acceptable for mainstream churches? If it is acceptable to have the very low level of pressure with our folk, is it not acceptable for others? If our worship, which seems so chaotic, is acceptable, why is worship sometimes so formal and non-involved?

It is too easy to say that it is acceptable for our folk, as they are, well – you know – because they're not the same as us.  But if our approach is acceptable to God, then it has to be acceptable to God for everyone. I am not advocating a "dumbing down", but a widening of the options.

We have little expectation of the 'right' way to worship, to pray, or to behave. There is little self-consciousness; apparently little competition. Each person is able to participate at their level without fear of censure. We believe that this could be a pattern for church life, rather than an oddity.

Fenland Community Church

Fenland Community Church - groupWhen Edward and Marilyn Kerr, with the support of Plumbline Ministries, planted Fenland Community Church in their Cambridgeshire town, they had no idea who they would meet.

Their new congregation of a small number of people who had moved from another church held an outreach week on a bus in the town centre. Among those who came were two women with learning disabilities in their thirties.

Drawn to this church community, the women also began attending a long-standing youth group led by the Kerrs. However, it was clear that this was not the best place for them.

We began to ask, what can we do for them?

Edward says.

At around the same time, two years into the plant, members began to leave. As the church collapsed, the number of learning disabled people showing an interest increased. They began meeting with the Kerrs, with the permission of their carers and residential home managers.

Up to 35 people, including carers, now meet three Sundays a month in a local scout hall, while the Kerrs open their home once a month for a prayer meeting. In addition, they take monthly meetings in six residential care homes where either a proportion or all of the residents take part, depending on the size of the home.

'Are we meeting their needs? If not, how can we?'

All this is very different from the Kerrs' original vision of evangelising their local community through events and a house church gathering.

We had to give way on a Fenland wide church with 'normal' people,

Edward says.

At first it was a struggle because we were just managing these people, not knowing what to do. We have had support from Causeway Prospects, and have adapted some of their material for our groups. However, much of our material for Sundays is 'home-grown'. It was about five years in that I realised, okay God, this is right, and we're not looking for 'normal' people now.

In fact, Edward and Marilyn, despite their struggle, have never said 'no' to the way Fenland Community Church has developed, their main concern being 'how'.

Even now we're still asking those questions,

Edward says.

Are we meeting their needs? If not, how can we? Within obvious limits no idea is excluded!

He tells the story of one man who has attended Fenland Community Church since its early days in 1996.

'Within obvious limits no idea is excluded!'

By nature he's quite diffident,

Edward says,

but he has blossomed over the years. He's now able to take responsibility for handing out percussion instruments and the flags we use in worship. He often volunteers to pray for people or to start the service. Every now and then he is prophetic, though sometimes he's a bit mumbly and we have to ask him to say it again!

Another young man with Downs Syndrome, who rarely talks and can sign only badly, is

wonderfully sensitive with flags, waving them over the congregation in a way that's very prophetic and moving.

What does the future hold? The Kerrs are fully committed to exploring ways of sharing Jesus with people with a learning disability, involving them in church life, using whatever works rather than whatever is traditional.