Literacy in Worship

Literacy in church and worship is perhaps something that worship planners may over look or consider on a regular basis. We live in a world surrounded by texts in print and online, on our phones, on our roads and in our everyday life and in church, we often depend on service bulletins, hymnals, overhead projectors and even the Scriptures themselves. Reading and writing is still a privilege, sadly, in most of the world.

But what if there are some among us who cannot read, or, have a reduced ability to read?

Literacy is not just about the ability to be able to read (or not).  Literacy is the ability to see and interpret signs, in math, language and symbols. Considering literacy could extend to:
-children who are learning to read, or have difficulty reading
-visually impaired persons that may not be able to see clearly
-persons learning another language
-persons with varying abilities of learning
-persons who have had brain injuries (i.e. Post Trauma Vision Syndrome)
-persons who can read but not at the pace of others
Why is this important?

I once had a very small congregation in a rural area. A lot of my congregants were rural folks with rural jobs. A lot of these folks were older and some of them (my grandmother included) had to leave school at an early age to help support the family. My own grandmother had to leave school in Grade 2 to help care of her family. Could she read? Yes, and she used to write me letters. She used to send me recipes. But she never once read me a bed time story or something out of the news paper because she was embarrassed about her reading abilities. Did she read? Oh yes and she loved Reader’s Digest. She had excellent spelling and grammar, but the only reading training she got was until she was 7 years old.

Some of my congregants were in the same position. And I found out in a very difficult way.
I used to have everything carefully laid out in a service bulletin, complete with responsive prayers in bold type. One Sunday, when we had a lot of people in the service, I noticed that the responses were a bit quiet. The next few Sundays were the same. And then I out right asked people why there were so many and yet it sounded so quiet. I was met with silence.
The next Sunday an older man came up to me and said, “Don’t say anything, but some of us here can’t read very well. That’s why if we are asked to be a reader we always say no. We can follow along in the bulletin but we can’t read fast enough to respond. A lot of us have been on the water or the field most of our life and we dropped out of school. Some of us know and some of us don’t. And that’s all I am saying.”  I thought that was a very courageous thing for that man to do and I was humbled.
Am I saying that rural folks are illiterate? NO. What I am saying that is that we take for granted our abilities and if we want to truly be inclusive, it takes more than a hearty welcome and offering hospitality.
If there are folks in the congregation that have varying levels of literacy, likely, nothing will be said because there is often a sense of shame associated with not being able to read at a level that others can.
How to make worship more accessible and comfortable
Reduce the amount of written material. Plain and simple. Having heads in worship bulletins also prevents folks from seeing the gestures being made (such as Orans Prayer Position) or other symbols used in worship to convey meaning.
Try to have one thing,the same thing, in the same place every week, something that is easy to remember. For instance, having the same prayer over the offerings every week (and maybe changed every six months) is helpful.
Have at least one “oldie but goodie” hymn every week. Those oldie but goodies are often referred to as the “Blood Hymns” and have really fallen out of favour in most churches,  but having an older familiar hymn where folks know the lyrics off by heart will make people feel at ease.
Underline, bold, italics and other features can be your friend. Put the ‘legend’ at the top of the bulletin but also explain it before worship. “The hymns are all underlined, the congregational responses are in dark letters and prayers are in slanted print.” Does this make your worship bulletin look like a mishmash of text? Yes, but to someone who is interpreting the clues as to what is going on, it could be helpful.
Use numbers before the section. This is a trick my mentor taught me that is helpful to children. He would often say, “The prayer of confession is number 3.” Children can often follow numbers or a carer can point to 3 on the worship bulletin so the child can see what is happening. This is also helpful for those who have never been to church before and may feel lost.
Include something easy and memorable each week.  People with literacy issues often have fantastic memories. It can also help folks feel at ease. Maybe the opening prayer or the closing prayer is always the same. Find something that works for you all.
Spacing. For folks with Post Traumatic Vision Syndrome, reduced vision or brain injuries, text can become jumbled on the page. If you have someone in your congregation that has this issue, making a separate worship bulletin where the    words    are     spaced    out and using a bigger text can be helpful. It is probably best to ask as some folks find it helpful to place a ruler under the text. A clip board or coloured paper may be helpful.
Name it.  Let folks know up front that your church is literacy conscious and welcoming. Talk about it and share the spoken word.
Really, this is about being inclusive and hospitable. It is also about being practical. If you have ideas to share, please share them in the comments box!Until next time, God bless and no stress.

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