The Friendship Group at Valley Community Presbyterian Church in Golden Valley, Minnesota, was born more than 15 years ago out of a desire to connect the three or four developmentally disabled adults in the congregation with the good news.
The planning group decided that team teaching might work best with these adults. The team approach had the advantage of connecting the group with more adults in the congregation. It also gave the leaders a built-in support group—others to problem-solve with as they began this new ministry. They decided to look for three teams—one for the fall, one for the winter, and one for the spring.
The fall team consisted of a social worker who worked regularly with people with developmental disabilities and an advocate for children with learning disabilities. Their approach was to adapt lessons for the group, using as many learning styles as possible, to appeal to all the ways their group members learned best.
The winter team was led by a mother from the congregation who had raised a child with developmental disabilities and an assistant, as necessary, for the lessons and activities. Their approach was geared more toward crafts and Advent holiday activities.
The spring team was made up of a man and woman who had no experience with people with developmental disabilities. They were simply committed to giving the Friendship Group an opportunity to be together—to socialize, have fun, and deepen friendships within the church. These leaders regularly used DVDs with an inspirational message, along with entertainment movies that the Friendship Group members selected.
Since the Friendship Group members had varied physical, behavioral, cognitive, and developmental abilities and traits, every curriculum was a challenge for the teachers. That’s what brought out the “oh nos”! But soon the leaders agreed on an approach that involved object lessons that would make Bible stories relevant to the lives of the adults in the group.
We began by giving each group member a Bible, engraved with his or her name. Students were elated with the gift—even though most of them couldn’t read They took those Bibles home with them that day and have brought them to class every Sunday since!
Then we created a series of lessons to familiarize the students with their Bibles and to help them understand that what they heard and did in worship on Sundays—such as the 10 Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the words spoken before each sermon—was derived from teachings in the Bible.
Our lesson on the 10 Commandments helped group members understand what God wants us to do and why we should obey. We made bookmarks together, and students used them to mark the place in their Bibles where the commandments were listed. Group members were amazed that the commandments they heard on Sunday were in their Bibles! An “ah-ha” moment.
Another was a lesson on the Lord’s Prayer. All the students followed along with their fingers in their Bibles (even though none were readers) as the words of the prayer were read out loud. You could see them recognizing those very words that we had all just recited in worship. They had another “ah-ha” moment that day.
The final lesson in this series was on the importance of speaking good words. My daughter had described for me a very visual lesson she learned in elementary school more than 40 years ago. I decided to use that lesson and tie it to the Scripture (Psalm 19:14) the pastor spoke each Sunday before the sermon.
The demonstration involved squeezing a tube of toothpaste out in a dish or on a piece of paper, then asking the class to help put the toothpaste back into the tube. All agreed that “you can’t do that!”
I continued the lesson by asking them if they knew that very same thing is true of the words we speak. I asked the group whether they had ever said something that hurt someone’s feelings—something that may have made someone say, “You take that back!” I told them you can’t put the words back in your mouth any more than you can squeeze toothpaste back into the tube. That’s why we need to be very careful about the things we say.
Then I read the verse, Psalm 19:14, to the group: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer” (RSV) Some of the students recognized those words from church—so we had another ”ah-ha” moment!
These few examples of how to carry out adapting and delivering Bible lessons to those with developmental disabilities only touch the surface. But once you start thinking about what is most meaningful and what will excite your students, more ideas will follow, and even your “ah-ha’s” will increase. Good luck as you create new pathways for teaching and providing meaningful lessons that provide your adults with developmental disabilities with the good news!
Linda L. Wold has taught a group of adults with developmental disabilities for over 13 years at Valley Community Presbyterian Church in Golden Valley, MN. She is a retired family lawyer who also served as an advocate for children with learning disabilities. She is a member of the Disabilities Concerns Ministry in the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area.