Divine services in “plain language”

The idea was born in the United States, an impulse came from our Church in the Netherlands, and a district in Germany has picked up on the idea. “Divine services in plain language” is a pilot project that is currently being tested by the New Apostolic Church North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany.

There is hardly a seat left in the church. Tea-lights, each in a glass container, have been placed on the altar and lit. The members attending the service have brought them up to the altar from the back one by one. The congregation is singing “Star to which I’m looking”. The Bible text for this service is short, “The Lord is my light and my salvation” (Psalm 27: 1). The sentences the Apostles uses in his sermon are as short, “The Lord is God. God is like a light. And this light shines for us.”

Suggestion from the Netherlands

This was how the first divine service in “plain language” began in November 2013 in one of our congregations in Dortmund (Germany). The service was conducted by the then Apostle Rainer Storck, who was responsible for people with special needs in the church district at the time.

The idea for this type of sermon came from the Netherlands. The response of people attending a service in our church at the annual “Dag voor de Koningskinderen” had been good. Once a year, people with special needs and cognitive challenges from all age groups gather for a service. The service that is offered them addresses them on an emotional level in order to let them feel the nearness of God and give them a sense that they are part of this fellowship.

Help for many different groups

The concept “plain language” was devised in the United States. Research on the subject has been done since the nineteenth century, but the idea only started to be really implemented in the 1970s when People First, a self advocacy movement, was formed there. Similar developments occurred in Sweden, ten years later in Finland, and in the 1990s in the Netherlands, in Great Britain, and in Germany.

The movement addresses people who have learning difficulties or intellectual or developmental disabilities. Studies have shown that people suffering from dementia, people who are illiterate, or people suffering from hearing loss—or even immigrants who do not yet speak the language—can profit from this concept.

Clear and easy to understand

The aim of plain language is to make it easier for people to understand what is being written and said. There is even a set of standard rules: write short sentences that contain one thought and use active voice. Do not use foreign words, abstract concepts, and figures of speech, and avoid such grammatical constructions like the subjunctive. But plain language does not mean baby talk, nor is it a simplified version of the English language.

Everything that makes what is being said clear can and should be used. For instance, at the first such service in our church in Germany, a projector was used to illustrate the topic “The Lord is my light”: a picture of the sun to symbolize light, strength, and joy; a picture of a fire in a hearth to symbolize warmth; a lighthouse to show the way; and a set of traffic lights as a symbol for safety and security.

The offer has been well received

A divine service in plain language requires a lot of preparation. In the District Church North Rhine-Westphalia this is done by a team of members—most of whom are teachers—who meet every second month in order to work on and draw up a detailed guideline. The basis is a Bible text picked by Apostle Wolfgang Schug, who is responsible for the pastoral care of people with disabilities in the district church. The group then develops suitable illustrations and a step-by-step explanation of the thoughts. These are to support the minister, but not restrict him in any way.

Following the success of the initial service in 2013, a divine service programme was developed for the year 2015. Two divine services have already been held, two others will follow—one service per Apostle area. The response has been good, the District Church reports.

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Andreas Rother
Germany, Netherlands, Congregational life