Half of us can't read this article

If you can't read it, all this text can simply be a wall
It's been a great week for young people at St Mary's. We've just celebrated the success of our primary school's Year 6 pupils and seen an award for an application by our church's young people for funding residential weekends. And personally, I was a proud parent at a graduation ceremony, in which hundreds of young adults received their degrees.

But while it's important to recognise the achievement of those who have done well academically, how does a church like ours respond to the challenge of serving a whole parish, with a very diverse population?

I looked up the 2011 Skills for Life Survey, which assessed literacy, numeracy and computer skills among the UK working age population. Headline figures reveal that a significant proportion of the adult population are actually functioning only at the levels expected of primary school age children:
  • In literacy, the figure is 15%.
  • In numeracy, it's 24%.
The survey shows that 40% of the working age population does not have the skills to use email effectively and that two thirds cannot use word processing software.

The world is becoming increasingly sophisticated and the gap between those who have basic skills and the rest is leading to exclusion and alienation. Half of the prison population can't read at the level of an eleven-year-old. In total, five million British adults struggle to read.

The emphasis on attainment and achievement for individuals is commendable. Who wouldn't want to encourage children and young people to make the most of their potential, to aim high and to reach excellent standards? As a nation, we must promote learning and excellence.

But what of those who don't enjoy the same successes as the brightest?

As a parish church, we're not content to serve people who might be able to pass some kind of skills assessment. There's a radical dimension to the Kingdom of God, proclaimed by Jesus Christ in the Gospels, which reaches people of every background. In fact, the Gospels go beyond mere inclusion and appear to suggest that the wise and intelligent are in many ways blind to what's happening. In today's language, might Jesus have said in Luke 10.21, "Thank you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the university-educated and have revealed them to those in Key Stage 1"?

The community of regular worshippers at St Mary's is wonderfully mixed. Yet it still probably fails to completely reflect the skills profile of the locality. What are we doing to serve the whole population? And what is the experience of people who hear a message of God's invitation and acceptance but feel constantly defeated by the way that the church relates to them?

We need to be honest about this. In particular, I'm aware how demanding we are in relation to literacy. It would be tricky to fully participate in the life of St Mary's if your readings skills are not well developed:
  • Every week we ask people to sing from a book of over two thousand songs.
  • We encourage people to follow the scripture readings from a small-print church Bible of over a thousand pages.
  • We try hard to put our notice sheet and service booklets in accessible language and formats but they still require reasonable English skills.
  • We make lots of activities available through leaflets and publicity.
  • We encourage people to sign up for activities in advance which implies a degree of calendar planning that many people don't do.
  • Our Annual Report runs to over eighty pages.
  • We extensively use the web and social media, which are mainly written forms. (Though I'm pleased that our website recently scored very well on a readability test).
Our church leaders are a literate bunch. With one exception, our seven regular preachers are all educated to at least Masters Degree level. (The exception is the vicar.)

Organisations such as Unlock have developed methods for enabling Christian discipleship among people from what they call "'traditional tabloid' ('non-book', 'oral learners', or 'text-shy') cultures".

There is a risk that developing materials specifically for a minority could be patronising and divisive. But that's not necessarily the case. I'm convinced that there are things we can do to ensure that as far as possible, we don't exclude people on the basis of their skills in literacy, numeracy and information technology. All of these work well for people with sophisticated, higher-level skills too:
  • Avoid unfamiliar jargon.
  • Use a range of communications media for all important information.
  • In writing and speaking, repeat information in different ways.
  • For information gathering, make it possible for people to do it face-to-face as well as form-filling.
  • Be visual and musical and not just textual.
  • Be aware of the habit of instinctively using abstractions and deductive reasoning.
  • Don't equate simplicity with triviality or complexity with depth. Life-changing truths are often profound and simple.
  • Embrace the dramatic, emotional and not just the intellectual.
  • Even when using words, paint pictures, describe scenes.
  • Attend to dynamics, mood and style. Textual content isn't everything.
  • Make the most of the potential of the church building as more than an auditorium.
  • Use narrative methods of communicating. Story-telling is fundamental human activity.
  • Realise that relationship-building, affirmation, practical help, kindness and celebration are all essentially communicative of something. We can proclaim good news by demonstration, not just by talking about it.
  • Make the most of the potential of gatherings to encourage conversation and interaction among broad ranges of people.
  • For important events and activities, offer the equivalent of the hospital appointment card, rather than require calendar-planning.
  • Consider offering short-form communications such as SMS text messaging, in well-timed reminders.
  • Ask whether we need the equivalent of a customer services desk or people clearly identified as offering assistance?
  • Check our attitudes. In what ways are we affirming the dignity and worth of every person, regardless of their abilities or skills?
No supermarket would limit itself to customers with higher-level skills. Although the customer profiles of Aldi and Waitrose might be different, they present themselves in a similar way. Spend time in a shopping centre, cinema, hospital, museum or tourist attraction and you can't fail to be impressed by the way that a richer experience than mere text is made available.

If you're around at St Mary's, please help us to get this right. Tell us when we're falling short in some way, encourage us when we succeed and if you have particular skills in this area, lend us a hand.

So what of this particular article? The first challenge is to access the web in the first place. But assuming that's happened, online readability software evaluates this article as being US grade 11. That probably means only around half of the UK adult population would be able to read this article reasonably well. See what we mean?