Inviting children into “big church” allows them to learn the worship format as well as reap the benefits of a multigenerational experience. For families affected by disabilities, however, worship can be challenging. Many report feeling unwanted. But without these families, the body of Christ is incomplete. Here are a few modifications you can make at your church so everyone enjoys inclusive worship services.
Create a culture that says “Come in!”
Senior leadership sets the tone for inclusion. A sermon series on disabilities can be helpful in raising awareness. More importantly, as leaders, it’s your job to actively consider individuals with special needs in the strategic plan of the church. This top-down approach is critical to the success of special-needs inclusion. Children’s pastors can help by educating leaders about the prevalence of disabilities and practical ways to accommodate.
Beyond the pulpit, churches can use social media tools and print publications to convey an understanding of special needs. Consider the following statement: “We understand special needs. Whether your family is dealing with Alzheimer’s, autism, or any diagnosis, you’re welcome. Our church is incomplete without you!”
A truly inclusive culture goes beyond words and provides practical help. Christ Community Chapel in Hudson, Ohio, provides “stealth greeters” who are trained to spot families that may need extra assistance and help find the support they need. Likewise, pictures posted on your church website can also support a family’s preparation for attendance by giving them a glimpse of your setup and what to expect. Offering an online preview of the worship service is also helpful. This opportunity for preparation often alleviates anxiety for kids with special needs and communicates warmth.
Cultivate grace-filled responses among your church community.
“My kids’ behavior can be really inappropriate,” shared one mother of two kids with autism. Kids with disabilities may have loud vocalizations or distracting behavior. Pastors can comfort these worshippers, by noting that God gives us many ways to express praise. Also, leaders can simply state, “At our church, you may hear some loud voices or see wheelchairs. Isn’t it wonderful that we’re all here to worship together?” Ministry leader Molly King of Delaware, Ohio, shared that at her church, the leaders emphasize, “No shushing allowed!” This simple rule allows families to worship without fearing negative reactions.
The logistics of attending Sunday morning worship might be unmanageable for some families, requiring one parent to stay home with a child while the rest of the family goes to church. To remedy this, Molly created “Gentle Worship.” “The format welcomes those looking for a shorter service, the elderly, those with medical needs, and individuals with special needs.” To create this kind of worship, turn down the volume and include familiar songs to provide a sense of routine. Also, dim the lights to reduce glare and eliminate fluorescent light “buzzing.” Finally, offer a sermon with simplified language paired with a bulletin that provides words and pictures related to the topic.
Inclusive worship also means that people of all abilities have a role in the worship service. Molly suggests, “An individual with a disability could do a reading or help with the offering.” Others might enjoy stocking the worship center with pencils or collating bulletins. Although this type of inclusion might be time-consuming and even messy at times, it’s critically important. When individuals with special needs use their gifts, they cease to be a ministry “project” and begin to find their essential, dignified place in the beautiful body of Christ.
As part of their training, provide ushers with information about disabilities so they can safely, respectfully, and comfortably assist families who may need help.
The Basics of Inclusive Worship
Barbara J. Newman, the author of Accessible Gospel, Inclusive Worship, encourages leaders to “expect persons with disabilities to be there!” Then, she continues, “begin to think about ways to allow each one to enter that conversation with God.” Newman advises leaders to anticipate how to create a supportive service for all. Often, she says, providing options for worshippers of varying abilities can create positive solutions. To help with this, Newman encourages leaders to consider the following questions:
- Is there gluten-free bread for communion?
- Are there words to hear and visuals to look at?
- Is there movement built into the worship time?
- Are people who aren’t verbal able to express their praise in other ways, such as with streamers or signs?
- Does the church offer bulletins in large print?
- Do we have Bibles in a variety of reading levels for worshippers to borrow?
Inclusive Worship Kit
This kit provides a variety of visual and tactile supports that reinforce concepts and allow for active worship participation. Materials include picture schedule cards as well as a story display board and lesson materials.
Katie Wetherbee is an educational and ministry consultant and owner of Hope Educational Consulting. She lives in Chagrin Falls, Ohio.
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