Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.(Romans 15:7 NRSV)
“There is this family that attends my church and they have a little boy with autism. I can tell that mom and dad feel really frustrated during worship because he has a hard time sitting still. We are a really small church, only fifty members. There are no other children there and it’s so nice to see this family in worship. How can we be welcoming to them and make them feel more comfortable?”
As a pastor who has done welcoming ministries for fifteen years, focusing in caring for special needs families in particular over the last five, this question was music to my ears. I explained to the woman that children with autism are going to have a really hard time understanding social boundaries about sitting quietly. I suggested that they could work with the parents to have an activity bag for the child at church with things of interest to him. It would be something special that he would enjoy having when he is at worship. When it got to the “boring part” (i.e. The Message) that is not going to be of interest, the boy could leave the sanctuary with a two buddies who would could lead an alternate Bible activity geared toward his age and abilities. The buddies would be nurturing adults or teens in the child’s life and the parents could enjoy that rare gift called “sanctuary.” They could have the parent’s cell number and send mom or dad a text if there is a problem and they need help.
The congregation member was nodding all along and agreeing these were great ideas. But then she asked, “Well, who is going to do all that?”
“I believe you mentioned that you have 50 members at your church.”
I let it hang there. Still just a blank stare.
“Well, I’ll just show the mom where the cry room is located. She’d probably prefer to leave.”
I think we have the answer about why this is a small church and there are no children. Sorry. I don’t mean to be harsh, but welcoming families means you are excited they are there. Excited enough to make an effort to include them as part of your church family. Rather than deciding for them what they would prefer, ask them. Rather than leaving them floundering in worship and frustrated, help them.
How do we create a church environment that is welcoming? It’s simple really. How do we welcome guests in our homes? When we know someone is coming for a visit we get ready ahead of time. We prepare the house, find out what folks like to eat and drink, plan things our guests will enjoy doing. We greet them with eager anticipation, “I’m so glad you are here! I’ve been looking forward to seeing you.” Then we show love and hospitality for our guests by trying to make sure they have a good time.
Church isn’t any different. Welcoming takes an intentional effort to be ready for the ones who are coming.
- Prepare the house. Back to basics time. Is the church building accessible? Is there a wheelchair ramp? Elevator? Accessible restrooms? Can people get into the building and navigate the hallways easily? If your congregation wants families with young children to be part of the body of Christ, anticipate their needs and prepare for them. Children of all ages get bored in worship. Activity bags with scripture lessons, crayons, magnetic erase sheets, pipe-cleaners, and other quiet activities are great ways to keep kids engaged in worship at their own level. Children with special needs are no different. They want something to do. Modify as appropriate for their particular developmental capabilities.
- Prepare the congregation. Often children with special needs do not understand boundaries and they make noise. Church leadership needs to model that is okay. I recall one sermon in which a young man was becoming agitated. Though non-verbal, he was loud at times. Heads were turning. The pastor saw the parents were distressed and said, “That’s okay Cameron. This passage gets me upset too. I feel you buddy. You aren’t bothering me.” The whole room was put at ease. Years later I cannot recall the sermon at all (nor any other sermon preached years ago!), but I can recall the radical hospitality of offering grace for a bit of disruption. The Holy Spirit on Pentecost was pretty disruptive too, with the tongues of fire and all that. I think church services can use more disruption. A fine prayer, “Please God, let something happen today that isn’t printed in the bulletin.”
- Learn from your guests. Have conversations with the parents and ask them what their children like to do and what is appropriate for them. For some parents, inclusion means finding a way for their child to be in worship with them. Perhaps they would like to be partnered with a buddy in worship who will keep their child engaged so parents can be more fully present to the sermon, etc. For some families, what feels inclusive is having a place that is geared to their child’s particular needs and is apart from the sanctuary. Either way, intentional conversation and a volunteer to work with the family says to them, “We are glad you are here and want you to be comfortable.”
- It takes heart. There are plenty of resources for developing comprehensive special need ministries. Books by Erik Carter and Amy Fenton Lee are great starting points for practical ideas to get a ministry up and running. The main ingredient is heart. It takes people who love families and want to be offer a welcoming place for them. That’s it. If you care, they will come. The biggest stumbling block to starting special needs ministries is fear. Congregations can “what if” themselves into a corner, frozen by concern of not being ready for every single possibility that may come their way. Having a heart for welcoming wins out over fear every time. Families that come don’t expect everything to be perfect. We understand plenty about “not perfect.” We live it every day. What we want is a congregation that cares that we have come to church and wants us to be there even though we don’t fit the mold of the typical family.
I’d love to hear from parents about what works for you and makes you feel welcome at church. Please post in the comments about your favorite experiences.
Welcoming God, we thank you that you call each of us to be in relationship with you. A times it is hard to find a place that understands and prepares for the unique needs of our families. Yet we know that what you call us to do you also equip us to do. Open the hearts and minds of yet more congregations about ways they can welcome everyone who comes to worship you. Amen.
“Green Door Mat” Image courtesy of Stoonn at FreeDigitalPhotos.net