Each church has its own worship characteristics. For example:
- Music may be led by a choir, a praise team, or both.
- Instruments may (or may not) include an organ, piano, guitar, or praise band.
- Songs may (or may not) include traditional hymns, psalms, and contemporary hymns.
- Responsive readings and reciting creeds may be regular or sporadic.
- Some congregations have children’s worship, and others may not even have a nursery.
- Some churches have a time of greeting mid-service, while others do not.
While these characteristics are influenced by stylistic or theological preferences, each one has bearing on how much your congregation is accustomed to movement and sound during corporate worship.
Many families impacted by disability are not able to control the extra sounds and movements that their loved ones with disabilities make or need. There are a host of behaviors that cannot simply be silenced because you walk into a quiet sanctuary:
- tics and vocal stimulations
- outbursts or crying in response to hypersensitivity to sound, lights, or crowds
- sensory-seeking behaviors, such as jumping, spinning, flapping, and head banging
- sensory-avoiding behaviors, such as covering ears, lying on the pew, hiding under the pew, covering eyes, trying to leave or escape
To many in your congregation, extra sounds are noise and movements may be distracting. To those with disabilities, the extra noise and movements are means of communication and ways of coping with the environment. But consider this: the extra noise and movements can actually be part of the unique ways they worship.
The more vocalizing or movement that a person demonstrates in worship, the more challenging it will likely be for that family to fully assimilate into worship. Disapproving looks and seemingly innocent comments made in passing can be enough to discourage a family that is already feeling out of place from attending worship.
Here are some thoughts for everyone:
FAMILIES: Honestly acknowledge that which is uncomfortable. It is ideal for you to sit down with your pastor and have a really honest—and potentially uncomfortable—conversation so that everyone understands all the challenges. Just as you often have little control over your extra sounds and movements, your pastor has very little control over the congregation’s response to them. Acknowledging all the difficulties, sharing tears, and honestly facing the realities often gives everyone the strength and fortitude to address the challenges together.
PARENTS AND CAREGIVERS: Keep attending worship. Remind yourself often that assimilating into a congregation is secondary to your first priority of worship. We are all created and designed by God to worship him. Your worship style may be unique to your family, and that is okay. God does not require that we “get our acts together” and then come to him to worship. In fact, we are specifically instructed to “make a joyful noise unto the Lord” (Psalm 98:4).
Don’t give up attending worship. Change takes time. Trust the Lord to work in the hearts of all the congregation to embrace all worshippers. Try not to take comments personally. Consider with your pastor the possibility of sharing openly with your congregation.
PASTORS: Set the tone for your congregation. The greatest thing to overcome is the feeling of being uncomfortable. When congregations know that the pastor embraces extra noise and movement, most members begin to feel more at ease. A note from the pastor in the bulletin welcoming families with unique needs can have great influence.
More impactful are words of welcome from the pulpit: “That’s the sound of belonging in the body of Christ, and we are so thankful Jen is worshipping with us today.” Or “We welcome all our families to worship today; please know that we are a congregation that embraces noise and movement as part of the sounds of worship.”
CHURCH MEMBERS: Be the one to make a difference. We may feel that this is one area over which we have little individual influence. Silence those thoughts and remind yourself that one person can make a big difference. Whether it is a family touched by disability who has a child with tantrums in worship or a new mom with a tiny baby, be the first to say, “I am so glad you here!” Offer a hug and three more kind complements. Learn their names and seek them out the following week. Ask a friend each week to also greet the family and make them feel welcome.
Change starts with you. This Sunday, embrace being uncomfortable and resolve never to speak negatively about the behaviors you see. Have a ready response to silence others who react unkindly.
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