We all encounter situations that unnerve, frighten, hurt or irritate us. For some it may be finding themselves suddenly at the center of attention. Others are overwhelmed when there is no clear direction on where to go and what to do in a new environment. None of us finds it enjoyable to be confined to a classroom with freezing temperatures or unable to slip out of a meeting to use the restroom as needed. But for all of those disagreeable situations, we also have our routine places of comfort and peace, where we feel at home and relatively in control of our experience and environment. For many Christians, our church provides that security and rest.
But what happens when the church environment, structure and population is what singlehandedly unnerves, frightens, hurts or irritates a person? For many individuals with special needs, and by extension their families, Sunday mornings are the absolute hardest time of the week. For the extrovert, greeting time may be the highlight of the day, but for the adult with social anxiety, it can be pure torture. For the child who has extra energy and learns by moving and talking, sitting still and quiet for 45 minutes in Sunday School or Children’s Church can be the most exhausting task of their week. For the teen with autism that is undone by amplified sound and bright light, youth worship may literally make them sick while their peers find joy and freedom in such a setting.
So what is to be done? Here are four ways to redeem Church for those that find it more stressful than enjoyable.
- Provide a quiet entrance and exit for families with special needs. Often individuals with special needs are undone before they reach their classroom simply because of the completely overwhelming environment of the check-in process. Having a low-key, quiet and un-crowded place to check-in and out without fighting a crowd of exuberant children and volunteers can make a big difference.
- Train all children’s ministry volunteers to accommodate unconventional posture and behavior. If a child doesn’t sit still, mark out a clear, personal place where they can move to their heart’s content. If a child looks away as soon as they are asked to pay attention, allow them to do so and check for understanding at the end. If a child constantly messes with others or things, designate certain items that can be used to keep their hands occupied. In other words, don’t fight the battle of energy and movement. Instead, define space and objects as appropriate and invite children to learn in a way that is natural for them. And for children with aggressive behaviors? Meet with the parents to discuss positive strategies such as a buddy, a behavior plan and a separate space for when life becomes too frustrating to maintain control.
- Take into consideration preference and needs to help determine an individual’s landing place. For example, consider a teenage boy with autism who is overwhelmed each week in the large youth group setting. He might grow exponentially in a small, relaxed men’s Sunday School class. A combination of opportunities that allows this teenage boy to serve in another area during the large group time and rejoin his peers during small group time may be just the adjustment needed. You won’t know until you ask.
- Establish and communicate a chain of command for special needs related concerns. Have you ever had a question that you never voiced simply because you couldn’t figure out who was responsible for the answer? Take away this frustration for special needs families by establishing a person who can be approached about anything related to their family’s unique situation. Ensure that this person is well informed about the inner-workings of the church as well as special needs and that they will do the follow up necessary to serve the family well.
This list is not exhaustive by any means, but it is a start in thinking through how to redeem a frustrating environment into a place of peace and joy with God’s family. What have you found to be helpful in your own church home?
Kate Brueck is the Church Relations Manager for Joni and Friends Charlotte. Click to read Kate’s full bio.