When most people ponder disability, the first image that comes to mind are children or adults with obvious physical or cognitive limitations that result in difficulty functioning. People who need preferential parking spaces near the door of the grocery store or medical clinic. Kids with cerebral palsy who require a chair lift when transported to school. Individuals with Down syndrome.
Within the church, Joni Eareckson Tada has probably been the most visible (and impactful) champion for inclusion of persons with disability. She is extraordinarily talented as an artist, an author and as a musician. When we think of Joni, our mental image is of her overcoming her physical limitations…a woman with a paint brush in her mouth, seated in a wheelchair with quadriplegia from a diving accident over 45 years go. The success of the Wheels for the World outreach has further cemented the way in which many pastors and church leaders conceptualize disability. But what if the church is just seeing the “tip of the iceberg” when it comes to sharing the love of Christ with families impacted by disability?
Kids with mental health conditions account for the vast preponderance of the one in six U.S. kids identified with a developmental disability. One in five teens in the U.S. have experienced an episode of “severe” mental illness, and 18.5% of adults experienced one or more mental health conditions in the past year. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, neuropsychiatric disorders are the leading cause of disability in the U.S.
As a physician specializing in child and adolescent psychiatry, I all too often meet families who lack meaningful involvement with a local church because the environments in which we “do church” present unique challenges to kids with common mental health conditions. Here are some examples of how specific mental illnesses interfere with the ability to attend church in kids who otherwise function at a reasonably high level in other life activities…
- A teen with Asperger’s Disorder has excellent grades and is a star performer on his school’s Science Olympiad team, but fought his parents over attending church because his difficulties processing social cues and body language make it challenging to connect with peers he doesn’t see on a daily basis.
- A middle schooler was forced to leave a Christian school because of incapacitating panic attacks he experienced while attending mandatory worship services held in a crowded sanctuary.
- A school-aged girl with separation anxiety had a meltdown in the parking lot when she learned the pastor of the church her family is visiting does not permit children her age to stay with their parents during the worship service.
- A family was asked to leave their church when their recently-adopted five year old son with ADHD and a history of abuse, neglect and fetal alcohol exposure punched the son of the man who serves as chairman of the elder board.
- A pastor’s son with sensory processing difficulties stopped attending children’s church because of intense discomfort caused by the loud worship music.
- A boy with dyslexia refused to leave the house for church after his Sunday School teacher embarrassed him by insisting he read from the Bible in front of 15-20 peers.
- A twelve year old with social anxiety refused to attend church without a friend after a middle school pastor interrupted worship to point out that she was sitting alone. She had been volunteering in the nursery and slipped in late because parents from an earlier service were late in picking up their child.
Every situation I describe in the post involved a child of someone I know or a patient of our practice. I could list many more…the elite student sent home from a mission trip as a result of anxiety or a family seeking to launch a virtual small group for families of kids with autism because the lack of child care prevents parents from leaving home in the evening to join an existing group through their church. In each and every instance, I can only imagine that Jesus is saddened and the church is less than He intended it to be because a child or family with gifts and talents intended for the church is absent.
As Joni and Friends launches this fabulous blog helping churches become irresistible to individuals and families impacted by disability, our team at Key Ministry stands ready to help them help churches become irresistible to families experiencing the full range of disability…including children, teens and adults with mental illness and their families.
We would love to hear your experiences as it relates to church and individuals affected by disability. More than that – we would love to hear your dreams of how to make your church irresistible.
In addition to serving as Director of Strategic Initiatives for Key Ministry, Dr. Stephen Grcevich is President and Founder of the Family Center by the Falls in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, a specialty mental health group practice serving children and families. He blogs at http://www.church4everychild.org.