By Rev. Mindi
One of the concerns I have as a pastor, and a parent of a child with special needs, is bringing spirituality into AJ’s daily life. As for many parents, church can be hard work. Sometimes people at church do not understand and can make church an unwelcoming place for those with special needs, who cannot sit still or stay silent. Sometimes sensory issues make it difficult to attend worship, and sometimes the older buildings are not fully accessible to those who have mobility needs. Traditional church, because it is only once a week and not every day like school or other activities, and it is not primarily focused on a specific person like once-a-week therapy sessions are, can be difficult to add into one’s weekly routine. We know many families for whom going to church is such a struggle, they do not even bother.
While I am at Open Gathering now, I also serve a small church in Burien, WA. AJ goes to church most Sunday mornings with me to Burien Community Church. When I was not serving as a pastor when we lived in Oklahoma, I was able to sit with him and try to help him understand the order of service—now we stand, now we sing, now we sit quietly and pray, etc. Routine for many children with special needs is important, and in many of our church worship services, we can establish a routine more easily as the service usually follows the same format every Sunday. I no longer am able to sit with AJ every Sunday morning as I am pastoring a church now, but I still try to help him understand the routine. Because I cannot sit with him, sometimes he only understands the greeting time, and I let him use his iPad to stay quiet in the pew until the Children’s Message. But he understands the routine: he puts the iPad down and comes to sit next to me on the chancel steps. Then after the prayer, he can run down the aisle to the back and go downstairs for Children’s Church at my church in Burien.
But at home, spirituality is just as important. We try to model that God is in our lives everywhere, not just at church. Church is often just one day a week, and while we may be at the building during the week at other times, we do not have the same routine there. So at home, we at least say prayers every night, something I have been doing with AJ since he moved from a crib to a bed. We read a book, and I try to read a child’s prayer book or baby Bible as the last story, then I say a simple prayer but fold his hands as well, and I close my eyes. Then I tuck him in.
During Advent, we began a routine of lighting the Advent Candles at home every night and doing a short reading and prayer. We did this at the dinner table so AJ was already sitting. We made sure the TV was off and no other distractions were on. It was a nice ritual of quiet time and reflection for our family during the Advent Season, but it also introduced something new for AJ. While I’m sure he didn’t understand the complete significance of it, he seemed to enjoy us sitting together and lighting candles.
Routine is important for many children with special needs. Establishing a spiritual routine, just like establishing a hygiene routine or any other practice takes practice. Some families say grace before meals, and that is another wonderful (and traditional) way to introduce spiritual practice in the home.
At Open Gathering, what makes us unique is that we have made worship even more accessible for those used to routine because, while doing emergent-style worship, we have kept the same routine every time we gather: Music, Wondering, Table. During Music we sing five or six songs from our songbook, songs that become familiar (we usually do two or three that we did the week before). At Wondering, all are invited to come sit near the table for the Story—in which the Bible Lesson is shared in a Montessori-style storytelling. As part of the Wondering, we also do Work, in which we respond to the story. One can do Work by sharing one’s perspectives on the Bible lesson in a dialogue-sermon (often many of the adults do this in a corner of our shared space), or by staying put at the table and responding with art, crafts, and play. Then we all return to the Table for prayer, offering, and communion. We end by singing our benediction song together “Peace Before Us.”
Because our routine is simple and not a long list in a printed bulletin, Open Gathering is more readily accessible to those with special needs because it becomes familiar more quickly. We also have fewer “rules.” People are invited to dance and move as needed or desired during the Music time. During the Wondering time, we are invited to sit closer for the story, then during work we can sit or stand or move about as necessary. We gather at the Table again for the end. We are invited to pray together, sometimes to sit together, but we are also invited to be ourselves.
Church leaders, there are many different ways to do worship. Perhaps you can inspire others to begin a spiritual routine at home, establishing a semblance of spiritual life that works for them and their family’s unique needs. Perhaps there are families who simply are not able to attend worship due to unique needs or work schedules, but maybe there is still a way to reach out and include others by inviting them to begin a spiritual routine at home.