When it comes to welcoming those with disabilities into a church, I come at it with two hats. One hat is as a father of two children with autism. The other hat is as one who pastored for over a decade. The father part says that the church must endure everything to embrace my children. The pastor part says that there is more to the church than those two children with disabilities. Let me try to unpack this.
I will start with my own experience, both as a pastor and a father. Before I knew that my own children would have disabilities, I was part of a pulpit exchange and had the opportunity to preach in a Presbyterian church. There should be no problem as preaching is preaching. I stepped up to the pulpit and as I did there was a loud scream. I had no idea what happened but I noticed that no one in the congregation reacted and so I took my cue from them. I continued to preach and every few minutes, there would be another yelp. I took it as the young man’s way of saying “amen!” Although it took me a few minutes to get used to it, it did not seem to disrupt the service and people got the message of my sermon.
Some time later I was pastoring at First Baptist Church Meaford. Abby was in Sunday school but she could hear my voice and as a major league daddy’s girl, she needed to be with me. She escaped from Sunday school and ran down the aisle to get to me. Amanda stopped her and brought her back down to Sunday school. It did not go well. Abby screamed at the top of her lungs. I was horrified. At the end of the service, I was waiting for someone to comment on the loud disruption. Everyone was quiet until one man walked up to me with a smirk on his face. I steeled myself for the criticism. He walked up to me, shook my hand and said, “That little girl sure loves her daddy.”
Having shared these stories, here is what I think is appropriate for both the church and families with disabilities. For the church to be the church, it is imperative that we embrace families with disabilities, especially the children. I understand that we want a worship service to go smoothly and for people to enjoy themselves (this is not bad). But remember when the disciples felt that young children were disrupting Jesus’ ministry, Jesus sided very strongly with the children. At a recent conference, I heard a speaker say that families with disabilities never have a luke-warm experience at church. It is either really good or really bad. I can’t imagine that God would ever want us to make the experience really bad.
I will tell you that it is a major step for a family with disabilities to even try and attend church. After I left my last pastorate, I stayed home most Sundays because it was much easier than trying to bring our son to a new church. We did not start attending again until we received a personal visit from the lead and associate pastors of our church assuring us that they would do everything they could to make this happen. Yes Logan did make noise during the sermon. Our pastor even stopped once in the middle of his sermon to say, “Isn’t it great that everyone is welcome in this church?”
I need to put my pastor hat back on for a moment. If a person with a disability screams during the entire service, the church does not need to endure that for the sake of inclusion. I would never try to bring Abby to church every Sunday because she wouldn’t enjoy it and she would do her best to make sure no one else enjoyed it either. Our church would welcome her but I wouldn’t put them through that. I must say though that one of my bucket list items is to sit in church with all five of our children. It has never happened. I joked with our pastor that we could have a private worship service on a week night. Actually, I was not really joking. Still I would not try to make that happen on a Sunday morning.
Even if this is the case, the church does not get off the hook for embracing the family. There are other things that can be done. The church still has to be sensitive to the spiritual and emotional needs of the family.
The example of the child screaming throughout the service is not likely to ever happen. Parents are not stupid. They don’t enjoy being in a room with a screaming child for an hour and a half any more than you do. It is not going to happen. What will happen is the child will give the occasional squawk, yelp, scripted sentence or a squeal. It is not that bad. It certainly is better than the whispers of gossip and slander that go on in most churches. If you take each sound as a witness to the inclusive nature of your church, it can actually be a part of your worship.
Churches, pastors and parents need to work together on what a service will look like. It might not be the service you want but it may be the service God intends.