For many people church as it currently exists in many, many places just doesn’t work, can’t work, won’t work.  And it’s not just people on the margins of society that this is true for, it’s true for the majority of the communities in which these churches are located.  It’s just even worse if you don’t happen to conform to the ‘typical’, ‘expected’ profile of church attendee; and that includes many, even most, families who have a child with additional/special needs or disabilities.

I don’t mean this to be overly downbeat, I spend all my time helping churches to become more accessible, more inclusive, to create belonging for all.  Many do an amazing job, but these are a tiny minority of the over 50,000 churches (source, Evangelical Alliance) across the UK.  Most of those churches have a very, very long way to go indeed before they can begin to be considered inclusive, let alone places where everyone truly belongs.

Church needs a reboot before everyone can truly belong.  It needs to rid itself of traditional ways of doing things and look back to what church was like at the beginning.

Church at the moment is all too often a passive experience that is ‘done unto’ people; a weekly event that does little to change anything, and even less to practically help those in need.  Sometimes church is even reduced to being just a rock concert with a playlist arranged by ‘celebrity’ worship leaders.

Think about a typical Sunday morning service…

It’s 10am and the service has started.  Someone is introducing the service from the front of the main worship area, with everyone else dutifully sat in rows of chairs or pews all facing the front (probably in the same place, sat next to the same people they have sat next to for years).  A family with a child with additional needs has tried incredibly hard to get to church on time but are five minutes late; as they come in at the back, a forest of heads swivel around, meerkat like, to glare at them for the noise they are making.

After about 10 minutes, the children are sent out somewhere else for “their own session” (code for getting them out of the way so they don’t disturb the adults).  Another family with a child with additional needs arrive, two minutes after the children have gone out, to be told that they are too late, and their child cannot now join the others (true story, this happened at a church last week).

The remaining congregation are led in songs which they haven’t chosen, liturgy which they may not understand, and then someone talks for a while during which everyone is expected to sit and listen like they were back at school.  A young person with additional needs who is too old to have gone out for “their own session” finds this hard and needs to wander about a bit.  The meerkats are there ready with their best ‘team glower’ for him again.

At the end, the children of the congregation are allowed back in (once we are certain that the service is totally ended and that there is NO CHANCE of them disturbing anyone).

Someone who has had a really difficult week, a single mum who has struggled to arrange childcare for her child with additional needs so she can work and who risks losing her job and their home, mentions this to the church leader on her way out.  She is told she will be prayed for, and then the church leader is saying goodbye to someone else.  He tells the church leader that he is feeling depressed and suicidal, but the church leader really doesn’t know what to say or do so he is told he will be prayed for too.

Now I admit I’ve painted an intentionally bleak picture here, but there are sparks of truth all over that canvas.  Most of these caricatures are based on real stories that I have heard, and that maybe you have heard or even experienced too.

Church needs a reboot before everyone can truly belong…  What if it looked a bit like church did at the beginning…  What if church today looked a bit like this…

People start to arrive around 10am, but there is no set time for things to begin and people keep arriving as they are ready.  Some people bring food to share, others bring things to do, others bring an instrument to play, bit by bit the place begins to fill up (“…they shared everything they had” Acts 4:32).  Everyone is sat talking and sharing together around tables or on sofas, everyone takes an active part in all that happens.  Some of the kids are on bean bags on the floor with their families or with their friends (“[They] were one in heart and mind…” Acts 4:32).

Someone starts to sing a song, people that brought instruments slowly join in, someone technically gifted has found the song and has put the words up on the screens (plain background, sans serif font, good contrast) so those that want to can join in too.  A family arrive and are welcomed in, people making sure they have somewhere to sit and know what is happening.

Food and drink is shared; someone thanks God for it and as it is passed around people remember what Jesus has done for us all, and are glad.  People also share together from God’s word the things that they feel God has put upon their hearts.  The children remain with their families and friends and are helped to understand what is being said; everyone learns together.  Some have brought resources to help with this such as some Lego, or some craft materials, or graphic/picture Bibles, for example.

A single mum of a child with additional needs shares about the struggles she is having with childcare so that she can keep working and keep a roof over their heads.  A retired couple offer to help look after her child, as does a student who has some spare time during the week.  A man shares about how he is feeling really low at the moment and a couple of others move over to get alongside him, explaining that they have had feelings like that too and maybe they can help him (“there was no needy persons among them” Acts 4:34).  Another family with a young child mention that their car has packed up and they are without transport which is making life very difficult.  Some people offer to help them financially so that they can get a replacement car (“…from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them… and it was distributed to anyone who had need” Acts 4:34).

Somebody starts a time of prayerful thanks to God for all that he is doing and for his provision.  At that moment a child with additional needs becomes quite vocal, but no one minds and considers their vocalisation to be their prayer joining in too (“…and much grace was upon them all” Acts 4:33).  There are no meerkats in sight.

Wouldn’t this be a good way to do church together?  A church reboot that gets us back to what church might have been at the beginning, but within a modern context?  A church reboot that enables everyone to be able to access church, to be included, to truly belong.  To be a place that is welcoming to everyone, whatever they bring, whatever they need, whoever they are.  I think Jesus might have had something like this in mind…  what do you think?

Blessings,

Mark

Mark Arnold
11th October 2018

Bible passages used in this blog post:  Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

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