There seems to be such a wide disparity of opinion and practice across church denominations, and even within church denominations, about if, when, and how, to include children, young people, and even young adults in communion, baptism, serving in church and other aspects of Christian growth and development. It’s time to challenge the often unwritten ‘rules’ about disabled people, and disabled children in particular, and what they are ‘allowed’ to do or not, in church.
Let’s take a look at some stories where this has been done well, inspiring us to think about how to encourage children and young people with additional needs or disabilities in their faith development and service in our own settings… with thanks to everyone who contributed…
“I used to work in a Catholic School for children and teenagers with Autism. Attending Mass or a chapel service was a regular occurrence. There were a couple of individuals who always stand out in my memory as totally GETTING it – the order, the reason for everything, the rituals and the non-changing service helped them so much as it made sense. One of them in particular went onto be a server and knew exactly why he did each thing and it really helped his faith. In his case, the more flexible services didn’t help so much as he found those confusing and no sense of order.
In my current role, I have also worked with a church who had a young man with cerebral palsy who was non-verbal except for yes and no responses. The church were wanting to help him get confirmed but needed help in planning and organising the service so that the young man could respond and be involved as much as possible. Any doubts from anyone as to the appropriateness or as to whether he should be confirmed or not were washed away during the confirmation service itself as the young man’s face, as he made his “responses”, said it all – he just shone with joy!” Steff Shepherd
“Had an autistic child in the congregation who stopped coming with his family. Turned out he was going through a phase of only wearing a Spiderman outfit and his parents were worried what people might say. So, I assured them in would be fine and all the staff dressed as superheroes (it wasn’t an all age service). I did communion dressed as Batgirl and he loved it and no one commented on his outfit. I still remember him beaming at the communion rail as i was giving him bread and he said “Amen! Thanks Batgirl!”” Jen Middleton
“Another thing we do from time to time is if we happen to have bread on the table and red juice we do “remembering”. Thinking about still being part of the body (of the church) even if we can’t gather. And thinking about Jesus’ body and blood. Very simple, just thinking and thanking. Got the idea from an agapé meal at a church we went to in France. There was bread in baskets down the middle of the table and bottles of cotes du rhone. It seemed the most natural thing in the world to start with giving thanks then passing round a piece of bread and then a glass of wine. Realised a key word is “whenever” you eat and drink these things …” Liz Figures
Or how about this conversation…
“How our SEN kids/youth/adults can help & serve ‘behind the scenes’. Anxiety prevents my son even being in church but if there were things he could do from home (baking) to serve it’s a connection and a step closer to fellowship.” Suzy Davey
“Great idea Suzy, maybe even baking the communion loaf, and taking a morsel before it’s brought to church?” Mark Arnold
“Perfect! Though would need to find the communion loaf setting on my rarely used breadmaker…” Suzy Davey
Mark 16:15-16, Matthew 28:19-20
“’K’ was 15 when he decided to be baptised. However, he doesn’t like getting his face wet, so baptism by immersion was likely to be a bit of a problem. After talking through with the minister and youth leader about what was going to happen when he was baptised, ‘K’ felt confident enough to go ahead. On the day, a towel was within easy reach so that he could dry his face as soon as possible afterwards. Nothing was said by either the minister or youth leader until ‘K’ had dried his face and he felt comfortable to continue. It was only little changes that were made, but it made a big difference to ‘K’. 🙂” Lynnette Peckett
“How do you know when someone with a learning disability is ready for baptism? When ‘E’ was about 19, in her last year at school, she came home from school one Friday evening and, as was her custom, as she came over the threshold, she was demanding what CD she wanted to hear. She chose Graham Kendrick’s “Make Way for the Cross”, but she only wanted one track. So, all evening we had to listen to “Love of Christ Come Now” on repeat until bedtime. The next day, all day long she kept repeating “Love of Christ come to ‘E'” over and over again. Then late in the afternoon she suddenly said, “‘E’s’ following Jesus”. We asked our pastors, if that’s her confession of faith, is there any reason why she shouldn’t be baptised?
They were very happy to baptise her, and she was very enthusiastic about being baptised. So, a couple of strong guys at church helped to lift her out of the wheelchair and into the baptistry and she was baptised by our pastor, my husband and a family friend. Because of her lack of trunk control and weight-bearing ability, it needed three of them.” Ros Bayes
My story is about baptism. One of the boys from Aslan was baptised on Easter Sunday this year. He is now 17 and has been part of the Aslan group for the past 6 years. His faith has developed slowly, and he sometimes gets mixed up about things but when his brothers were baptised last year, he started to talk about wanting to be baptised.
At the same time, his mother was also talking about baptism for herself. She had some doubts about his understanding but as she was going to do the Alpha course, she suggested that he join her on that. I knew that the material used would be difficult for him to grasp, so we decided that he would join in with the meal and listen to testimonies, and then we would leave the main group to spend time 1:1 going over the fundamentals of faith. I used the Youth Alpha videos as starting points for discussion. They are very well produced, with great visuals and, although I needed to simplify some of the content, we had plenty of time to pause the videos and discuss what the teaching was about.
I asked him questions to enable him to put together his testimony, but the wording was all his and he was capable of reading it out himself at the service, but at the last minute he asked me to read it out – nerves had got the better of him! I then also had the privilege of getting in the water and baptising him alongside the minister. His mum was also baptised at the same service – a very moving occasion! There’s a clip of it in the Aslan promotional video I shared recently!” Jackie Potter
“Our previous church in Exeter had a group that grew up through the kids and youth work together. It was called Rainbow and has since become Rainbow Living which works to provide supported semi-independent living accommodation. Just a bunch of regular parents who wanted to do something to help their kids longer term.
A lot of them have been baptised too. I remember one of the women (who I’ve known since she was about 10) making the decision but she was terrified of water. Baths and hair washing were so hard for her. So they did lots of water prep and had a bowl of water ready to use if she couldn’t manage getting in the baptistry. They did dry runs in the baptistry (it’s a weird place to stand!) as well and allowed her dad to do the baptism. There were a lot of tears shed that morning by our 500 strong congregation when she got in that water without hesitation and proudly declared (shouted!) her “yes” in response to “do you love Jesus as your friend and saviour?”! We all knew how much went into that moment and it’s moved me to tears to write about now! 🙂” Chrissi Pegg
“My daughter was housebound when she wanted to get baptised so we invited a few friends and a missionary couple came and did a little service in our living room then the wife went out on the balcony with her and (gently) poured a bucket of warm water over her. Very moving.” Liz Figures
1 Corinthians 12, 1 Peter 4:10-11
“I was doing my own version of ‘elf on the shelf’ in December 2016 for ‘N’ and I had a ‘kindness’ elf. The elf was all about getting ‘N’ to do small acts of kindness and reaching out to others in a way that was meaningful to her as a child with additional needs. She was seven. One day the elf asked her what she could do to help in church, or someone in church. The serving team at church saw it on my Facebook page and approached me to see if ‘N’ would like to be part of the welcome team one week. The elf bought her the star t-shirt to do the welcoming and the ladies were so impressed they suggested ‘N’ take up the offering the next week so I had to do another elf day for that one.
Three years later they still talk about it in church as no other child has ever asked or shown interest in helping like that.” Miriam Gwynne
“We often use children’s story books and the NIrV version so anyone can tell the story. We give them 3 simple questions to ask such as:-
- What does this tell us about God/Jesus/faith/church or is there something I didn’t already know or understand?
- What questions do I have or what does it mean to me personally?
- What is my response?
We sometimes do donuts to remember Jesus … bread & wine in one without the formality!” Karen Gray
“We used to have a 16 year old lad at church who was autistic, and also had a considerable degree of learning disability and severe OCD. As a result of his OCD, everything had to be scrupulously tidy and clean for him. So, he was made a regular member of the stewarding team and his duties were to meet and greet people at the door and to tidy up the auditorium afterwards.
In those days we sat around cafe-style tables in church, so he would clear all the rubbish off the tables, wipe them down and put all the chairs neatly tucked under the tables. His service was greatly appreciated and he understood that he was performing a valuable function which was important to the whole church. Sadly, he died before he was out of his teens, but is held in affectionate memory by the whole church.” Ros Bayes
“Our church is Anglican in Northern Ireland, which has contemporary services and tries its best to be inclusive. We have a young man who has a learning disability who occasionally reads the Bible reading from his own NIrV. The minister spent a lot of time with the family to see how the church could include him. He tries so hard and it is such an effort for him, that each time he does the reading, the end result is many people with tears in their eyes and rapturous applause. It’s a total glory to God moment.
Pretty much anyone can help with collection. My non-verbal son is up every week doing actions for the children’s song. We have a special needs teacher who is a church member and she leads worship using Makaton.” Gillian Tay
And finally… anonymised but hilarious…
“One amusing anecdote which won’t make it into your article [it just did] – a couple of weeks ago during communion (young adult) suddenly announced, “I don’t like bread, or wine. Have communion with Kit-Kats and Sprite!”
There isn’t anything scriptural that prevents (or should prevent) children, young people or young adults with additional needs or disabilities from taking communion, being baptised, or serving in church; and as we’ve seen from these stories, there are some wonderful and creative ways that this is happening all over the country… Let’s all join in and help everyone to belong, everyone to grow and develop in their faith, everyone to be allowed to respond to God however they want to…
“Amen! Thanks Batgirl!”
Who Stops Children From Being Included In Church?
Let ALL The Little Children Come To Me
‘Tuts’, ‘Looks’ And ‘Loud Comments’: Let ALL The Little Children Come To Me (Part 2)
Image rights: Creator:Silver Screen Collection Credit:Getty Images