It’s over six months in since the start of lockdown and some churches are beginning to open back up for in-building services again, exploring ways to meet the Government guidelines for gatherings of no more than 30 people, or is it six, or is it 3.14159. It’s difficult, the rules keep changing and most churches that have been running Zoom (or similar) sessions over the past six months are continuing to run these too, often alongside in-building services, recognising that this is the only way for many to still be able to participate in church.
While this blended, hybrid, approach is trying to meet the needs of congregations, children’s, youth and families workers are also trying to keep in regular contact with the families they have been working with, and for many this has only been possible remotely by running children’s and youth work online. As with all online stuff over this period, there has been a mixed response, and this is particularly the case when the children and young people trying to access this content have additional needs or disabilities.
Along with my friend Kay Morgan-Gurr, I’m co-founder of the Additional Needs Alliance*, a collective of 2,500 children’s/youth/families workers, parent carers, practitioners and more who are involved in the lives of children with additional needs. We asked them for their experiences of the support and resourcing provided by churches for them and their children; here’s what some of them had to say:
What has your church done to support your family and help you to nurture the faith development of your child?
“Our Church have held online kids church and have regularly emailed me. Sadly, my kids have struggled to engage with online stuff and the emails got lost in a deluge of other emails that the pandemic seemed to bring.”
“Sunday Kids get together Zooms with craft and storytelling resources. The heart was to adapt and questions were asked but time and energy wasn’t there as all kids leaders have their own families.”
“Our church have been truly amazing… they have provided twice weekly Zoom meetings for the children. They live streamed two services a week for the majority of lockdown. One aimed at the children and one more traditional service.”
What else could church do to support your family and help you to nurture the faith development of your child?
“Make contact. Check on my children, make them feel part of our church and loved… but really just some contact, to make us feel like we are part of the church, that people are thinking of us, that we belong.”
“Something offline. Maybe dropping round a card or an activity pack. Something personal. My kids learn by example and by watching and copying people. They don’t learn through stories or games or worksheets. What would teach them about Jesus is the actions of those around them, the ones that know them by name.”
“We would like to see more online content and teaching each Sunday aimed at younger members as there is nothing at present and our son isn’t engaging in their online services as they can be a bit ‘dry’ for young people.”
There were lots more comments sent in by families, further reflecting the views above, but what seemed to underpin them all was that the ‘relational’ aspect of children’s and youth work was suffering. Families said that they needed churches to be in touch with them more, and not just by email but by phone, or in person (socially distanced of course!) That personal touch seemed to have become a victim of lockdown and families were feeling even more isolated, excluded and alone than before.
This mirrors the findings of a recent Disabled Children’s Partnership report*, which identified some stark and worrying findings including a collapse in the support offered to families, with half of parent carers saying that the extra support or therapies for their children that they had in place before lockdown had stopped. For families that had received access to short respite breaks before lockdown, three-quarters reported that this respite care had stopped. The overwhelming majority of families have seen a decline in the mental health of their children and themselves, with over half of families also saying that either their physical health, and/or their children’s, had worsened.
Maybe by switching everything to Zoom we lost something precious, something that we need to rediscover and put back at the heart of what we do going forward, whatever ‘blended’ or ‘hybrid’ children’s, youth and families work looks like for us. We need to find that personal, relational touch again; reaching out to families to engage with them individually, hearing their stories and asking them how we can help. Understanding their struggles and standing with them.
The final word, summing this up more eloquently that I could, goes to a Mum who responded to the Additional Needs Alliance request for feedback:
“Notice us. We will always cope and be ‘OK’ because we don’t have any other choice. See beyond the bravado and offer us something to make sure we know you’re taking us with you. It could be as simple as noticing that someone isn’t at church (online or in-building) and calling them to check that everything is OK? If things are tough for us, drop your sermon notes round with a cappuccino sachet and a cake so that the parents can ‘take five’ and do church together. Mostly though, just notice us.”
*Additional Needs Alliance
Facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/additionalneedsalliance
* Disabled Children’s Partnership report
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Content © Mark Arnold, image © Nursery World