Sunday, September 18, 2011

Churches must welcome special-needs children

After my most recent column, “Teaching children to behave in church,” a mother of an autistic child emailed me saying, “I certainly do not want to intrude on the worship of others who come to church for peace and spiritual replenishment. ... However, noise is often just a part of having such wonderful and special people in our lives.”

She went on to ask, “Do we deprive ourselves and our children of worship and settle for a lifetime of sporadic church attendance?”

Let me first clarify: My column was not directed at parents with special-needs children; their behavior during worship is not a result of bad parenting.

One of the issues that sparked the Christianity Today article referenced in my piece was the removal of a boy with cerebral palsy from a service in a church in North Carolina. It was apparent from this action and the comments that followed that many churches are not prepared to accommodate special-needs children and their families. Consequently, their parents often opt to stay home. This is unfortunate because worship services can provide spiritual guidance needed to cope with challenging family situations.

The dilemma can be circular: Special-needs families may not attend church because they do not feel welcome. The church does nothing to accommodate them because they have no members in that category.

In the Bible, God said “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.” Thus, it is the church’s responsibility to ensure all people are truly welcome.

Cry rooms provide one solution for families wishing to participate in worship but leery of being disruptive. But inclusion goes far beyond architectural offerings.

Ministry workers should be trained to handle children with disabilities. Many Christian publishing companies provide materials for special-needs children. Parents would be much more comfortable entrusting their children to teachers who are willing and prepared for the challenge.

Parishioners must also be educated. Sometimes congregants may not be aware that a child has a disability. There are times, however, when well-meaning worshippers may not know what to do. Simple actions such as inviting a special-needs child to a birthday party, offering to help a parent, or extending a personal invitation to a church event, may go a long way toward making families feel welcome.

Churches have a lot to learn about accommodating special-needs children and their families. Physical barriers can be eliminated and staff and congregants can be trained. But it also may require the commitment of families with special-needs children to help create an atmosphere that is truly inclusive.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Teaching kids to behave in church

In an Aug. 31 online piece, Christianity Today asked readers to weigh in on the question, “Should churches try to minimize disruptions?” The column notes a South Carolina church bars children from its main service. A North Carolina congregation removed a boy with cerebral palsy because he was supposedly marring the service.

So how should churches respond to children in worship?

When I was a child, church was far from fun. My siblings and I were expected to sit through a two-hour service, appear engaged and be on our best behavior. My mother would glare at us if we showed the slightest sign of unruliness. In those days, the responsibility of monitoring children during worship was left to the parent.

It is more challenging for churches today because parents seem to be more lenient with their kids. Perhaps not wanting to subject their children to the rigid disciplinary practices they endured, parents sometimes let their brood run wild. There also are adults who were not raised in church and are unfamiliar with worshipful decorum.

While parents are ultimately responsible for their unruly children, churches play a role. Many offer separate children’s services that run concurrent with adult worship. Many open nurseries for babies and toddlers. Some buildings contain soundproof cry rooms, where parents can see and hear the service while tending to noisy youngsters.

Jesus was adamant about welcoming children. He told his disciples who were trying to prevent a group of kids from approaching him to “let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”

During worship or even when I’m preaching from the pulpit, the occasional disruption from a child does not bother me. More disturbing are disruptive adults — those who chatter through worship, who make numerous trips to the restroom or who repeatedly walk in and out to take phone calls. Children will be children; adults are supposed to know better.

Churches can minimize disruptions by creating a fun atmosphere for kids. But parents can help. For instance, children should not be allowed to sprint down the aisle, jump on the pews, kick the seats or throw things. If unruly church children are never taught how to behave during worship, they will likely grow up and become disruptive church adults.