What would happen if you asked 10 of your closest friends how they define the word worship? Probably, they would each say something a little bit different. Worship is not definable by one thing, and that is part of its beauty! Worship is not one thing, it changes from culture to culture, church to church, and even person to person. The point of worship is to praise the LORD, for all that he is and all that he has done. That being said, sometimes the way church communities worship can be overwhelming for individuals affected by special needs, and their families. My younger sister with autism enjoys music, but can get overstimulated if the volume gets too loud. She also prefers the lights to be dim, rather than very bright. These small preferences can contribute to her ability to worship. The way many people feel comfortable worshipping, is not the way that she is able to participate. Here are 3 ways you, as a church community, can contribute to an inclusive and accessible worship setting.
#1-Have Buddy Bags available and ready to be used for church members or visitors who require extra resources during the worship service.
You can prep a few generic bags ready for potential visitors, these should include noise-cancelling headphones, fidget toys, accessible note-taking materials, and other things helpful to your specific church context. And don’t be afraid to get creative, you could even include sunglasses in case the lights are too bright for someone! Also make sure you have the regular attendees Buddy Bags stocked and easy to grab, checking that everything is accounted for before the service begins.
#2-Designate certain seats for those with particular needs.
Besides the wheelchair accessible seats, you also can have seats towards the back, farther from loud music that may be playing. Or, you could have seats close to the doors in case families need to come and go on sensory break walks or other things of that nature. Do your best to make these designated seats still feel like they are a part of the congregation, while serving particular needs.
#3-Center your church attitude on the purpose of worship.
Leave behind the extra things that are simply preferential, and trade them in for more accommodating features. Have conversations about leaving unrealistic expectations at the door! Pray for yourself and others in your church to accept everyone who walks in the door, no matter how loud they are or if they cannot stay seated the whole time. Let the desire for true kingdom worship, with all the members of His kingdom present, to trump unsaid expectations of a quiet and ‘orderly’ service.
Friends, there is no magic recipe to ensure a time of ‘authentic’ worship in a church. However, by praying through our priorities as a church body, creating practical resources to support accessible worship, and working to create a space for the WHOLE kingdom of God to worship, we can honor our LORD who has brought us together by his blood.
Elaina Marchenko is a Senior at Wheaton College, graduating with a Bachelor’s in Biblical and Theological Studies, with a certificate in Human Needs and Global Resources. She is a sibling to two sisters with special needs, and is passionate about fostering a faith community that not only welcomes people like her siblings, but celebrates them. She is passionate about the gospel, good coffee, finding freedom through the gospel, and working towards social change.