Welcoming Children with Special Needs into Corporate Worship
On the surface, it seems like a no-brainer that we would welcome children with special needs to the regular worship of God’s people. Don’t we want all men and women, boys and girls to be included in the community of worshipers? Isn’t this what Christianity is all about? But when we dig a bit deeper, three objections to their inclusion typically spring up:
- Children with special needs (depending on their disability) cannot understand the sermon.
- Children with special needs cannot truly participate in a typical worship service.
- Children with special needs can be a distraction to other worshipers.
Now, before we deal with these objections, it should be noted that these are the same objections raised against having ANY children in corporate worship. The rationale for the “children’s church model” is typically based on the desire to give children a worship experience that is on their educational level, and to keep them from becoming a distraction to adult worshipers. So, if church leaders are not committed to welcoming any children into corporate worship, then this question is moot. But, if we do believe Scripture teaches us that ALL of God’s people are to worship together (Deuteronomy 31, Matthew 19), then we may address these objections.
First, depending on the disability, it can certainly be a challenge for children to understand the average sermon. But does that inability automatically exclude them from worship? If this is the case, then there may also be senior members who have trouble comprehending, or members who struggle in school. Should they be placed into a service that fits their educational needs too? This objection ends up making the worship service into a mere classroom, or just an educational experience. Do we just come to worship to learn more about God and how to live before Him? Or, are there other places in church life that are better educational opportunities (Sunday School, small groups, Bible studies, catechism class, etc.)? And, even if individuals cannot understand the entire sermon, will there not be parts of it that will resonate? Let’s never forget that it is the Holy Spirit who gives us any understanding in the first place.
Second, there are children with special needs who will not be able to participate fully in the worship service. They can’t sing the songs or pray the prayers or receive the Lord’s Supper. Again, we must ask if the inability to participate is a reason for exclusion. Is the activity of worship solely based on being able to sing well, pray well, etc.? The gathering of God’s people for worship is just that—a gathering of worshipers. We assemble as the body of Christ to offer our worship to our Heavenly Father. And, if we pay close attention, individuals with special needs can also produce joyous worship in their own special way! Let us not forget the reality is that we all come with inability. None of us are able, in and of ourselves, to worship the living God. Individuals with disabilities just tend to have the more obvious need for help to be able to worship. “Nothing in my hand I bring, only to thy cross I cling,” should be the cry of all our hearts!
The third objection may be the most challenging of all, even if it is often unspoken. Children with special needs can be a distraction, especially those with disabilities like autism or ones that have vocal and bodily manifestations. Add to that, the parents who are distracted over concerns about their children distracting others from worship! But, let’s be honest, there are plenty of children and youth who can be a distraction in the service as well, not to mention our own personal distractions of fatigue, wandering minds, and even hunger. So, do we really want to exclude people from worship based on their distraction of others? Or, are all worshipers responsible to deal with all distractions, furthering our need for the Spirit to work in our hearts and minds? While we certainly must be considerate of others, including our pastors and worship leaders, it should not be at the expense of children who need to be welcomed into the worship of King Jesus.
With these objections answered, we must still recognize that welcoming children with special needs into worship is a significant challenge. That’s why every local church needs a disability ministry! Believing in the principle that ALL of our children must be included in corporate worship must connect to the wise practice of inclusion. Some of our children may need buddies in the worship service so that their parents can worship. Some children may only be able to make it through part of the service, and then need extra care and training in a quiet room. The congregation will need regular encouragement to understand the inclusion of all those with special needs. Great patience and care will be required to enable all of God’s people to worship together as the body of Christ, for the glory of God!
John C. Kwasny is Director of Discipleship Ministries at Pear Orchard Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Ridgeland, Mississippi. John has received his M.A. in Counseling and his Ph.D. in Christian Education. He is also the Worldview Integration Specialist at Christ Covenant School, an adjunct professor at Reformed Theological Seminary (Jackson), and Director of One Story Ministries, authoring Children’s curriculum for the church, school and home. John and Martie have eight children. He has a regular podcast called, Biblical Counseling Today.