Most people with children can remember a time when they tried to bring their infant or toddler to church, only to have them disrupt the service by fussing or crying loudly. As good Christians, in those moments, we might choose to leave the service and settle the child elsewhere, before attempting a triumphant return for the remainder of the service. However, even if we did not retreat, most people can usually tolerate a crying infant in church without being too judgmental towards the tiny offender and their family.
But what happens when the disruptive child isn’t an infant or even a toddler anymore? And what happens when the behaviors that disrupt are more than occasional crying and include running to the front of the church to spin in circles and jump around excitedly during worship time or, God forbid, during the preaching? Those are questions that my family is faced with. You see, my son David has Autism and he displays these behaviors in church. He isn’t misbehaving or deliberately ignoring our desperate pleas to sit still and not cause a scene. He struggles with verbal communication and with understanding expectations at times, which means sitting him down and explaining how good Christians behave in church won’t be helpful. So, although we love the Lord and desire to participate in all aspects of the service each Sunday, we made some changes to our routine in order to avoid disrupting the service. We arrive late each week, missing the praise and worship and time our arrival, so that my son and daughter can go straight to their Sunday school classes. No one asked us to do this; we chose to do it, based on David’s needs and the available options for us. But was it the right choice? Are there other options that we should be advocating for in our own church community to better support children and families that are just a little different? What exactly would those supports look like in practice? These are questions that remain and I certainly don’t have the answers.
Don’t get me wrong, we receive tremendous support at church. We have a network of amazing friends who take turns volunteering to be a one to one support for David in his class each week. Without the support of David’s one to one buddies, we would not be able to attend Sunday school. In fact, on days David’s buddies can’t attend, we choose to stay home. It still feels too risky to find out how David would handle being in class without someone there to directly support him and redirect him. His routine is fairly predictable and, as a result of the caring helpers that have spent time with him, he behaves well and follows the routines in class with little difficulty. Our experience is not perfect by any means, but we know that it is better than many other families facing similar situations with far less support for their loved ones.
The unfortunate truth is that some of those families become discouraged by the lack of support and turn away from church altogether, out of frustration.
I don’t want to make blanket statements and over generalizations about the collective body of Christ, because I know there are churches that get it right or are working towards a goal of inclusiveness and support for marginalized members of the body. However, I think we need to work harder and be more deliberate in challenging any barriers that may exist which would prevent someone from participating in the full experience of our church communities. Sometimes these barriers are obvious, such as not having facilities accessible to someone in a wheel chair. The solutions in that case might be equally as obvious. Other barriers may not be quite as obvious and may simply be “church culture” and practices that have been engrained in our church community over time.
In Matthew 19:13-15, Jesus was teaching and some children were brought to him for prayer. His disciples responded to this by trying to send them away. Was this based on a perceived breach of social or cultural norms at the time? Were they simply afraid the kids would get too rowdy? We can speculate, but can’t really know for certain what they were thinking. What we do know is that Jesus stops them and says, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” If even the disciples who walked with Jesus got it wrong, once in a while, I am sure we are not above correction and self-evaluation as the body of Christ in this day and age.
No church would ever advertise that they openly reject people with disabilities. But how many churches truly make those with disabilities feel welcome in their community?
At the end of the day, there is little difference between feeling rejected and not feeling welcome.
We must do a better job at welcoming these families and not hindering them as we move forward in unity, celebrating the fact that we are all diverse members of the same body of Christ. Paul celebrated this diversity in 1 Corinthians 12 and declared, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” (12:26)
Lets move forward with a determination to honor ALL parts of the body, by whatever means necessary. By doing so, we will demonstrate the love of Christ in practice, putting our profession of faith into action.