Sunday, May 22, 2011

Missouri conference teaches churches how to be more inclusive of people with autism, disabilities

From The News-Leader. In the picture, Angela and Collin Lay play percussion. Instruments are passed out to parishioners during the praise team service.

Annette Brandenburg spends many Sunday mornings in the church foyer or even in her car.

Brandenburg's son has autism. He can't always sit still in church, with its noise and bright lights, but the family wants to experience worship and share in a church community.

"We know families that don't even go to church," she says. "They've given up."

A growing challenge for churches is finding a way to include people with autism and other disabilities, especially those who can cause disruption in a worship service.

"Right now, it's kind of tough on the churches and the families," says Brandenburg, who has set up a conference on Monday for churches to learn about the issues and some solutions. "We're hoping that the conference will inspire churches to create ministries and do outreach for a family that has autism and other disabilities."

The conference, "Autism, Disability and the Church," will offer clinical, theological, personal and practical information for families and church leaders.

The event includes a presentation by Jonathan and Rebecca Hosack, creators of Through the Roof Ministries.

Four years ago, the Hosacks took their training and experience working with people with disabilities into their church, where they created a ministry and a training program for other churches.

Jonathan got a degree in social work. Rebecca became a special education teacher. Both worked with people with a variety of disabilities.

They learned that many families they met had quit going to church, saying it was simply too hard on both the family and the church.

Church has always been important to the Hosacks, who have no children of their own. They were convinced that both the families they worked with and the churches would benefit by reaching out to each other.

"It's a lot about love," says Rebecca. "Our goal is for churches to be prepared to have those God sends them. It's not rocket science. ... People's hearts being accessible is the thing."

They took their idea to Denny and Alaine Stevens, pastors of Living Hope Fellowship church in north Springfield. Alaine's late brother had cerebral palsy. She understood the needs.

"When Rebecca and Jonathan came to us, it was really an answer to prayer," says Denny Stevens. "You're talking about a whole segment of society that is essentially overlooked."

The program started with a monthly Friday night Through the Roof Celebration, with a service geared to people with a range of disabilities.

Now, as many as a third of the people in worship at Living Hope Fellowship on Sunday mornings have some type of disability.

There are challenges, Stevens admits. First is getting them there, but a van with a lift met that need. Second: It can be labor intensive, but family and church members step up to help. Third: It means distractions and interruptions.

"It's just one of those things you have to work with," says Denny. "You have to give a lot of grace, and it's not always pretty."

Working together
John Marshall Jr. has experienced that grace on two sides -- as a parent of a son with autism and as a preacher's son. He is the son of the senior pastor at Second Baptist Church of Springfield.

At Monday's conference, he and his father will present their story and their church's response.

Because of Marshall's need, Second Baptist created the Red Room, where about a half-dozen autistic children in the church can go during the church service. There, they learn a Bible lesson, make crafts and have fun.

The church also has a buddy system in which adult volunteers work one-on-one with kids in the youth department.

Marshall understands that the church must meet the needs of all families, but he also understands that the disruption to a worship service can be a problem.

"We have to remember, it's not just about us," he says of being a parent with a special-needs child. "We need to realize that church is about community. We are just one part of that community."

Opening up the regular Sunday worship service to include people who may not be able to sit still or participate in a traditional way is a challenge Brentwood Christian Church hopes to take on, says Emily Bowen, associate pastor.

"We're looking at ways that worship can be beneficial for people who ... experience the world differently," she says.

Senior Pastor Phil Snider will participate in Monday's conference with Dr. Robert Grant, who works at Christian County Counseling. Their presentation will be on "Teaching Autistic Children About God."

"They are so literal," Brandenburg says. "How do you bring an abstract God into the mind of an autistic child?"

Martin Mittelstadt, a professor at Evangel University who has written on the topic, will address that question in his presentation, "Disability and the Church."

"I've seen people with intellectual disabilities worship," he says. "They have incredible trust. ... I think we can learn from that."

Mittelstadt will also challenge churches to go beyond a separate disability ministry. "There is a sense in which we objectify them," he says.

"We need to be more creative and visionary."