A little over six years ago, our ministry began to experiment with an idea that was clearly too far ahead of its’ time. We were looking at different applications of online church as a strategy for outreach with individuals and families impacted by disability.
Our Board pulled the plug on the project for a variety of reasons. Too many people experienced challenges connecting to the platform we used to host the services. The vast majority of our ministry’s followers already had a church and didn’t sense a need to watch or to invite others to watch. Online advertising at the time was either expensive or inefficient. Music licensing made it impossible for us to share complete worship services from partner churches on our ministry’s platform. The number of churches streaming services online was relatively small, and a lack of awareness of the extent to which families with disabilities were excluded from church limited the buy-in from church leaders.
When the COVID-19 pandemic caused the cancelation of public worship services and forced most churches to make their worship available online, individuals and families impacted by significant physical, developmental or mental health disabilities were finally on an equal footing with their non-disabled peers.
I’ve seen more and more social media posts suggesting that the church’s efforts to make ministry available online are bearing fruit in the disability community. I shared this comment from a family from my area in last week’s post on why COVID-19 related health risks many keep many individuals and families from attending church for a very long time.
Having a son on the Autism spectrum/ADHD can make attending church hard. The environment can be overwhelming, the sounds too loud, and the “being still” for a long period of time is difficult.
Being home for church has been hard for us—but for Isaac, it has been refreshing. He is worshiping with us, listening to the message (as best as he can) and can stay in a comfy blanket and jammies. He can also talk to us during the message and not feel like he will get “in trouble.”
In light of missing my church family in person, I am seeing the little joys of being home and watching the ways Isaac can be a part.
While I was serving as a chat host this morning during my church’s online worship services, a mother of a teen with autism from our disability ministry was expressing her joy at seeing her son loudly singing the words to the worship songs. In the course of flipping back and forth to gather resources for this post, I saw this video from another mom worshiping at home with her son with autism.
I’ve seen multiple posts in the last two weeks in the Facebook group our ministry hosts for approximately 2,000 special needs and disability ministry leaders on scheduling and launch of online groups. On Friday night, a group member who recently lost a young adult child with a disability posted this:
I just want to put this out there. Aria passed away a few months ago, and for the last couple of years before she did, she was mostly homebound during church and would hardly attend church services.
With COVID-19 we’ve seen people make a way to minister to people in their homes like we never experienced before, and as a father of a special needs child and former special needs ministry director, it makes me a bit jealous if I’m honest. Jealous that she missed out on the greatest effort ever put forth to minister to people in situations like hers.
But I am also filled with hope.
I hope that we learn from this (if we’re not doing it already) that homebound individuals that are in our faith communities need us now AND after this. I also hope that the empty seats that we see now in our congregations continue to convict us and that each time we see that seat or spot where a person used to go, that we remember that person still exists and wants to be loved on by the body.
Lord teach us in this season.
It’s very possible that the COVID-19 pandemic will have provided the impetus for introducing many local churches to people in their communities with conditions that would otherwise make in-person attendance highly unlikely or impossible.
Based on our earlier experiences with online ministry, here are some suggestions we’d make to churches interested in serving the disability community during this time.
- Continuation of online services and online groups after churches continue to meet again is essential. We know that the risks of attending worship services in person may be unacceptably high for older members and members with complex medical conditions for up to a year or more. Why would your church eliminate an essential avenue for people homebound for any reason to access your church?
- Use your online platforms to make it easy for families impacted by disabilities to connect with someone from your church who might come alongside them and help include them in other church activities. You might consider using staff, volunteers or individuals familiar with your church’s disability ministry to serve as chat hosts during online services. If your church has a text line to field prayer requests or facilitate contact information, let families watching online know they can access support by texting “DISABILITY” or “SPECIAL NEED” to that line.
- Encourage families served by your disability ministry to host watch parties for services streamed through Facebook and invite other families they know without a church to join them for worship.
- Consider how your church might include families with disabilities into small groups taking place online, or how you might establish creating new types of support groups online as a strategy to attract individuals and families without a church.
Wouldn’t it be great if God were to use our current circumstances to draw more people into a relationship with him through the online resources developed by local churches in result to the pandemic?
Our team at Key Ministry has assembled a COVID-19 resource center for churches and families. Find trainings and resources created by our team, along with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Faith-Based Partnership Center, the Centers for Disease Control, Saddleback Church and others. Check it out today.