One unanticipated blessing of the disruption caused by COVID-19 is the appreciation we’ve gained for being gathered together for worship.
We’ve also had a relatively brief taste of what church is like for families caring for children with intellectual, developmental, mental health and complex medical disabilities. For the past three months they’ve been on a level playing field with the rest of us when it comes to taking part in worship, fellowship and Christian education activities, eagerly accessing ministry available online. Many legitimately fear they’ll be left behind and quickly forgotten as church life gets back to “normal.” The church can’t let that happen.
I’d argue that online church services, small groups and Christian education have become indispensable disability ministry tools over the last several months. Many of the families our ministry helps churches serve strongly agree. Here are three reasons why.
Life may not return to normal for them for a very long time.
Before the virus had spread widely throughout the U.S., we anticipated the disability community would be more severely impacted by COVID-19. That’s proven to be true. A recent study reported that children under 18 with intellectual or developmental disabilities were nearly nine times more likely to contract COVID-19 and sixteen times more likely to die from it than age-matched peers. Adults with autism and other developmental disabilities are twice as likely to contract COVID-19 and twice as likely to die when they become infected, while those living in group homes have a COVID-19 mortality rate four times that seen in “neurotypicals” who become infected. A researcher from the University of Colorado described COVID-19 as the “perfect storm” for persons with Down syndrome as a result of the the immune dysregulation caused by trisomy 21.
Evana Sandusky is a speech and language pathologist who serves in special needs ministry while raising her daughter with Down syndrome. She writes here of her concerns as churches transition back to in-person worship. The bold type is hers.
I cannot wait to go back to church, but it will not be anytime soon. My daughter is medically complex and falls into the at-risk category. To put her health history briefly, she sees a cardiologist for two different heart conditions and a pulmonologist for four different lung issues. For a number of reasons, our family will be avoiding situations that have substantial crowds for some time.
The idea of staying home to protect our daughter is nothing new for our family. At different times, our daughter’s medical team has suggested that we conduct school at home and avoid crowds for varying amounts of time in order to minimize risks for her. With COVID-19, we will be listening to those team members again on how to safely return to those riskier parts of life.
There is something I would like to remind people as churches reopen: do not forget about the at-risk families. I know everyone is excited and grateful to be reunited in person again. As you gather together to sing and pray, please remember that not everyone is there with you. You may feel happy to return and elated that things are becoming more normal. However, there are families like mine that are still muddling through without the sense of community at church services.
She expresses a hope that families like her won’t be forgotten during the return to church.
For those returning to church, pray for families like mine. Ask God to give us more strength to sustain us through the isolation that has been happening. Reach out to help us make those connections that we cannot do from a computer screen. Please remember that your whole church body is not completely together yet.
How can we deprive our families of the ministry supports we used to get through quarantine when their ongoing isolation is likely to persist for many more months?
Online ministry is effective for outreach and few people groups are more in need of outreach from churches than families of kids with disabilities.
Many of my friends in disability ministry have seen this slide, but it demonstrates the impact of common mental and developmental disabilities in children on family church attendance.
Six months ago an argument could easily be made that most churches didn’t know how to do ministry with people who are cut off for one reason or another from church. That argument is no longer valid. Online services, small groups and Bible studies were a lifeline for untold millions of Christians unable to gather over the past three months because of COVID-19. Why can’t they continue to be a lifeline for:
- Families who continue to isolate because of COVID-19?
- Families who can’t leave the house because they can’t find or can’t afford sitters or respite care?
- Families in which parents never attend church together because they take turns serving as caregiver?
- Families who choose not to leave the house because the process of transitioning their kids to church is so difficult that parents are exhausted by the time they arrive?
Many churches streamed services over Facebook and encouraged members to invite friends and neighbors without a church. What about continuing to stream services while encouraging members to invite those unable to attend church because of physical, developmental or mental health disabilities?
Many families impacted by disability are describing more joyful, impactful and meaningful experiences of church than they had before COVID-19.
Dr. Janyne McConnaughey is an educator and trauma expert who promotes effective educational, spiritual, and therapeutic methods for the healing of inadequate attachment and childhood trauma. I came across this post of hers in which she described her experience of online church as a trauma survivor as our ministry team was preparing to host one of her webinars.
The book explained how many church experiences are difficult for those who are struggling with mental health–especially anxiety. I deeply understood this problem at many points in my life. While reading, I wondered what it would feel like to be able to experience church online? Not just streamed services, but relational connections all through the week. Could I convince anyone to try it?
Then came a pandemic. What my church (Bethel Church of the Nazarene) has provided during this time has involved me in ways that I truly needed, but was struggling to access by walking in the door. (Healing is a life-time commitment.)
I have met more people than I did in a year. I conducted a Zoom Bible Study and Scott attended a Zoom hangout with the pastor. And then there were times of worship (where my back didn’t hurt while standing). I got to watch both the adult and children’s messages and watch my grandson play cello on a synchronized video. And then last week, I invited a friend from England to attend with me.
Honestly, I will be sad to return to “normal.” I feel like (as the book suggested) that my time online will help me to feel more a part of the church when I return, but there are so many things I will miss. I understand it has been hard work for the staff, but their creativity and dedication has not gone unnoticed.
For those who long to be together again, I want that for you. There were times in my life when I would have felt exactly the same. But anyone who says that their right to worship together has been withheld from them, may have missed the best opportunity of all time. The pandemic forced churches to think differently, and for those who struggle with traditional formats, this has been a gift.
The church has not been hindered–I am grateful for my church leaders who have kept us both connected and safe! Thanks for proving it was possible!
We asked families served by our parent support ministry if online church (worship services, small groups, Christian education) has been helpful to them and whether they want churches to continue online services after life returns to normal, along with asking about the negatives of having church online? Here are some of the comments they shared.
We love online church. Our daughter with special needs cant go often to church so one or both of us stay home. Our church didn’t have online services until this pandemic. Now we can be a part of our services every week. The podcasts arent the same. And they didn’t include the worship, which is so important.
Church is my son’s happy place. Online services help us stay connected and not feel so disconnected.
We have missed live church. While our church does not have a special needs ministry per se (although we would love that!), the children’s ministry has the ability to have volunteers stay with our kids and any other children who were overwhelmed in a dedicated room. It allowed my husband and I to worship without worrying about our kid. While we have tried to keep our kids occupied so we could watch a Sunday service, inevitably something would always come up with one or both and we would get pulled away.
My kids have really enjoyed the online church services because going to church in person is so hurtful to them. They both have autism, and no one really engages them in conversation at all, other than to say hello. They feel ignored.
My family has truly enjoyed the laid back on the couch watch service when it fits best for us online services. Yet I truly love being able to worship with our congregation. I enjoy having the option and hope it continues so that if one of the kids are sick we can still enjoy the service without being split up, especially during winter months!
Being parents to a total care son we have loved online church..
I miss the singing and the personal connection to people. Many in our small church are older and don’t have internet connection, so we are looking forward to having parking lot services together as soon as possible! I have enjoyed hearing the sermons on-line though. Discussing the sermons with others helps get them into my long-term memory and apply them to my life..
If your church is has an online presence and an interest in disability ministry, your online presence needs to be a critical component of your disability ministry strategy.
For more on this topic, I included an entire chapter in Mental Health and the Church on the topic of developing a church-wide communication strategy that incorporates online ministry.
In Mental Health and the Church: A Ministry Handbook for Including Children and Adults with ADHD, Anxiety, Mood Disorders, and Other Common Mental Health Conditions, Dr. Stephen Grcevich presents a simple and flexible model for mental health inclusion ministry for implementation by churches of all sizes, denominations, and organizational styles. The book is also designed to be a useful resource for parents, grandparents and spouses seeking to promote the spiritual growth of loved ones with mental illness. Available now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, ChristianBook and other fine retailers everywhere.