Guest commentary by Ben Keller
We know that church hasn’t always been a safe and supportive place for those with special needs or limitations. The music can be too loud, the seating too confining, the sermons too long or not participatory enough — and honestly, people can sometimes be judgmental towards those with disabilities or their families. You probably know what we’re talking about: the looks, the stares, the questions, the uninvited and uncomfortable parenting advice that people sometimes give.
In April, First Presbyterian Church of Pueblo in Colorado launched Access Worship. Access Worship is a unique, intergenerational, ecumenical new worshipping community for those with special needs and their families in Southern Colorado. We strive to include those of all abilities in providing both leadership and participation. We are strongly attuned to the special needs of those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), cognitive difficulties and mobility challenges. We meet monthly on Sunday afternoons for spiritual growth, fellowship, encouragement and worship.
Access Worship came about through collaboration between FPC’s director of Christian education, Sara Peaslee and myself, the church’s senior pastor. Sara’s oldest son and my oldest nephew both have ASD. Additionally, my youngest brother-in-law was adopted and born with fetal alcohol syndrome and a number of developmental delays.
How the service came about was really a God thing. I was preaching a bit of a visioning sermon last summer and mentioned that I wanted to start a service for those with special needs and developmental delays. Little did I know that Sara, a recent addition to the church’s staff, had been also wanting to do this as a means of bringing spiritual support to her own family and others touched by ASD.
Sara and I began to prayerfully collaborate on sharing ideas, shared our vision with church members and community partners and assembled a visioning team. We began to explore resources and models, but were not able to find much in terms of creating a unique worship service for our target population. So they asked a lot of questions of parents, professionals, special education teachers, speech pathologists, occupational therapists, physicians, other disabilities ministries and those with special needs.
Just prior to launch, we came across Rejoicing Spirits,a wonderful ministry that has a very similar model to our own vision. David deFreese, pastor and the coordinator at Rejoicing Spirits, has been very affirming in the work that we have been doing at First Presbyterian. (Learn more about Rejoicing Spirits in this recent Presbyterian Outlook feature article. If you are interested in starting a service for those with special needs at your church, we strongly encourage you to connect with David at rejoicingspirits.org. They help plant special needs ministries in churches around the country.)
Palm Sunday was our kick-off service and it went very well. Our local paper gave us some great publicity to help get us established.
The service flow is much like a children’s church worship. The sermon is short, somewhat interactive and seeks to be meaningful for those of all cognitive abilities and their caregivers. The liturgy utilizes short, repetitive responses. The music is simple. We have a brief video to introduce the Scripture and a craft time that connects with the message. We celebrate birthdays and have a special prayer for caregivers. Personally, my favorite part of the service is the offering. We give everyone a paper heart and the question: What do you want to give to God today? It could be a smile, love, singing, the gift of time or saying “thank you.” Doing the offering like this allows everyone to give of his or her gifts.
One of our key measures of success is to have those with special needs involved in all aspects of leading this ministry. We want to allow this service to basically be owned by our special needs population. Our ultimate goal is to develop both a family ministry and a youth/young adult group for those with special needs.
First Presbyterian Church is happy to be the host of Access Worship. FPC has been striving to be a place of full inclusion for all people in all aspects of life and ministry. For our weekly worship services, we’ve recently begun using picture scheduling for all of our bulletins and are being intentional to include those with varying abilities in worship service, music and beyond.
Since 1870, FPCP has been an active and integral part of our community. We host over a dozen nonprofits and community partners such as AA, NA, ALANON, NAMI, Co-Dependents Anonymous, a Cub Scout Pack, a Girl Scout Troop, a Boy Scout troop BSA and one of the first Girls-BSA troops in the country. We also financially support and provide volunteers for over a dozen different ministries and nonprofits in the community that provide care to the homeless, working poor, victims of domestic violence, migrant workers, CASA and others.
Yet we believe that Access Worship will become one of the favorite and most meaningful ways we can serve our community.
Ben Keller is senior pastor First Presbyterian Church in Pueblo, Colorado, and organizing pastor for Access Worship Special Needs Family Ministry.