One child might sit quietly for most of worship, another person might be walking circles around the sanctuary. A third might be at the Lego table, building and soaking in what’s going on around them. My son Westley is most likely to be up in front, trying to help whoever is leading the worship service. Everyone is doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing, because this is what TrailPraisers worship is about: meeting God exactly where you are at that day and time.
For us, it is a learning community. We don’t really have a formula yet. We’ve met less times than there are disciples. And every single worship looks different. Sometimes it’s just us planners from the presbytery (and our families), and sometimes it is 20 or more people — all different ages, stages, faiths and abilities, which is the point. At TrailPraisers, we believe we can all learn about God together.
Worship planning is inside out — in fact almost everything is inside out. We plan with the assumption that most people won’t know the songs we are singing or the prayers we are praying. Primary consideration is to make sure that there are all kinds of ways to worship included: still and moving, silent and talking, loud and quiet, interactive and observational. However, we are building some constants (like Legos at every worship), but the constants are more about what works than doing worship “the right way.”
Instead of making a worship service that is more accessible to individuals of differing needs and abilities, we are trying to build worship that invites differing needs and abilities. Worship has been turned inside out. And sometimes it looks a little more like vacation Bible school than church and sometimes the ages are little older or younger than what we’ve worked with thus far, but these variables make us all the more eager to learn.
Access is nice. Building a community is gospel.
How many places can you go where you not only feel a sense of belonging but feel wanted? Church is one of the few public places where my almost-9-year-old son Westley feels safe. An almost nonverbal kid with autism, he loves church. He knows he will not get kicked out — something that he experienced and understood at the very young age of three after a disastrous attempt at nursery school as we were getting his diagnosis sorted out.
It’s risky to show people your true self. When Westley curls into a ball and screams because no one understands what he is trying to communicate, there’s a chance that he will no longer be welcome. He may be tolerated or accepted, but what he adds to the community is not being valued. Welcoming is valuing someone and having faith in them before one even understands them. At TrailPraisers, every single person in my family is valued for exactly who they are. None of us are perfect, but we are all welcomed, and we are vastly different from one another.
I want every individual to experience what Westley does when he comes to worship. I want everyone to experience what all my kids feel when we worship. My 11-year-old son Franklin ends up leading everyone around, using his leadership skills. My youngest son Ashburn, who is 7, is very shy, even during church. But Ashburn is not shy during TrailPraisers — here he’s one of the kids who talks to everyone who walks in the door. We all experience worship uniquely and together at TrailPraisers.
I want others with special needs to find the Lord’s Supper to be the most inclusive and communal thing ever. When Westley takes communion, he is completely focused on the bread and the cup. He sits side by side with his brothers and is a part of things. When Westley tastes the sensation of the Body of Christ on his tongue, his sensory-seeking behavior is a gift. And when he is waiting to drink the cup together, quivering with excitement, he knows that he is a part of Christ’s church. He can taste it in every drop of the liquid he licks from his cup.
When Westley is upset, he walks in circles, over and over again. His soothing circles are natural. We walk them a lot. During his brothers’ swim lessons at the university, Westley and I would bike circles around the parking lot or walk around the campus in circles. But it wasn’t until we were walking around the circles in an actual garden labyrinth of the campus interfaith center did I realize that we religious people have been trying to learn how to do what comes naturally to those with autism. What are we missing when we don’t fully include those who look and act differently from us? What else is there for me to learn about God?
Access is nice, but we can’t be the community of God without fully embracing everyone.
What about those who have trouble making it to church every Sunday? What about those of us who can’t sit, who can’t verbalize or who can’t read? What about those of us who can’t remember what’s going on, or need to dance in order to be engaged, or those of us who need some space to be quiet and alone? There is no them, there’s only us. And the more we figure out how to be a better community, the more we look at welcome as an ongoing, educational process, and the more we are going to realize access is nice, but God’s Kingdom promises so much more.
Katy Stenta is the pastor of New Covenant Presbyterian Church in Albany, New York, and co-founder of TrailPraisers. She loves big and creative ideas and to read as much fantasy as possible.