One evening, not too long ago, we picked up my son, Eddie after youth group. As we were driving home, I started in with my usual questions, to which he gave his short, one or two word answers. He just isn’t a man of many words.
“How was youth group tonight?”
“What did you guys do?”
(pause) “Sang songs.”
“Did you sing along?”
“Buddy, I’ve noticed in church that you don’t participate at the service. In fact, you and Layla always look like you hate everyone in the room. How come?”
“Eddie, you can tell me why. There isn’t a right or wrong answer.”
“Mom is giving you the car ride home to think about it and then I need you to try to talk to me.”
(I am only pushing the subject because I can sense there is a real problem for him.)
Ten minutes pass and he is still silent in the back seat. I know he is trying to think it through – process this question and formulate his answer. Just imagine if someone asked a pointed question of him in youth group! As we approach our driveway, I ask the question one more time.
“Why don’t you participate in what we do at church? You loved to when you were little.”
He is silent a minute more before he quietly speaks.
“I can’t really have a relationship with God.”
“Because I can’t even remember the stories.”
10,000 daggers into his mother’s heart. I will respect so many reasons from my children for not having faith in God, but this is one I cannot accept. Because this reason means that he believes that he is not smart enough to know God. In his mind, he can’t be in the Jesus Club.
Why did he think this way? I do daily kids Bible devotions, I read from the children’s Bible so he can understand, I pray with the kids, we do what we can to help them understand that God is with them and He is for them. Church is supposed to be a place where everyone belongs like in a family but too often and for far too many people, church can feel like a club…a very exclusive Jesus Club.
My son is most certainly not the only person who experiences this in church. Kids with:
- trauma backgrounds
- various medical diagnoses
- learning disabilities
- living in poverty
- mental health issues
…all learn differently. Adults struggle with these obstacles as well and if they are not accommodated for at church, then the message is lost. Very little can penetrate the soul if the mind cannot understand. I am so thankful that my son could finally verbalize what his problem was in church. I believe his words speak for thousands who are not currently in the Jesus Club and can’t recognize it or say it out loud. Enter into nearly any church in North America and you will find that the teaching is all geared to a very specific level of literacy. If you can’t perform or process at that level, then you are excluded from participating, whether you or the rest of the congregation are even aware of it.
So, what can churches do to help integrate and ensure that EVERYONE in their congregations are able to fully participate and engage with the gospel of Jesus? I have attended MANY churches all over the West Coast and this list addresses problems I have encountered in all or some of these churches:
- Do not reward Bible verse memorization and public regurgitation skills with candy, only to leave out the kids who CAN’T perform in this way. No memory verse, no candy, and therefore, no Jesus…is what this practice teaches kids.
- Include in corporate worship services at least one or two songs that are more repetitive and less wordy than others.
- Provide a few paper copies of song sheets available in large print for people who struggle with reading and processing words from a distance.
- In any multimedia presentation, if there are words to be read on a screen, be sure that someone is designated to read the words aloud. If you are a slow processor, the words are gone from the screen before you understand what it said.
- Have volunteers in Sunday School trained to help a child with disability or trauma behaviors. Understanding the reasons behind behaviors can also help prevent future meltdowns and leaves parents with peace of mind. Children will trust and develop positive relationships with their teachers. Nothing is more like Jesus than practicing this: looking beyond the behavior to the need underneath it.
- Do not automatically call a parent out of a worship service if a child doesn’t immediately calm down or is needy unless the parents request it. Ask parents ahead of time if there is a time limit to go by before calling them out. Be willing to find creative solutions.
- Glean information from families concerning special needs or trauma backgrounds in the registration process. Part of this should include how to help soothe each individual child.
- Try to keep class room or teacher changes to a minimum – for children with autism or OCD, making that last minute adjustment is enough for a tailspin.
- When changes cannot be avoided, let parents know ahead of time so they can prepare their children beforehand, easing that transition into the classroom.
- Find resources and toys for kids with sensory integrations issues (chew toys or gum, weighted lap blankets, play dough, drawing/doodling materials etc) to be used while they are involved in class discussions. They can process and retain so much more with these things available. Youth groups would benefit too!
The truth is that Eddie CAN know Jesus for himself. The Good News of Jesus is simple and it is meant to be so. Jesus came so that ANYONE can know him from the smallest child, to the illiterate, to the marginalized, to the poor, to the rich. That “WHOEVER should believe in Him will have everlasting life” (John 3:16) We are overcomplicating this incredible message, underestimating the power of this necessary foundation. So much emphasis is on what you can learn with your brain, rather than what you can understand with your heart in today’s American Church. Remember, the majority of Jesus’ followers who spent time near him or listening to him were uneducated, illiterate, or pleading for Him to heal their ailments of body and mind. Jesus is not just a fact to be memorized, he is a being with whom we can share experience and interaction.
God is just as concerned with our hearts and souls as He is our minds. But if we fail to help both children and adults with real obstacles in their lives to understand that simple and beautiful truth, then they miss out on the most important experience anyone can ever have: to encounter Jesus.