This afternoon, I edited the order of worship for our upcoming Christmas Eve worship. It is always one of my favorite times of worship, especially this year when Christmas Day falls on a Sunday. There is something special about coming together as a worshiping community to celebrate Christ’s birth through word and song.
It is an intimidating worship experience, as well, for my family and our special needs child. The things we love about Christmas Eve worship can be an overwhelming experience for children and adults with various needs, especially those with situations that are invisible to us. While we love the crowds, music, and lights of the season, it can also create a stressful worship environment for individuals and families with special needs. So much so that the church’s invitation to “come and adore” the Christ child can go unreturned because of the challenges involved.
Churches must understand the challenges for special needs families and individuals to worship during special services to discern a plan to adapt and meet the needs of those who desire to worship with others during Christmas weekend. While the church may not experience the effect of the increased stimulation on a child or adult during worship, the family likely will for hours after the service has ended. For my family, even as a pastor, I stress over what bringing my son (who has level three autism and anxiety) to worship does to him and how he might react to the additional sensory inputs. Even a typical worship experience can leave him stressed and overwhelmed for hours after the worship.
So, what can a church do to help make the Christmas weekend easier for special needs families?
If your church has multiple worship services on Christmas Eve, you might consider having one service designated as a quieter worship expression. By this, we turn down all the noise and extra elements of the day and allow for a softer worship time. This type of worship is a different way of thinking of the “family-focused” Christmas worship that is often earlier and, yes, intended to be noisy. While appreciated, even those services can be overwhelming and chaotic for special needs families. A quieter worship experience would involve gentle expressions of worship (acoustic guitars, dimmed lights, slower pace, etc.) that also incorporate the sacred traditions of the day in a sensory-sensitive way.
If you are like my church and will only have one Christmas Eve worship, perhaps think about having some items available for families to use in worship. These items could be felt boards, fidget toys, headphones, sunglasses, and other smaller items. The importance of these items is that they allow someone to let out their energy in a focused way while maintaining their attention in worship. In truth, they are important tools that enable a sensory-craving person to remain engaged in an activity.
Another planning tip is to consider the importance of communicating what someone might expect on Christmas weekend. Proper communication enables families, especially those with special needs, to know what they will be walking into and allows them to take any necessary precautions. When I know that a worship service will be louder than normal, we will have conversations about where my family needs to sit and have an exit plan in place in case it is too much for them. Communication is important. If your church plans to have a brass quartet, bell choir, or anything special beyond the typical worship experience, communicate that with your community and congregation. Not only does it help to promote the worship service, but it also helps to provide care for families who may need to adjust their plans in response.
Finally, allow for noise and other responses to be a holy part of the Christmas worship. My son on Christmas Eve, will probably refuse communion or knock over a camera because he is overwhelmed. Another child might make noise or climb under a pew to find safety. We need to be able to accept those “disruptions” as holy postures of worship, especially if there is no harm or damage involved. Often families like mine can experience the glare of church members who believe that you must “behave” in the sanctuary. Those glares can place additional pressure on children with special needs to fit an expectation of experience that is not Christ-like. It only prevents families from coming to worship.
We in the church need to be accommodating and do the work of adapting to families with special needs and meeting them where they are. We should not expect families with special needs to do all the adaptive work. When we expect families to meet us where we are, we exclude those we desire to be in worship with us.
Christmas is a holy time of worship, yet it can be stressful for families like mine. Doing simple and basic things of welcome and accommodation can make your community a more welcoming place for special needs families this Christmas weekend.