Church online has been great for our daughter with special needs

Last year I had a dream that I arrived late to church one Sunday morning. Just as I was about to enter the building, I realised I was still wearing my pyjamas and slippers. Even in my dream I knew pyjamas weren’t appropriate attire for church (as cool as my Star Wars pyjamas are), so I made quick exit and drove home.

Six months ago, the idea of wearing my pyjamas to church was completely outrageous – even in my dream! But fast forward to May 2020, and wearing pyjamas to church has become the norm for many of us as we meet together for church in our homes via a range of online platforms.

Since our church moved to online services in March, my family and I have had a Sunday evening ritual of watching church together. Normally, we are split across at least two Sunday services between our serving responsibilities and our older girls attending the 6pm youth service. But with online church, we are able to participate in church together as family.

Our teenage daughters have a supply box filled with notepads, colouring books and coloured pencils which is pulled out specifically to use during the service. Together, the five of us participate in the service – often in our pyjamas – singing, praying and learning together.

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For our 12-year-old daughter Maisy, this is the first time she has felt completely comfortable ‘in church’ for a long time.

Maisy has a range of health conditions, learning difficulties and anxiety. She often needs help understanding new ideas and wants to ask questions immediately during the sermon to gain clarification. But these things are hard to do in the middle of a regular Sunday service.

At home, we have the ability to pause the online service at any point to help her understand something complex. We can skip back and watch a section again, or even re-watch the whole service again if we choose to. Maisy is comfortable at home with her cat snuggled up on her lap helping keep her relaxed. And, as a result of being comfortable, she has been able to engage much better with the content of the services and has learned much more.

What church used to be like

For many families with children with special needs, church can be difficult. They often feel on the margins of their church communities. For some parents, their concerns are about whether their children will be able to participate in the kids’ program which is usually aimed at able-bodied participants. Other parents worry that their child’s repetitive behaviour or noises might be disruptive to those around them during the service or in the parents’ room.

For many parents, their heartfelt desire to meet together with fellow believers is overshadowed by the stresses of having to prepare their child with special needs to enter into an environment they find overwhelming. There is too much noise, too many people, and there is the constant pressure of social interaction.

The COVID-19 season has also forced us to rethink our traditional methods of “doing church.”

As well as that, part of our family experience – and for many families who have children with special needs – is that Maisy has a low immune system. Often, she is too unwell to attend church at all.

In this situation, parents are forced to “tag team”: one parent stays home with the sick child while the other bundles the siblings off to church. Often, everyone is feeling disappointed and disgruntled because this isn’t the ideal situation for anyone.

While the COVID-19 season has been stressful for everyone for lots of different reasons, it has also forced us to rethink our traditional methods of “doing church.” While most of us would agree that meeting together face to face for Sunday services is the ideal, we have also realised that technology has been an incredible blessing during these days of social distancing. In fact, I have been surprised to discover that rather than just “making do,” technology has actually provided opportunities for greater connection and inclusion for some church members.

Benefits of home church

Some families living with disability have found, like our family, that online church has meant that their whole family has been able to ‘attend’ church together.

Some parents have shared that while they feel like they are unable to commit to church rosters under normal circumstances, online church has provided new opportunities for them to be involved at church. Knowing they can serve from home – and possibly have the option of recording segments in advance of the service – has given parents and siblings alike new opportunities to participate in rosters for Bible reading, prayers, music and assisting with technology.

For those parents who are usually concerned with their children causing disruptions because of their noises or movement, they have the ability to put themselves on mute if their church services are being run on real-time platforms like Zoom. This gives their children the opportunity to make noises and move as they need to while also allowing the family to connect with what is happening in the service.

Watching pre-recorded church services also means that families can have control over the length of time they sit down together, meaning they can break up the service into smaller sections and come back to it through the day or even over a few days.

Parents also have control over how loud the volume is for children who are sensitive to noise.

Online options do provide an opportunity to connect and meet together in a way that works for some families …

A number of parents of children with special needs have also shared that the move to online meetings has provided them with the chance to attend mid-week Bible study groups which is usually an impossibility because of the complexities of their families.

Some families have also seen that online services and Bible studies have helped to educate others in the church about their experiences of living with disability. By meeting together via Zoom, other church members have been able to see some of the challenges associated with raising children with special needs. This window into the lives of families living with disability has created greater empathy and understanding among their fellow parishioners.

In some cases, it has also led kids and youth leaders to ask more questions about how they are able to serve the child with special needs through learning some basic sign language or sending the families additional kids’ church resources.

I pray that in our rush to “get back to normal,” we don’t forget to take the opportunity to consider those families in our church communities who have experienced greater connection during the COVID-19 because of technology.

For many families living with disability, they regularly miss out on the fellowship of Sunday services. While not ideal, online options do provide an opportunity to connect and meet together in a way that works for some families and is a far better option than simply not meeting together at all.

Louise is a lecturer at Mary Andrews College in Sydney. She has completed a PhD thesis on disability and the gospels and is currently working on a book on the same topic. Louise also serves as Sydney Coordinator for CBM Australia’s Luke 14 program, training churches and Christian organisations on disability and inclusion.

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