Lyndelle Macdowall Is a living expression of God’s love to a very specific mission field in our Church. A volunteer who gives of herself and leads every week our additional needs program at our Hills Campus. It’s a miraculous place that supports families and in my opinion saves families each and every year. Ministry for people with additional needs is a significant testimony to your local community!
Hillsong Kids Pastor
They Will Know Us by Our Love
Several years ago, a 3 year old girl in our children’s program would scream and cry when anyone tried to remove her from the sandpit or get her to participate in the program. Her parents were never able to attend church together; one parent would always have to stay with their daughter. The young girl was diagnosed with autism and had great difficulty participating in our children’s programs. Soon we were able to transition her to our Additional Needs ministry, Treasure Chest. And now, two years on, she runs into Treasure Chest each Sunday, excited to start the day. She gleefully sings all the worship songs and participates in all of the activities. She loves church so much she talks about Treasure Chest all week!
Supermarkets in Australia recently introduced a “quiet hour” – a low-sensory shopping experience where noise and distractions are reduced, to help make a difference for families with children who find it challenging to shop in a heightened sensory environment. If our supermarkets are finding ways for inclusivity, then how much more should the church of Jesus be leading the way in our love and inclusion for all people!
Because of people’s different abilities, there may be aspects of our church services or programs that are difficult for some people to participate in. For example, if church programs are held in a location that is only accessible via a staircase, individuals with mobility difficulties (or in a wheelchair) may have difficulty attending.
Creating an inclusive church environment where children and youth with additional needs can feel a sense of belonging doesn’t have to be complex. Here are some simple steps every church can take to start an inclusive children’s or youth ministry program:
1. Build relationship with families.
Parents are the experts in their children’s needs. Rather than us as church leaders telling them what we think their child needs, ask them!
2. Create a calm and routine environment.
Children with additional needs, particularly those on the autism spectrum, benefit from a calm environment with structure and routine. Chaotic unstructured environments can overwhelm a person with autism and they may feel extremely anxious. If your plans change, make sure you prepare the child so they know what to expect (e.g. let parents know if the children are going to be in a different room on Sunday, so they can prepare their child).
3. Use visuals!
Pictures help the child to understand what is being communicated verbally. Create a visual schedule (a run sheet in pictures) to help the child know what is coming up. If you lack creative skills, take photos of the elements of your program and print them! There are also excellent visual timers (count down clocks and apps) that you can use to show the child how much time they have remaining on an activity.
4. Teach all children/youth to be inclusive.
We are all created in the image of God – regardless of how we look, think and act. Encourage children and young people to place value on others and celebrate differences. Be each other’s biggest cheerleaders!
5. Find people with big hearts to join your team.
Some children may need a leader specifically assigned to help them integrate and engage in the program. The leader could carry a visual schedule and some sensory toys to help the child to focus on the service/activity.
For years, we nicknamed Treasure Chest as “Hillsong’s best kept secret”. Our church is known around the world for our incredible Senior Pastors, worship ministry, preachers and conferences. But for families who have a child with additional needs, the thing that impacts them most is that their child has a place where they are welcomed and valued (and they have fun!), while parents can be in church, be part of community and be strengthened in their faith.
Eternity Magazine recently wrote an article on our additional needs program at Hillsong Conference: Read here