Gentle worship: All are welcome

First Posted: 12/19/2014

WAPAKONETA — On Sept. 14, the Wapakoneta Area Ministerial Association sponsored the first gentle worship service at St. Paul United Church of Christ. The interdenominational services are for children, teenagers and adults with autism-spectrum disorders, sensory-processing disorders, and/or any other developmental or physical disabilities, and their parents or caregivers.

The idea of a gentle worship service is not something they came up with said the Rev. Becky Sunday, head pastor at St. Paul United Church of Christ in Wapakoneta.

“We heard about it from Rachel Barber,” she said. “There were a couple other people who knew of it, too, and we were able to see videos of other places doing gentle worship at their churches.”

Barber, a resident of Wapakoneta who does a lot of volunteer work in the community, said she first read about a congregation offering a gentle worship service in the Dayton Daily News. “Then I found other examples around the state online,” she said. “I knew that the sensory-modified movie screenings at the local theater had been well received, and thought that gentle worship might provide another opportunity for extraordinary families in our community and the area.”

When Barber brought the idea to the Wapakoneta Area Ministerial Association, which currently has about eight active participants, they agreed it was needed in the area.

Barber added that it was hard to know how many potential families could benefit from this type of service. “I’m not sure we realize who we aren’t seeing in our church pews every Sunday,” she said. “Families who would love the opportunity to come together in worship, but hesitate because a member of their family has a developmental challenge.”

The gentle worship services focus on being a warm and welcoming place for those who have various developmental and physical disabilities in a variety of ways. The services are much shorter, with the goal of the entire service being done in under 30 minutes.

“Part of the issue for many families,” said Sunday, “is that the services are too long and it is already difficult for them to sit. The traditional worship service is often not conducive to meeting their needs.”

Other modifications include subdued lighting and turning off the sound system so the lights and noise are not overwhelming. “We only use the piano,” said Sunday. “There is no organ or loud music that would agitate some. It’s meant to be a quiet service, but also a service that gives the freedom to move around and to stand or sit.”

Attendees are encouraged to bring sensory items, too. “Those with autism particularly have items that are soothing and comforting to that person,” said Sunday. “They are encouraged to bring them along.”

The gentle worship services are on the second Sunday of every month at 1:30 p.m at St. Paul United Church of Christ. The monthly services are non-denominational and consist of a short message which is brought by a different participating pastor each month. There are usually two familiar songs. “We have the basic elements you would expect of a worship service,” said Sunday. “We try to be as open and welcoming as we can.”

There are three churches that are currently actively participating in putting on the gentle worship services: St. Paul United Church of Christ, Buckland United Church of Christ and St. Mark Evangelical Lutheran Church.

“We have had several other pastors that have visited,” explained Sunday. “They have said they plan to be involved in the future.”

Looking toward the future, Sunday plans to continue to have just one service a month right now. “At this point,” Sunday explained, “we are just going to continue to do what we are doing and try to get the word out to find the families that need this.”

Sunday has found the most challenging aspect of the gentle worship services is trying to explain to people what it is. “I do think it is something you have to experience to truly understand what we do,” she said. “I say ‘gentle worship’ and people say, ‘What is that?’ It takes time to open people up to new things, but if they come, they will see it is just like every other worship service with particular efforts being made to welcome all sorts of differently-abled people and their families and make them comfortable.”

Barber sees the gentle worship services as a benefit not just to the families with a family member with various challenges, but for everyone. “Gentle worship reminds us that we are all members of the family of God, and we need to welcome and include everyone as they are,” she said.

For Sunday, the rewards of doing the gentle worship services are seeing families who may not have been able to in a traditional service, worship together as a family.

“It is always a joyful thing to see families who are able to worship together,” she said. “Especially those who might not be able to otherwise take that opportunity. It is a joy to see families express their spirituality and come together and worship God. That is always a good thing.”

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