For children with autism, the noise and movement of an average worship service can be challenging. For their families, finding a welcoming church home can be just as difficult.
This issue inspired two Pennsylvania congregations, St. Mark, Clifton Heights, and Temple, Havertown, to dedicate this past September’s “God’s work. Our hands.” Sunday to doing their best to change the status quo.
“About two years ago our congregation started asking how we could be more accommodating to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” said Tim Johansen, pastor of Temple. “When I sat down with parents of children with autism and therapists, one of the ideas they mentioned was to make activity bags.”
The success of the bags at Temple led Johansen to think on a larger scale. He asked several profit and nonprofit organizations for help. With the assistance of almost a dozen sponsors, Temple collected enough items for 320 autism-friendly worship activity bags.
Johansen also reached out to his friend Tim Ness, pastor of St. Mark. “We were eager to jump in and help,” Ness said. “There are a couple of kids in our church who have autism, and the idea of doing something to integrate them more fully into the life of our congregation was really cool.”
On Sept. 13, volunteers from both churches met in St. Mark’s basement to assemble the bags. Each tote contained two durable board books of Bibles stories and short prayers, and seven sensory and tactile toys, such as stress balls and putty.
Temple member Bridget Keaveney, whose son has autism, said the toys help keep kids’ hands and bodies occupied while still allowing them to pay attention to what is going on during the service.
Every bag also received a social story, a laminated page that describes the different parts of worship.
“It explains what is appropriate during the church service,” said Janet Bruss, parish administrator at Temple. “Things like being quiet when the pastor is speaking, joining in with the singing and walking around during the passing of the peace.”
The activity bags have been delivered to157 Lutheran churches throughout the Greater Philadelphia Area. Several congregations have written back to express their thanks.
“They really appreciate the chance to include the kids in the service and give them something to do,” Bruss said. “The church is looking to include everyone in worship and give them the opportunity to enjoy it.”
Keaveney said, “Just seeing the bags when you enter the church is welcoming. You already know you’re going to be accepted and that the members there will be understanding.”
Ness said, “I think this is something every congregation could use. I think it’s absolutely consistent with Jesus’ ministry—welcoming people who might otherwise be lost.”
For more information, email Tim Johansen at firstname.lastname@example.org.