It is one of the great principles of the Reformation (and even the Catholics caught on by Vatican II) that worship should be offered in the vernacular, that is, in the common everyday language of the people. Long gone are the days when a Western Christian in Australia (I recognise here the adherence to more ancient tradition of churches such as the Orthodox and the Copts) would expect to worship in Latin or Greek or indeed even sixteenth-century English. We expect to be able to understand, respond to and participate in what happens when we gather as a body for worship.
This principle has given me a great deal of pause for thought of late, as I have struggled with what it might mean to offer worship that is accessible to people for whom spoken or written language is not intuitive.
A bit of background. I was approached by someone else asking me for help in providing an opportunity for prayer and worship for children on the autism spectrum, and with related challenges. “Of course!” was my immediate response. Followed very quickly by, “…but I have no idea how to do that.” As I read and sought advice from others, some ideas took shape. Avoid being abstract. Avoid metaphor. Keep it clear and concrete, and as much as possible rely on visual and other sensory information, rather than on words (written or spoken).
I spent time with books on different kinds of prayer. Here were some suggestions; prayers that were done with movement, or with creative expression; kids could paint pictures of their prayers instead of forming words, that sort of thing. Ok. We could do that.
Also, we really needed something from the Bible. Preferably a gospel story, I felt, if we wanted to claim this as Christian worship rather than just something spiritually undefined and wishy-washy. Problem: a lot of the Bible is abstract or metaphorical. And all of it is words. I looked around for books of stories with lots of pictures, but didn’t find something I felt would work. My boss had a bright idea – Bible cartoons. We found some here, and I sorted through looking for one I thought could work.
Other details took shape too; the use of music, the layout of the space, the flow and pace of events so kids weren’t expected to sit still for very long but there was a focus on moving around.
We hope to trial this in coming weeks. I don’t know how successful it will be; although I hope that God will be able to use it to do something good.
But one thing I’ve discovered is that some people – parents of kids on the spectrum, or otherwise concerned people – are upset at this being an attempt to offer something distinct, instead of integrating these children into our main worship service.
Integration is important; these kids as much as anyone else belong at the Lord’s table and amongst his people, and exclusion of them is absolutely not ok. But I found myself answering a mother who wanted to know why we would do this, “Well, I wouldn’t expect you to worship in Latin; so why would I expect someone whose way of connecting with the world and making meaning is not verbal and abstract, to worship in that way?”
I don’t intend this to be a replacement for “normal” church attendance and participation. But most churches don’t have the ability (or let’s face it, the willingness) to totally overhaul their worship into what would be a more natural idiom for a person with autism. I hope, that by offering something which can supplement other opportunities, and which is constructed with the particular strengths and gifts of these kids as the starting point, we can create a liturgical experience which speaks of the gospel in different ways, and perhaps helps people to make connections which otherwise would go unmade.
Because everyone deserves to be able to talk about, and to, God in their own language.