Worship With All of God’s Children
by Keith Ham

There is an opportunity for a ministry that could bring Westminster a lot of new members. However, this ministry would require a lot of tolerance by you. Right now in Rapid City there are families that have children with behavioral disabilities that can’t find a church because their children act out during worship, and the rest of the congregation can’t tolerate the behavior. This morning, let’s explore whether Westminster could become their church home.

First, let’s open our Bibles to 1 Corinthians 12, verse 4.

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men.

Continuing with verse 21:
The eye cannot say to the hand, "I don't need you!" And the head cannot say to the feet, "I don't need you!" On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.


To introduce to you what it’s like to worship with someone with behavioral disabilities, I’d like to tell you about what happened to Phil Christiansen. Phil is the worship pastor at Cedar Hills Evangelical Free Church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Their services are much like our contemporary service, with a praise team, praise choir and contemporary music. Now when worship leaders like Phil and I pick songs for Sundays, sometimes we just get a “feeling” that we should pick a certain song. No one knows, but we feel called or directed by God is some way. One week, Phil felt like God was calling him to pick the hymn, “In The Garden.” Now, “In the Garden” is not a song that would normally go in a contemporary worship set. So Phil ignored God and picked something else. However...

On Monday, he heard a woman humming “In the Garden” at the grocery store. On Tuesday, a young man at the hospital told him it was his favorite hymn. On Wednesday a friend confessed how much he loved the song. His wife told him she wanted to start a garden. During daily devotionals his Bible opened randomly to stories about Eden and Gethsemane. On Friday his mother decided to plan her own funeral and asked that “In The Garden” be sung. The final straw came in a package from his sister-in-law. It was a dried floral arrangement set over a hymnbook glued permanently open to....”In the Garden.” Phil gave up and added the song to the set list, along with a really nice arrangement of “Jesus Loves Me.”

On Sunday, no sooner had they started “In the Garden”, when in the fourth row, a visitor, seemingly drunk, started bellowing out the words with the gusto of a German drinking song. His voice was a cross between Jerry Lewis and Gilbert Gottfried. When they finished the visitor yelled, "Oh! Oh! You guys are great!" as he danced and jumped from floor to pew.

Phil and the team went on, and started to do “Jesus Loves Me”. This really set off the visitor. He flailed about wildly, shouting, “This is for me,” and bawling out the lyrics as if he were the only person in the world. In a way, he was; everyone else in the sanctuary had stopped singing and now watched in amusement to see what Phil would do.

Phil stumbled through an awkward closing prayer, put his guitar in its stand, and slunk from the chancel into the fellowship hall. He could hear the wild man still clapping and whistling for more. The service was a shambles. Certainly at no point had God been praised, let alone worshiped.

Phil’s friend Glenda hurried to meet Phil in the kitchen and apologized for "that noisy man," and went on to explain. The man’s name was Roger. Glenda's son Brady was Roger's therapist, and the family had brought him to church that morning. Phil learned that Roger had been institutionalized because of his behavioral disabilities all of his life, and this Sunday's worship service had been a rare visit into the outside world. Part of Roger's therapy had involved music, and Brady had taken two years to teach Roger two songs...."In the Garden," and "Jesus Loves Me."

You see, when Roger had shouted, "This is for me!" he had been absolutely right. God had wanted Roger to be able to worship, and He gave Roger the only songs that he could worship with, despite what it did to Phil and the rest of the congregation. In that unconventional, intolerable moment, God had truly been worshiped.

Why should we disrupt our worship time and tolerate people who are behaviorally different?

First, Because All People Are Created in God’s Image

Genesis 1: 26 quotes God as saying, 'Let us make humankind in our image..."

Why, then, do we have imperfect people like Roger here on earth. Some people have obvious physical disabilities such as blindness, deafness, and limbs that don’t work. Churches are great at helping such people by allowing seeing-eye dogs, installing hearing aid devices, and building ramps and elevators.

Many churches fall short at tolerating people who are behaviorally different even though they are also made in God’s image.

There are many behavioral disabilities, such as Bipolar Disorder, Attention Deficit Disorder, Down’s Syndrome, Tourette’s Syndrome, and countless others. Let me describe one such behavioral disability called Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. You may have heard this called Fetal Alcohol Syndrome or Fetal Alcohol Effect. I’m highlighting this particular disability because it affects my daughter Emily.

If a pregnant woman drinks anytime during her pregnancy, the alcohol affects the baby’s cell division and development. What cells are affected depends on what hour of what day the mother drinks. Early in the pregnancy, very important brain cells that eventually become the centers for memory, judgment and reasoning are damaged and cannot be repaired or replaced.

If you think that a few drinks won’t matter, or that it’s OK to have a glass of wine to ward off morning sickness, or that it’s OK to drink later in the pregnancy, let me throw this out:
Each day, an average of 10,430 babies are born in the US. Of those, 3 have Muscular Dystrophy,
4 have HIV, 8 have Spina Bifida, 10 have Downs Syndrome, 120 have Fetal Alcohol. It is the single most common birth defect. It is 100% preventable.

People with Fetal Alcohol have a difficult time remembering. There is damage to the nerves that connect our two brain halves, and so people are limited and inconsistent in their ability to learn through their own experiences. What looks like willful disobedience or being a spoiled brat is a matter of a physical inability to retrieve knowledge. This behavior would be upsetting during a worship service.

People with Fetal Alcohol don’t reason well and often believe rules don’t apply to them. This makes our children ripe for peer pressure. They are targets for physical and mental abuse from anyone including relatives and church members.

You see when an FASD child breaks a rule, it’s because they are unable to apply the rules to their own situation. They are also unable to set proper social and physical boundaries. They don’t understand when they are too close or too loud. All FASD kids are socially stunted in some way.

People with Fetal Alcohol are volatile, not violent. They are predictably unpredictable. They are moral chameleons. They have a hard time during worship. They don’t understand much of what is said, struggle to read prayers or song lyrics, and would act out impulsively, and could be social misfits. All these are reasons why people with Fetal Alcohol should be in church. These are also the reasons why they are often unwelcome.

Toleration of people with behavioral disabilities like Fetal Alcohol is difficult. It can’t be handled with a hearing aid system or a ramp. Ultimately, we must accept everyone just as they are.

To quote from the National Council of Churches policy on disabilities: “God creates all human beings in the divine image or likeness. This image is not a measurable characteristic or set of characteristics. God's image is reflected uniquely in each person.”

We should disrupt our worship time and tolerate people who are behaviorally different because they are made in God’s image, and secondly because:

All People Are Called by God

Does toleration of people with behavioral disabilities have to be a one way street? Can disabled people serve God and his church? Ephesians 2:10 says, "For we are what (God) has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life."

God calls all human beings to express the divine image through their unique characteristics. Each person's characteristics, including disabilities, are inseparable and valuable features of the unique, indivisible person.

Sometimes when we don’t know the big picture, we get in the way of what God is calling us to do. When my grandmother was living at Clarkson Mt. View Retirement Home, her daughter, my Aunt Bea, came from Oklahoma for a visit. “How’s it going, mom?” she asked. “Oh, just great,” replied my Grandmother,” Earlier this week I went to the circus, and just the other day there were bears in the hall.” “Now mom,” said Bea,” You know you haven’t been out of this place for a long time. Bea spent the next half hour convincing Grandma that there was no circus, and certainly no bears. Grandma finally conceded, and Bea went to check in at the nurse’s station.

“Your mom has had the best week,” the nurse responded. “On Tuesday we took a bunch of them to the Shrine Circus, and just the other day the folks from Bear Country brought a bunch of bear cubs over and just turned them loose in the hall.

When someone tells you something, whether they are old, or behaviorally disabled, and they are being called to serve God, it is our obligation to believe them and help them.

We should disrupt our worship time and tolerate people who are behaviorally different because they are made in God’s image, because all people are called by God, and because:

All People Have Special Gifts

1 Corinthians: 12: verse 4 says, "There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit.”

God supplies all human beings with the unique gifts needed to obey the divine call. The gifts God has given to each person are needed by all other people, and no one is dispensable or unnecessary.

What possible spiritual gift could a behaviorally disabled child have? I belong to an internet support group of parents with fetal alcohol children and many sent me letters telling of their children’s struggles to sit through church. Because our children are very concrete thinkers, abstract religious dogma goes right over their heads. Concrete thinkers need to know that a)God loves them, and b) Jesus died on the cross so they could get into heaven. Actually, that’s pretty much what we all need to know, isn’t it?

So what gift could a behaviorally disabled child have? One woman told me about her church. Her grandson, who has Fetal Alcohol, struggles to sit through a service. So he shares his love throughout the service. He sits in one pew with one family and loves them for a while, then he goes to another and loves them for a while, then another, and another, and by the end of the service he’s just about loved everybody in the whole sanctuary. This, by the way, is the spiritual gift of exhortation, defined as the gift that moves the believer to reach out with Christian love and presence to people in personal conflict or facing a spiritual void.

What a shame it would be if we, as a church family, didn’t do everything we could to develop the Spiritual Gifts of all of God’s children so that together, we could obey God’s divine call.

We should disrupt our worship time and tolerate people who are behaviorally different because they are made in God’s image, because all people are called by God, because all people have spiritual gifts, and because:

All people are invited to participate in God's ministry

How can we possibly use the spiritual gifts of behaviorally disabled children and adults to form an actual ministry? After all, if these children and even adults can’t behave themselves for an hour each Sunday, how in the world can they be trusted to do God’s work?

1 Corinthians 12:7 says, "To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good." God invites all human beings to rely on and participate in the ministry of the church. God continually empowers each member of the Body of Christ to reflect the divine image in ways that will serve and benefit the church and the broader community.

When my father-in-law Jerry Glaze’s health was failing before he died, we took many trips up to the Ft. Meade Veteran’s Hospital to visit him, and naturally, our daughter Emily would come along. While we were visiting with Jerry, Emily would often disappear. After a quick search we would find Emily somewhere down the hall, in another room, visiting with other patients. Now, we were in what could be a scary place to a little girl. Some of the patients looked pretty grim, and most were struggling with emphysema, diabetes, various forms of Alzheimer’s, or worse.

And yet, none of that ever seemed to affect Emily. She would wander in, say hi, ask about family members in bedside photos, ask about pets, and then just listen and smile.

About a month after Jerry died, Emily and I drove up to Belle Fourche. On the way back she asked if we could stop at Grandpa’s hospital.

I said, “Honey, Grandpa’s not there anymore, remember?”

She answered, “I know. “I just want to see his friends.”

As I checked in at the nurse’s station it sounded like a scene from cheers, but instead of hearing ”Norm,” I heard, ”Emily...how are you?  I’ve missed you. Where’ve you been?”

God invites all of us to be ministers. God empowers all of us with gifts... gifts like unconditional love and compassion.


We should disrupt our worship time and tolerate people who are behaviorally different because all of us are unique. God gives all of us have a specialness. God created us all in His image and calls each of us to serve Him. God has given us all a Spiritual Gift, and regardless of our humanness, we are called by God to find our gifts and use them.

For you see, we are all ministers in Christ’s church. Our challenge, then, is to identify our own spiritual gifts, and to help others that don’t quite fit the mold to find theirs. A whole ministry of tolerance and acceptance awaits Westminster. Dozens of families that have children with special gifts are searching for church homes where they can find and develop those spiritual gifts and together with us, participate in God’s great ministry.