Krish Kandiah believes local churches can become places where everyone feels welcome
This time last year my youngest daughter would have shied away from social situations, but last month I watched in surprised delight as she skipped around the garden offering cake to all the friends and neighbours gathered in our garden for a Platinum Jubilee party. This time last year my little boy couldn’t cope with the loud cheers at football matches, even those shown on television. But recently he has taken to inviting all the Liverpool fans he knows to come round whenever they’re playing and he is easily as noisy as the rest of us.
These small wins are a wonderful delight to my family. For years my wife and I have attended meetings and appointments only to hear educationalists, social workers and medical professionals highlight what my children can’t do: they can’t understand the world, they won’t be able to read or write like other children their age, they can’t cope with mainstream school, they will never be able to pass GCSEs.
I don’t want my children to live on this stage of pre-empted failure and disappointment. I follow a God whose love for us, his children, is not dependent on our performance or contingent on our abilities. He is a God who delights in us whatever our struggles and challenges, who gives everything he is and has in order to embrace us with his unconditional acceptance. He emphasises what we can do: we can love and be loved, be part of his family and his kingdom, we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. This sense of dignity, inclusion, value and hope is what I want for my children – and for children everywhere. And where better to find it than in the thousands of churches up and down our country?
The following five aspects of welcome towards our nation’s children are simple things that can be done in any and every church, and can make a huge difference to children’s lives. I offer these as starting points for a conversation about how we best demonstrate God’s unconditional acceptance to children, so we are not just tolerating or accommodating differences, but fully appreciating them and celebrating them.
1. People who make time for children
The disciples thought Jesus was too busy to welcome children. After all, they had heard that a VIP was on his way – a rich young ruler, no less. But in Jesus’ eyes everyone was a VIP – including impoverished children with only their mothers to speak up for them. Jesus reversed the priorities of the disciples and sadly many of our churches today – he welcomed those who were normally excluded and sent the rich influential man packing.
Jesus’ prioritisation of the marginalised and excluded, the vulnerable and the forgotten must mean that children with a range of different needs should be high on our churches agenda. We must not hinder children from our churches or put up invisible or visible boundaries that prevent them accessing all we have to offer.
It is a tough time to be a child right now in the UK. Children are facing the fallout from two years of sporadic schooling and socialising, the pressures of social media, long waiting lists for mental-health support and adoption support, a cost-of-living crisis that is pushing more and more children into poverty, as well as heightened anxieties due to COVID, climate crisis and conflict in Europe.
Many children face additional challenges. It is estimated that one in 25 children is affected by a genetic condition and one in 40 children is classed as having a learning disability. One in 100 children is diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) and currently one in six children is expected to struggle with a probable mental health disorder. There are around 1.5 million pupils who the government has identified as having ‘special educational needs and disabilities’ or SEND.
Thankfully we don’t have to be an expert in any of those fields to make sure these children get properly welcomed in our churches. A warm smile rather than a cold shoulder, and a soft heart rather than a hard stare can make a big difference.
2. Places where children feel safe
I once met a young mum crying in the church car park because her son had been excluded from the children’s programme for not sitting still for story time. We seem to have come a long way from those first Sunday schools, which were designed around the needs of children who were impoverished and illiterate. Jesus once remarked that “it’s not the healthy that need a doctor, but those who are sick” (Mark 2:17). By this measure we should prioritise exactly those children who struggle most, not the ones who can comfortably sit and listen.
My youngest two came into our lives after experiencing things no child should have to face – trauma that continues to impact their daily lives. They also both have a chromosome anomaly, which causes global delay affecting cognition, learning, communication, sensory processing, and their physical, social and emotional health. My son faces additional struggles in his interactions with the world as he has been diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD). Church has been a difficult place for both of them to feel safe. Services can feel too noisy, too crowded, too unpredictable, too long. But following their lead and working together with the church, we try to make sure they both feel as safe as possible. One of them always sits at a table to the side of the room for the duration of the service. The other goes out to the children’s programme where she dances to worship videos while the others write.
Feeling safe is an important first step for many children towards feeling that they belong and different children will need different adjustments to their environment. We see Jesus modelling this flexibility in action as he speaks to one who comes to see him through a hole in a roof, another who is outside of town drawing water at midday, one who is up a tree, one who brings questions to him in the middle of the night, one who wants to worship him as he reclines at a table and yet another who wants to hide in a crowd while she touches him.
3. Children’s stories that promote inclusion
Ask most children what Bible stories they know about people with disabilities and they will invariably point to ones that involve a miraculous healing. Jesus wonderfully demonstrated the incoming kingdom of God through miraculously healing many people. However healing stories are not the only way that the Bible engages with those who are differently abled. If we only tell the healing stories we present a one-sided picture and can actually exclude people from the life of the church.
This is one of the reasons my wife and I wrote a second volume of our children’s book Whistlestop Tales. The first volume, Around the world in 10 Bible stories, celebrated the different countries, ethnicities and cultures that people represent in the Bible, dispelling the myth that the Bible really only has something to say to western white people. The second volume, Around the Bible with 10 extraordinary children, zeroes in on the stories where God uses differently abled people to help change the world for good. We imagine what it would be like for some of the children we have cared for in our family over the last 15 years to engage with the rich stories of welcome and inclusion in the Bible. For example, one of the children we looked after has a speech disorder – just like Moses. Another young girl needs walking aids – just like Jacob. Another suffers with anxiety – perhaps not unlike Martha.
By celebrating God’s work in the lives of Bible characters that weren’t healed, our eyes have been opened to the different ways God’s grace and power can be displayed in the lives of children around us. We hope this transformative way of thinking will impact others as they read our book and see the Bible from a new perspective.
4. Opportunities for children to serve
According to Jesus, children are not only capable of having genuine faith, but of having great faith that can impact those around them. This is the reason Jesus gives for welcoming children in his name. Those whom everyone else in society may exclude can actually help ensure we are included in the kingdom. Those whom we greet in Jesus’ name can in turn help us meet Jesus. Those whom others may see merely as objects of pity are shown to be agents of change.
Just in case his disciples missed the point, Jesus states this even more forcefully in the negative. If we fail to welcome children, if we despise them, lead them astray or cause them to stumble, we face a litany of doom-laden consequences. Jesus makes it quite clear that there are no disabilities that prevent God’s acceptance of us, except the inexcusable inability to see and nurture faith in children.
Faith often grows most robustly in the contexts of struggle and service. Serving children will nurture our faith, but allowing children to serve us will help make their faith more resilient. For my own children’s simple opportunities to serve such as taking a plate of biscuits to the less mobile members of the congregation, helping to stack the chairs or inviting people to our home has been a wonderful way to help them feel useful, to know they belong, and to engage in worship that doesn’t end when the service finishes.
5. Reasons to celebrate with children
Too often the media spotlight hits our churches for the ways we have excluded the very people God has called us to welcome. However, I believe that we are doing better than that, and it is worth also shining the light on the fantastic ways churches are embracing children with all sorts of differences.
In my own small and pretty ordinary church this week, the worship leader chose to nurture some of the hidden talent in the congregation. The pianist was a teenage girl who has been out of mainstream education for two years for social and academic challenges. The drummer was an eight-year-old boy who has recently become a young carer. A ten-year-old girl with speech difficulties signed for one of the children’s songs. It took personal investment and patience on the worship leader’s part to nurture these young people, but as we encouraged them and celebrated with them, the whole church was blessed. The comment from the pianist afterwards was: “I couldn’t believe how many people came up to thank me – lots of people I had never spoken to before.”
Like most churches, our church has an unwritten SEND policy which quietly champions inclusion. Our theology recognises the innate value of all human beings. Our building is accessible, with a sound system that caters for those with hearing aids and many of the staff and volunteers are recovering alcoholics, have physical and learning differences or mental-health struggles. Most church members naturally look to meet the practical, spiritual and emotional needs of those affected by disabilities, including their caregivers. Of course in practice, there inevitably remain barriers. We can only discover what they are with the help of those who need those barriers removed.
One mum whose sons have dyslexia and ASD says: “Don’t be afraid to have the conversation and ask parents: do your kids need anything different. It’s maybe worth thinking about getting the word out that people can call ahead and discuss options if their kids have needs.”
Dr Krish Kandiah
is the director of the Sanctuary Foundation. Together with his wife Miriam he has written WhistleStop Tales: Around the Bible with 10 extraordinary children – a book that celebrates God’s welcome to all children.