“Churches are considered a refuge. We call our worship space a ‘sanctuary,’” says Rev. Victor Peterson. “But traditional church does not always feel safe to everyone.”
This was a reality that prompted Ridgewood UMC, where Peterson is the pastor, to start the “Make a Joyful Noise” worship service last Advent. Recognizing that there were people in the congregation who experience the world in different ways with different responses to light and sound, he began looking for an alternative service format to meet special needs.
The seed was planted in October 2014 with the church’s involvement in Access Ridgewood, a program started by the mayor to support those in the community who have special needs. By April 2015, Peterson imagined how those strategies could translate to the worship setting. Working with his wife, Cindy, and church member Kim Roberts whose grandchild is on the autism spectrum, the idea was presented to the administrative council. The lay leader and administrative council chair joined the team to begin developing a new kind of worship service where children and families with special needs could worship.
Throughout the summer, the Petersons hosted barbeques to hear from families and church leaders about the needs of children with developmental disabilities. They had conversations with community leaders and other churches who were doing similar work.
Peterson says this was one of the most important parts of developing Make a Joyful Noise. Considerations that he would not have thought of were brought into the strategy. “We learned that people with developmental disabilities need structure. It’s important to maintain consistency and routine from the pattern of the service to where each person sits.” Peterson continued, “Experience is more important than words. Using participatory music and interactive visuals help interpret the message to those on the autism spectrum.”
Make a Joyful Noise worship is held in the chapel because it is a smaller space. The families sit in self-designated seats and tend to gather close together. Manipulative items such as spongy stress balls, LED flashlights and electronic tea candles help the children focus. During the songs, worshippers are offered maracas or invited to clap, and there is room for dancing.
The ministry is designed to meet not only the needs of the children but also their families and supporters. Peterson says that Roberts was uncomfortable with his grandson Luke disrupting worship, but it was important to him that they go to church. “Even if we offer assurance, families often feel self-conscious when their child is making noise or moving around during the service,” Peterson says. When the service is designed to be welcoming and inclusive, families can worship freely without the burden of societal pressure.
A typical service is about 25 minutes, and each part has a corresponding Keynote slide projected. Peterson said that while 21st-century technology is a valuable tool, much of the worship design reflects a first-century church gathering with an ecumenical approach that welcomes everyone with minimal dogma. The children feel safe, and the parents support each other.
Each week the order and most of the songs are the same, and the goal is always to establish a sense of love and community. Rev. Peterson warmly welcomes worshippers at the door. The service opens with the gathering song, “Wa Wa Wa Emimimo” sang four times. A child lights the candles, and the congregation sings “This Little Light of Mine.”
“The Story” shares the Bible lesson for the day followed by a 2-4 minute video that relates to the lesson. The congregation participates in an experience that often utilizes a parachute or other interactive props to illustrate and internalize the message.
After reciting the Lord’s Prayer, the congregation is invited into a time of sharing through Holy Communion. Using square and round rice crackers because of gluten sensitivity, one child holds the paten, and another holds the cup of grape juice while each person shares in the sacrament.
Incorporating Joyful Noise in Ministry
Peterson says that congregations who are not ready to create a separate worship service to serve members with special needs can still integrate elements to serve families.
According to Peterson, any church can make their worship more accessible. From making manipulative items available to incorporating videos that are appealing to children on the autism spectrum, to including songs with clapping, to assuring families that it is okay for their children to make a joyful noise, church leadership can be intentionally welcoming to families seeking refuge.
“The most important part of this ministry is to listen to the needs and be patient and adaptable,” Peterson says.
Make a Joyful Noise offers families an opportunity to worship together in a hospitable and flexible environment. He tells the story of Emily who told him, “I finally got to go to work on Monday morning and tell my coworkers I went to church yesterday.”