My wife Lisa and I had the privilege of serving as team pastors for the “Our Place” Kids and Youth Accessible Team at New Wine earlier this summer. I’ve been involved in children’s and youth ministry for 37 years and yet found myself WAY out of my comfort zone . . . let me tell you why :
My Lack of Experience. It is good to recognise, that – regardless of the length of time we might have been doing something – there are always things we don’t know or have limited experience of. I found myself surrounded by specialists in working with children and young people with additional needs. Whilst they were at ease with the children and young people who arrived for sessions, I didn’t know where to begin! This was uncomfortable and at times I didn’t know where to put myself or what I could be doing that would be helpful or useful. It took me a while, but I tried to set myself to learn from those around me just by trying to pay attention and not get in the way!
My Gaps in Knowledge. I’ve delivered a lot of training over the last 20 years in a variety of contexts – local churches, regional and national events, training colleges . . . . I’ve taught on faith formation, the basics of children’s and youth ministry, worship in schools, faith in the home, discipleship and mission, adolescent development, intergenerational ministry – and a host of other topics. Where I have been aware of a gap in my own knowledge I’ve drawn in others to do the training instead of me, or I have signposted to their work. BUT, I’ve realised from doing this week with the Accessible Team that this isn’t enough!
So, 37 years in and still learning – but, I also need to make some practical changes and consider my approach to children’s and youth ministry. It isn’t enough to say, “oh, so and so do that . . . ” – yes, they do – and part of The Resource work is to highlight the wonderful work others do – such as Additional Needs Blog Father (Mark Arnold) and The Pondering Platypus (Kay Morgan-Gurr) – BUT, what does my own practice look like in the light of what I have just begun to learn through the amazing team we served with at New Wine? I could mention a bunch of things – but I want to grasp and consider one main thing. It’s this – How accessible is what I do? That sounds simple enough, but too often things are compartmentalised.
I’ve done it myself, despite teaching and training about the importance of ministry practice being “joined up” and “holistic” – and yes, it absolutely should be – but I think I have, inadvertently done the same with additional needs. This is where being on the New Wine team was an eye opener and a bit of a “wow” moment for me (I need to mention here that Lisa has been living in this world of additional needs for years, is a qualified SENco and been sharing her passion for this work for a long time – but seeing it, seeing the provision in operation and getting to know some of the team has helped shift something in my thinking and I need to look at ways that can be applied to how I approach ministry with children and young people).
Accessible Church? So, what can I be doing? Well, my biggest take away from New Wine was – what needs to be done to make all that we do as accessible as possible? So, for example – does music need to be really loud? Who is it loud for? So many children and young people asked for ear defenders – not necessarily because they had sensory needs but just because, well, it was really loud! Do we need to be in total darkness to meet with Jesus? At one point I nearly tripped over and injured a young person because they were in a position they felt comfortable in (curled up on the floor) – but I just couldn’t see them in the darkness! Those are just a couple of examples and perhaps easy to identify as small things to tweak to make something more accessible for everyone (i.e. turn the music down a notch or two; have a bit more lighting) – but what of our week in week out activities with children and young people?
Doing What I can Where I am. I’ve seen some remarkable work in the specialist support I’ve witnessed and in the inclusion teams (particularly I was struck by the amazing two to one support a young person in a wheelchair received in the youth venue at New Wine. He just loved to worship and, to help him engage, a young leader used makaton with him throughout the worship – it was incredible to witness their shared delight as they worshipped together).
I’m not a specialist in additional needs, I need more training and support to a helpful person in this space – BUT, I can think about whether games at our kids club are accessible (Do we need to do jumping games all the time that require good co-ordination? Are our sessions structured and then communicated well with children that come? Could we make available picture cards that break down the elements of an evening so that can be followed by children that struggle to remember what is coming next, or need that to be really clear so they can enjoy their evening). Small wins that potentially help everyone. The more I pay attention to whether what we are doing is accessible to all – the more I might notice those who need additional support too.
I’m learning about all this, I’m a “work in progress” as a practitioner – but I’ve come away from New Wine with a desire to do all I can to enable all who come to activities I’m involve with (whatever their needs) to find a welcoming space, a place to belong and that everyone might have the opportunity to encounter Jesus in ways that make sense to them.