Making a joyful noise for special needs
It Worked for Us
"Churches are considered a refuge. We call our worship space a ‘sanctuary,'" said the Rev. Victor Peterson. "But traditional church does not always feel safe to everyone."
This reality prompted Ridgewood (New Jersey) United Methodist Church, 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, Peterson had been looking for a format for an alternative service to meet special needs.
The seed was planted in October 2014 with the church's involvement in Access Ridgewood, a program started by the city's mayor to support community members with 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, he presented the idea to the administrative council. The lay leader and administrative council chair joined the team to develop a new service where children and families with special needs could worship.
Conversations with community leaders and other churches with similar concerns helped them develop "Make a Joyful Noise." "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. Experience is more important than words," he said.
The ministry meets the needs of the children – and of their families and supporters. "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.
An extended version of this story with details about the service originally appeared in The Relay, the monthly newspaper of the Greater New Jersey Conference.