It was a typical Sunday worship service in many ways: songs, a sermon, the Lord’s Prayer. But when it was nearly over, Freddie, a 16-year old boy with Down Syndrome and Autism Spectrum, snagged the microphone away from the pastor and announced, “May the Lord be with you, thank you and have a good night!”
Was the group of a hundred-plus worshipers surprised? Hardly. After all, this wasn’t your everyday worship service. It was a Rejoicing Spirits worship hour.
Rejoicing Spirits is an adapted monthly worship service and fellowship time that enriches the spiritual lives of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, their families, friends and other supportive community members. It was developed by a handful of members at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Exton, Pennsylvania, and has since grown to 17 church sites in seven states.
“There is a huge need for churches to include this over-looked population,” explains Susan Crawford, Rejoicing Spirits Ministry Program Director. “Very often individuals with developmental disabilities, their families and caregivers do not feel welcome in their community churches for a variety of reasons. Rejoicing Spirits attempts to break down these barriers by reaching out to these individuals and inviting them to become members of an inclusive faith community.”
Part of that reaching out is providing many opportunities for worshippers with developmental disabilities to actively serve the Lord at each service, not just observe others doing so. Worshippers are offered maracas and tambourines to play along with the band. They read the scripture, lead prayers, carry banners, sing solos, act out the sermon, and hand out bulletins. The “no shushing policy” gives everyone the freedom to worship as the Spirit moves them.
The Rejoicing Spirits model created in 2003 was so successful that other churches soon began to take notice. The leadership team compiled a guidebook, “How to Start a Rejoicing Spirits Ministry,” and has shared it with more than 100 Christian congregations of all denominations. With the help of a grant from Wheat Ridge Ministries, Rejoicing Spirits staffed someone to promote the Rejoicing Spirits model of an inclusive worship service across the country.
“We want to see this ministry grow,” explains Susan. “We’d love to be in every state.”
The need is great, according to Karen, the mother of 16-year old Freddie. She remembers the struggles they went through for years trying to involve their son in more traditional Sunday morning worship. Sunday school lessons were too sophisticated for Freddie and corporate worship highlighted Freddie’s tendencies to talk out loud and fidget.
“What Rejoicing Spirits has done is bring Freddie in through music and more understandable messages,” says Karen. “It’s grabbed his attention. It has really allowed him to be an integral part of his worship experience. He’s developed more spiritually as a result.” A secondary benefit is that Freddie is engaged and absorbs more during regular Sunday services, she adds. He also takes more initiative at school.
John, a 24-year old worshipper, agrees. “At our church, it’s longer and I get bored with it. But (at Rejoicing Spirits), I don’t get bored because they act the story out.”
“Our original intent was to offer worship and fellowship opportunities to our brothers and sisters with developmental disabilities,” explains Susan. “But what we’ve found is that our congregation members are becoming aware, educated and accepting. Their hearts are being opened.”
Paul, a member of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, admits he was afraid to help out with Rejoicing Spirits when it first began. But as a parking lot attendant, he got to know each worshipper. “I’ve learned that our guests and I are not really so different. If they are special, they are special in ways that all God’s children are special,” he says.
By opening hearts and removing attitudinal barriers, congregations are being truly united as one body in Christ.
Watch Rejoicing Spirits worship hour video.
Learn more about Wheat Ridge Ministries.
Rejoicing Spirits participant photos courtesy of Wheat Ridge Ministries.