The first time we visited Broad Creek Christian Church in New Bern, North Carolina, a teenage boy walked up onto the stage during the praise songs. He seemed to be lost in the music, oblivious to the audience. I expected someone to come across the stage and rush him quietly out of the room, but that did not happen.
As the teenager walked over to a singer and touched her face, she smiled at him and took his hand. He continued to walk around the stage, looking at the different instruments, trying to figure out how they made sounds, and everyone just kept singing. He walked toward the worship minister, peering at his guitar, and the worship minister turned slightly away from the microphone, holding the guitar toward him so he could see and hear it better.
After the song was over, the boy left the stage, and the worship minister spoke. “For those of you who are new here, this is our friend, Ashton. Ashton is autistic and cannot speak, but sometimes music can reach him in ways nothing else can. He is part of our church family, and in this way, he is able to worship God with us.”
I was touched by the public recognition that this precious child is not just tolerated because he is a member of a family in the church. He is embraced because he is a child of God, and his participation in our corporate worship is valued.
Soon I learned about the church’s ministry that not only serves Ashton but has helped the whole congregation understand how to serve people like him.
The “Jars of Clay” Program
The story starts with Vicki Gable. Ten years ago she was done with church. She couldn’t take any more rejection. At church after church she visited or attended, her autistic son, Chris, was barely tolerated. There was certainly no class or program that could accommodate him. He was generally well behaved, sitting with her, but when he did make noise, obviously it bothered those around them. One church actually asked the family to leave.
At her mother’s insistence, Vicki decided to give church one last chance. At Broad Creek Christian Church she met Lori Prescott, who took Chris to her Sunday school class along with his brother. Lori did not have specific training to deal with autistic children, but she could see Vicki needed an opportunity to worship without interruption, and she loved children.
And so, week after week, when Vicki showed up at church, Lori whisked Chris away and incorporated him into activities with children his own age. She was a godsend to Vicki.
Soon thereafter, Ashton’s family began attending the church. With two autistic children now, and knowing that others in the community had the same need, the minister approached Vicki about starting a special needs class. “Jars of Clay” was born.
The class’s name was inspired by Paul’s statement in 2 Corinthians 4:7: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” These children are certainly God’s treasures hidden in jars of clay, so the name seemed appropriate. Almost a decade later, the class now has three teachers and up to seven students, with an impact that includes involvement in community as well as ministry in the church building.
The Community Need
In 1988, the movie Rain Man told the nation a fictitious story of an autistic savant and his brother on a cross-country trip. In the 23 years since, autism has become a household word. It presents a new challenge and a twofold opportunity for the church’s witness: Families need churches to provide a program for their autistic children just so they can attend services. And the often-overlooked autistic children need a place to learn about God.
One motivation for a ministry like this comes from a passage in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:
The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other (1 Corinthians 12:21-25).
Some of the special needs children at Broad Creek (most of whom are autistic, but not all) are not able to sit through a worship service, whether it is because they cannot sit quietly or have no tolerance for listening to music. The Jars of Clay teacher each week plans a classroom activity for those students until the other students join them.
Any students who are able, however, are brought in to the corporate worship service. They sit with their families to sing and participate in the greeting time before they exit for their class shortly before Communion. Even if one of these students speaks out loud or moves from her seat, it really is not that distracting to those nearby. The church has agreed that they belong in corporate worship as much as possible.
The church has also reached out to the community in significant ways through the Jars of Clay program. Activities, such as special needs baseball, the special needs coffeehouse, and movie nights for other special-needs groups in the area provide opportunities to show God’s love to anyone who comes through the doors.
Implementing the Program
Sunday school is a challenge when needs differ so drastically from child to child. Vicki says the hardest thing is figuring out at what level each student is functioning. If students are bored because a class or activity is too easy, or if the tasks are too difficult for them to complete, they will become frustrated. Some of the students are close to their age-appropriate grade level in reading and academics and are only socially disabled, while others will read only at an elementary school level throughout their lifetimes.
Vicki starts with a preschool-level Bible story, which is about the right length for the attention spans in the classroom. Then she uses coloring sheets and activities from reproducible books to go along with the story each week.
She emphasizes two points for anyone who wants to start a program like this. The first is that these children can learn. It is a mistake just to babysit them in another room while their parents attend a worship service. Most of them are capable of learning about Bible stories and the love of God, and the church should not miss the opportunity to share with them.
And a person does not need a degree in special-needs teaching to be able to help these students. The other Jars of Clay teachers do not have special training in this area. They just have an overwhelming love for people and a desire to be used by God wherever he needs them. Anyone willing to dedicate his or her time can help in this ministry.
Find out what handicap codes and laws need to be followed in your area before advertising such a program, and then dive in and share the love of Christ with one of the most overlooked groups in our culture.
For more information about Jars of Clay, contact Broad Creek Christian Church, 45 Olympia Road, New Bern, NC 28560; firstname.lastname@example.org; (252) 637-3727. Leave a message for Vicki Gable, Lori Prescott, or Laurie Bowles. The church’s website is www.bccchurch.com.
Debra Ingram Haagen is a homeschooling mother of four, author, and U.S. Naval chaplain’s wife currently living in New Bern, North Carolina.